It’s time CEOs started to think more about crisis

'We're so big and powerful nothing bad can happen to us'. That's a typical CEO’s thought process, but it's this way of thinking that gets some of the world's biggest companies in serious trouble, explains crisis comms expert Tony Jaques.

A new study at Harvard has revealed a shocking statistic. CEOs spent just one percent of their time working on crisis management. That’s pretty shocking considering nothing destroys reputation or market value faster than a crisis.

Moreover, the Institute for Crisis Management records that more than half of all business crises are triggered not by workers or other causes, but by management. So there is no doubt that the CEO and top executives have a critical role in crisis management. Yet the evidence is clear that companies have a long way to go to get this right.

While the newly published Harvard study identified that the subject CEOs – monitored over a three month period – spent just one percent of their time working on crisis management, the reality is that this worrying number should not come as a surprise.

For example, a 2016 Deloitte survey of board members around the globe found fewer than half said they had engaged with management to understand what had been done to support crisis preparedness or to discuss crisis prevention. And the same survey showed 73 percent of the non-executive directors named reputation as a crisis vulnerability, but only 39 percent said they had a plan to address it.

Reputation has been called a company’s greatest uninsured asset, and we know from research that up to half of a company’s reputation, and a similar share of its market value, can be attributed directly to the CEO. That may seem encouraging and an endorsement of strong leadership, which is great when the CEO and the company are performing well. But it also highlights just how potentially vulnerable organisations are when things go wrong. In the world of crisis management this is very much a two-edged sword.

Think no further than Tesla boss Elon Musk, once the darling of Wall Street. When he used Twitter in July to suggest one of the Thailand cave rescuers was a paedophile, his company’s shares fell by $US2 billion. Then just weeks later he told the New York Times the stress of the job was getting to him, and Tesla lost over $US5 billion in market value.

Or consider Facebook, where cumulative reputation and performance issues recently led to a market loss of almost $US120 billion in a single day, the biggest ever one-day drop in a company’s value.

In their memorably titled book: “We’re so big and powerful nothing bad can happen to us,” Ian Mitroff and Thierry Pauchant published a worrying catalogue of ‘reasons’ top executives gave for NOT being properly crisis prepared. These included:

  • Excellent, well managed companies don’t have crises
  • It is enough to react to a crisis once it has happened
  • Certain crises only happen to others
  • Crisis management is someone else’s responsibility
  • Each crisis is unique, so it is not possible to prepare for them
  • Most crises turn out to be not very important
  • It’s blindingly obvious that such statements are simply excuses for inaction. Responsibility for crisis management absolutely belongs in the executive suite and any CEO who thinks crisis warrants only one per cent of their time is seriously endangering the organisation.

Effective crisis prevention and crisis preparedness demands visible management commitment and leadership from the top. If the CEO doesn’t think it’s important, then why would anyone else?

This piece first appeared in Tony Jaques’ Managing Outcomes newsletter. You can subscribe here.


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