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The CEO's role in Crisis Communications with Christina Rytter
Episode 67th July 2022 • PRGN Presents: News & Views from the Public Relations Global Network • Public Relations Global Network
00:00:00 00:14:28

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When a crisis hits, you need to have a team of key people in place so you can respond quickly and effectively before the situation escalates. Who is on that team and how they should operate will directly impact your brand’s reputation.

Christina Rytter is a dedicated international Communications Advisor with 20 years of hands-on experience with PR, Strategy, Management Communications, Crisis and Change Communications. Former TV-host, part of four international start-ups and Founder of Scandinavian Communications. Also, she is a MarCom Coach at the European Commission, coaching European high-potential start-ups. Past-President and Chair of the Advisory Board in PRGN.

Your host for this episode of PRGN Presents is Abbie Fink, vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, crisis communications, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations.

PRGN Presents is brought to you by Public Relations Global Network, the world’s local public relations agency. With PR leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we service, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise and connections in markets spanning six continents. PRGN provides customized communication solutions that combine the scale and stature of an international PR firm with the deep insights and hands-on, senior-level service of a local agency. This offers our clients a unique competitive edge. Learn more at https://prgn.com/

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Transcripts

Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome to the Public Relations Global Network's 30th anniversary podcast. I'm Adrian McIntyre ...

Abbie Fink:

And I'm Abbie Fink, vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. With public relations leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we service, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise, and connections in market spanning six continents across the world.

Adrian McIntyre:

Our guests on this "limited edition" podcast series are all members of the Public Relations Global Network. They'll discuss such topics as workplace culture, creative compensation and succession planning, the importance of sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance programs, crisis communications, and outside-of-the-box thinking for growing your business.

Abbie Fink:

For more information about PRGN and our members, please visit prgn.com. And now, let's meet our guest for this episode.

Christina Rytter:

Hi, I'm Christina Rytter. I come from my agency, Scandinavian Communications. We are based in Copenhagen and Stockholm.

Abbie Fink:

Christina, I wanted to talk a little bit about crisis communications. As a public relations practitioner for 30+ years now, crisis has been a part of the service offering. And I'm always intrigued when we engage our executive level teams with the client in those conversations, and as much about the planning and preparation that we need to do. And it's a different kind of conversation than when we're actually actively involved in a crisis. So talk a little bit about that important role that we play and what our CEOs should be thinking about when they're preparing for crisis communications.

Christina Rytter:

Absolutely. I will say that when a crisis hit you need to act very fast and therefore it could be a good thing to have someone from the outside, an advisor, to help you see everything in another perspective. That would be my suggestion that you have a team of four vital roles and within one of these roles you need the advisor. So, however, your organization is looking, that of course would depend on how you're going to tackle the crisis, but in any situation, the CEO must be, you can say, one of the key players, what I call the key leader, of course. Because the CEO would be the one taking the key decision, cutting up the messages, being also the spokesperson.

Abbie Fink:

Is it your recommendation that the CEO serve as the spokesperson? Or do you find it may be more appropriate for them to be in the room, but put the responsibility of speaking publicly to someone else on that team?

Christina Rytter:

I think that the CEO must always be part of the team. But I will say that you might need a team maybe of two, three key leaders, and one of them could take the role as your spokesperson. In my opinion, you need to have the CEO as the front person to just be the head of the company and to show people both inside and outside where you stand. You're the head of the company. But in some cases, of course, you can pick communications, not advisor, but your head of communications to take that role. In a crisis I think it needs to be the leader that steps forward. So absolutely I would advise you to pick the CEO as the spokesperson in a crisis.

Abbie Fink:

One of the things as advisors to the CEO is planning ahead and that we want to have these conversations before a crisis hits. I think this applies to a client no matter what size they are. It could be a small boutique organization, or it could be a large corporation. Being prepared for the crisis before a crisis is probably the most important. And that might be where it gets a little more difficult to get the CEO to sit in the room with you because they're off running the business and so some of these other members of the executive team may play a role in advance. So talk a little bit about preparing and the conversations we should be having about that prior to the need for implementing.

Christina Rytter:

I think what you can always do is prepare your team. So whenever a crisis hits you actually know who are the key persons that would be involved in solving this crisis. So you have what I would call the communicator, the crisis communicator. That might be someone from the inside having a lot of experience in tackling a difficult crisis early on, but this could also be the crisis advisor, and often it will be someone like us taking that role. Because, of course, as an outside advisor you have tried a lot of different handling of crisis, a lot of different things for clients, so you might have a better perspective and maybe also could be a bit more calm in these situations. So the crisis communicator must be someone experienced in handling crisis. Must also could give some calmness to the whole team, because often everyone is kind of a bit "stirred up," you can say. It could also be important to have someone from the outside that is maybe not that emotionally involved in a crisis. So that would be someone you could prepare in advance, internal or external. Then of course the key leaders, as I mentioned earlier, could be maybe a team of two or three where the CEO is one, but also you need to team up with something that have a more analytic clear view on the situation, is maybe used to taking decisions quick in difficult areas. It depends on, of course, your size of organization. You might also have someone that is expert in the internal communication that needs to address the communication towards your employees, because I think it's always very important to handle the internal communications in a crisis as the first step communicating the vital messaging before you go out in the world. Of course, when it all happens so fast you need to kind of do this simultaneously, or at the same time, but you need to get these messages across to the internal employees before you go out.

Abbie Fink:

Well, and I think that's critical is the internal audience. And oftentimes the company itself, the CEO, the executive levels are very focused on the external, what is being said in the media, what is the shareholders or other influencers saying. But as your internal team, these are the folks that are living in this at the moment and they need to be communicated with and about and for the same way, and maybe just a couple steps ahead of what we're doing publicly. Because nobody serves as an ambassador more for your organization than the people that work for you and if they're brought in and trusted with this information, they'll go a long way in putting out the crisis information.

Christina Rytter:

Absolutely.

Adrian McIntyre:

Christina, you've written on this topic and one of the roles you identified there was the media manager, someone to really watch what's being said, report back on what's being said, and also engage with the media. That might seem obvious to many PR professionals, but I also guess there's probably some nuance to why that role is so critical that may not be immediately clear. Why is that one of the essential roles?

Christina Rytter:

Absolutely. So we have, like I said, the crisis communicator, we have the key leaders, and then we have, as you say, the media manager, and that is because sometimes it can be a full time job when the crisis going on to handle media, to proactively communicating actually the bad things. That might not be something that you really want to do, but actually it's sometimes could be quite important to control the crisis by telling the bad story yourself. Because in that way you can control the messaging, the whole narrative about what has happened, what are we going to do about it. So in that way, you need a person that proactively can push the story as we would normally do as PR people, but this is actually, you can say, pitching a crisis story. But in this way, you can kind of frame it, so also you can control the communication around it. And of course, then handle whatever questions will come at you in a more defensive role. So you also need to work not only on the proactive messaging, but also on what we call defense messaging. We work with scenario planning then where we think of every possible scenario and every possible question, and then work to answer these types of questions so when media call you are prepared. And this group of key leaders that would be your spokespersons internally, externally, then you need to media train these people so that everyone is telling the same story, giving the same answers. And of course, also handling social media, that's just of course a huge thing. It's not really something we can control in the way we used to because things are going so fast. So, that's more of seeing what is coming at you and then give an immediately a response to that. So that's why it can be very much a full-time job and a very important role to have what we call the media manager. And as the fourth, I will say, role in the whole crisis communications team would be the advisor. And as I mentioned also earlier, that could be the crisis communicator, the one that has the experience with crisis, maybe you have someone like that internally. But under all circumstances, you need to have someone from the outside that has your back that can help you with the messaging and also of course have this outside view. Because if it's a team only of insiders from your own company, then often you will just see it in a little less broad perspective that might give you troubling handling the thing as successful as if you also have someone from the outside looking at all the perspectives and also helping you create what this narrative about how are we going to tackle this crisis, what are we going to say about why has this happened, what are we going to do about it.

Abbie Fink:

The objective viewpoint of that outside counselor or an advisor I think is so critical. And I think the final step in all of that is what has to happen post crisis. So now that we've weathered the storm and we have come, what we hope is, to a resolution and we are back to business as usual. What is your advice for the post crisis analysis, we need to take a look at what happened and learn from not only what the crisis was, but operationally how we responded to it?

Christina Rytter:

Absolutely. I see it as a, you can say, circular process. So when you have a crisis and you then get used to tackle this, you have your team, you have a kind of a process that you can go through. You look at the scenario planning, you do your messaging, and you see the response, and then you can learn from that and actually do then your crisis communications preparation for the next time. I will always advise you to kind of do the preparation in advance, having this crisis communication set up. But I know also in the real world often people, they will just start to work with the crisis when it happens. But of course, my advice would be as much as you can prepare you should, because 80% is preparation and 20% is action, but you will come much more successful out if you prepare.

Adrian McIntyre:

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Public Relations Global Network's 30th anniversary "limited edition" podcast series.

Abbie Fink:

You can find all the episodes now in your favorite podcast app. Episodes are also available on our website – along with more information about PRGN and our members – at prgn.com.