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When the CEO Must be the Spokesperson

[By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications]

One of the questions we frequently debate with clients when they are about to make a public announcement is the question of attribution:  Who’s going to speak on behalf of the organization?  After explaining all the reasons why having members of our crisis team fill that role is a bad idea, we then begin to assess other options.  In most cases, we try to match the seriousness of the situation with the level of the individual speaking on behalf of the organization.  Only in the most severe cases do we recommend that the CEO serve in that role because it often conveys the message that the situation has the attention of the highest level of the organization.

For an example of a situation that has multiple CEOs speaking out, one only need look at the way the airline industry is responding to the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max.  Following two fatal crashes earlier this year and a growing crisis of confidence among the flying public, airlines began voluntarily removing the plane from service.  Eventually, the United States followed the lead of China and then Europe, announcing that the Max would be grounded until the FAA confirms it is safe to fly.

According the FAA, more than 2.6 million passengers fly in and out of U.S. airports every day.  By anyone’s estimation, losing the confidence of even a fraction of that market would constitute a significant organizational crisis.  That’s why it’s been interesting to note the decisions that were made about spokespeople when the airline industry decided to speak out on this issue.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker launched a full media tour, speaking with national print and broadcast outlets in May to assure the public that the Max would not fly until the airline was confident it could fly safely.  United CEO Oscar Munoz declared he would be on the first 737 Max flight once the airline is cleared. Early on, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly took the lead. More recently, CMO Ryan Green assured passengers they would not be charged to change tickets booked on Max 737s if they are uncomfortable flying the plane once it is back in service.

As this item was being written, CBS Evening News announced an interview with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg.  In a Facebook preview, Muilenberg personally apologizes for the loss of lives in the two accidents. This comes after numerous stories in the weeks following the crashes that quoted him defending the plane’s safety and design integrity – a posture similarly adopted by acting FAA chief Daniel Elwell, who has defended the plane and the agency’s certification process.

Clearly, the messages differed, but they all came with an unspoken implication:  “This has the attention of our most senior management.  We are taking this issue seriously.”

As of this date, the Max 737’s future is uncertain.  If it returns to service, it remains to be seen if air travelers will overcome their fears in favor of discount fares and route convenience. But the industry cannot be faulted for this:  as this situation unfolded, the crisis management teams for the various players made the right decision about their spokespersons.

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