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Speaking ‘human’ in a crisis

The BBC’s Kamal Ahmed mocked VW at the height of their cheat-device scandal: ‘VW is failing because the company doesn’t speak human’.

When BP’s Tony Hayward told reporters ‘I want my life back’ after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, all remaining shreds of sympathy for BP evaporated.

The CEO’s performance is critical in a crisis. If he or she comes across as concerned, calm and above all ‘human’ there is a good chance that the company will survive unscathed. If not, the damage will be severe and possibly terminal.

It’s not easy. CEOs are naturally nervous when their careers are on the line. The media are normally hostile and can be, in Tony Blair’s word, ‘feral’. Lawyers usually (and wrongly) advise silence. A crisis is always a shock and a CEO’s self-confidence can be shaken.

Peter Fankhauser of Thomas Cook had to answer for the company’s conduct nine years after two children died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a Thomas Cook villa. He said: ‘There’s no need to apologise because there was no wrongdoing by Thomas Cook’.

Apple reacted to the death of Ma Ailun, electrocuted while charging her iPhone, by saying: ‘We are deeply saddened to learn of this tragic incident’. Would Steve Jobs have used these words? Would you?

Some CEOs are not shy of talking like human beings. Michael Bishop spoke of his feelings when one of his 737s crashed at Kegworth and killed 47 people. ‘These are my passengers and the crew are my friends’.

The most famous example of all, an MBA case-study, was James Burke of Johnson & Johnson. When someone in Chicago injected Tylenol with cyanide he went on coast-to-coast TV himself to make sure everyone got the recall message. For putting the public’s safety above J&J’s P&L he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Writing in the FT,  Simon Caulkin asks why the language of management is so contorted. ‘Companies that understand the force of straight talking are so rare that we are astonished when we find them’.

In the Telegraph Jeremy Warner describes the frustration of journalists covering a crisis: ‘Executives are too reluctant to accept wrongdoing and too slow to respond’.

We live in an age of active consumerism and consumer activism. Talking like a robot or reading out a wooden statement drafted by a lawyer doesn’t work.

What’s the answer? A crisis system which puts the CEO front and central, immediately, as the face and voice of the company. To perform well they need practice: media training. Not the usual, gentle on-camera familiarisation routine but a harsh, unpleasant exposure to the kind of questions interviewers ask when there’s blood in the water: ‘Are you trying to dodge responsibility for this catastrophe? What if these had been members of your own family? When are you going to resign? Don’t you think you should?’