Critical takeaways:

  • CEOs can be effective crisis communicators, unless the CEO is the crisis.
  • Knowing your public is critical to understanding the impacts to reputation arising from a CEO’s missteps.
  • Strategic communicators should plan for various scenarios and outcomes when the CEO causes a crisis.

CEOs can be a strategic communicator’s strongest asset when responding to a crisis … unless the CEO is the crisis.

Last week, Bill wrote about the importance of keeping a CEO front and center and always communicating when corporate reputations are on the line. Indeed, some of the very best responses to the COVID-19 crisis we have seen were delivered by CEOs themselves. This tried and true strategy falls apart when the CEO’s words or actions create the crisis. This can be especially acute when the CEO and the brand are completely intertwined. 

Rebel Without a Pause

Greg Glassman is the creator of CrossFit, a fitness brand that rapidly grew from a single Northern California garage into an international phenomenon. His name may not be known to the general public, but the global CrossFit community knows it very well. Indeed, in the CrossFit community’s eyes, Glassman is CrossFit.

For the uninitiated, CrossFit is a global fitness movement uniting thousands of affiliated gyms called “boxes.” Every day, dozens to hundreds of people of various athletic abilities take on the day’s WOD (workout of the day) at each box. CrossFit is not a chain – it’s a mindset, a community. Each box is its own tribe, its own unique fitness community sharing a common language and motivation. 

A 2013 Inc magazine profile of Glassman said his “essential business outlook is this: he can do whatever the hell he wants to do.” As the CEO and sole owner of CrossFit, Glassman answered to no one. “Sometimes he rebels out of cunning, other times for the sheer petulant fun of it. Often, it’s hard to tell which.”

Glassman’s initial tweets about George Floyd’s murder and subsequent national protests immediately angered much of the CrossFit community. Rather than apologize, he doubled down on those comments. Once his sharp criticisms of affiliate owners were released publicly, the defections began. Some of CrossFit’s biggest stars and more than 100 affiliates announced plans to separate themselves from CrossFit. One of them is the one I’ve been a part of for more than a decade, and it is among the first 50 affiliates worldwide. The CrossFit Games’s biggest sponsor also severed ties.

Know Your Public

At Kith, we believe that you own your brand, but the public owns your reputation. “The public” as we think about it does not necessarily mean the general public. If the general public does not know much about your brand, then its ownership interest is negligible. Your true public are audiences that matter to you – customers, employees, partners, whoever your brand values – and they are your reputation’s true owners.

Knowing your public is a critical aspect of effective crisis response. You need to meet them where they are, address their concerns and repair any erosion of trust. Otherwise, your license to operate will evaporate. In CrossFit’s case, “the public” is primarily the affiliate owners and CrossFit community, plus corporate sponsors and equipment makers. 

CEOs can be powerful spokespersons to reach your public – they’ll know your CEO and will look to him or her for answers. A strong CEO working from a carefully crafted strategic communication plan can reassure your public that the crisis is under control and wrongs will be righted. A CEO can save the day for a brand’s reputation … unless the CEO is the crisis.

Three days after his incendiary tweet, Glassman resigned as CEO and “retired.” Two weeks later, he agreed to sell CrossFit to Eric Roza, a longtime, respected affiliate owner. “Eric is one of us,” wrote interim CEO Dave Castro. “Eric knows what it’s like to run a box through tough times …. He also knows how to build great, inclusive workplaces.” Whether this and promised cultural changes are enough to bring angry affiliate owners back remains to be seen.

Restoring a Brand’s Fitness

The challenge for a strategic communicator in a situation like this is fairly obvious: you work for the CEO. Until and unless the CEO moves aside, or is removed by the Board, you will find yourself crafting a communications strategy to minimize the damage. Ideally, it involves an earnest apology and a pledge to make it right. However, your CEO may not wish to take that route, and that can complicate any messaging.

When a CEO is the crisis, removing him or her is not necessarily the best or right way to begin restoring a brand’s reputation, but it is the most dramatic. A clean break gives a brand the space it needs to reset expectations. Your public is usually much more willing to give a new leader a chance than to give a damaged leader a second or third chance. A strategic communicator may not have that luxury, and instead must navigate around an embattled CEO’s bunker mentality.

Strategic communicators need to have a set of options for getting a message out quickly when a CEO’s comments damage a brand’s reputation. These options need to run the gamut of situations ranging from the CEO’s voluntary departure to the CEO taking on a bunker mentality to ride out the controversy, and several iterations in between. This is a plan every strategic communicator should have right now.

Having a plan in place if the CEO becomes embroiled in controversy is not an act of disloyalty. It’s a prudent way to minimize damage to the brand’s reputation. It’s showing loyalty not only to the brand but also your public. They own your brand’s reputation, not your CEO. Ultimately, if you appease a CEO but alienate your public, then your brand’s reputation and influence shrinks with your audience. 

CrossFit is learning that lesson now. Don’t learn it on the fly when your CEO is the crisis.

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