The age-old debate about whether a CEO should be the face of crisis response received some clarification in a recent study released by the Corporate Reputation Review. The authors (Brocato, Peterson, Crittenden) defined four types of response (account) strategies for the study: apology, denial, excuse, and justification. The question to answer: who should be the face of a crisis event and what response strategy is the best? The answer: it depends. There were some surprising findings and some expected conclusions.
A CEO would be a personal entity with some form of personal culpability, whereas the corporation or organization would have a spokesperson or spokespeople that represent the corporate entity and its culpability.
A denial was defined by the authors as a refusal to acknowledge that an event has taken place, thus denying any responsibility as well. Justification, on the other hand, “admits casual responsibility for the event” but downplays the severity or consequences of the event. An excuse deflects responsibility for the event and diverts the cause to an external environment. Claiming “this happens everywhere” is an excuse because it doesn’t downplay the seriousness of the situation, just its occurrence. An apology accepts partial or full responsibility for an event and expresses remorse or regret.
Surprises from the study...
- CEOs will generally be viewed as less to blame and less responsible for an event than a corporation. Also, corporations with higher levels of control (such as banking) are going to draw higher levels of blame.
- The apology was the best response strategy for the CEO (not surprising), but the denial was the most effective strategy for corporations in terms of public perception. For corporations, excuse was the most negative strategy.
- When justification or denial was used, the corporation was perceived as more trustworthy than the CEO.
- A justification response strategy is the least expected and least satisfying strategy in crisis. This seems to be due to the fact that a justification response downplays the severity of a situation where an excuse does not.
- Present research suggests that CEOs and corporations are evaluated separately by the public.
- Present research also found that customers were more willing to do business in the future with companies that accepted responsibility for wrongdoing. (This might not sit too well with legal.)
- When it comes to perception in general, an apology was rated most favorable and justification the lowest.
- The CEO is the most trusted figure to give an apology and the least trusted when justification or excuse was used.
- An organization is perceived as most responsible when excuse or justification is used, and least responsible when denial is used.
- An apology is the most expected account and provided the most satisfying explanation in a crisis.
- When devising a response strategy to an event, careful thought should be given to who will be the spokesperson. Understanding the public perceptions of who delivers what message might be a difference maker in how quickly a crisis is resolved.
- If the response strategy recommended by the management team is denial or justification, the best strategy would be to use a spokesperson that is not the CEO.
- If the crisis response strategy is to be apology or excuse, the CEO should deliver the message.
(The study is available for purchase from the publisher at this link.) Also, a hat tip to Linda Locke for a heads up on the study.