What to do When a "Pitchman" Passes

Linda Dulye's picture

June marked the passing of several prominent celebrities—Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays, Karl Malden and Michael Jackson—all of whom pitched products during their careers for well-known companies. What would happen if your organization’s "pitchman" passed unexpectedly?  What if your CEO or other prominent leader suddenly disappeared?  Are you prepared to deal with the distraction?

Here are seven strategies that can get you through the challenge of a sudden loss:

Have a good communications foundation.  How is information shared on an average day within your organization?  Do you rely on social media? Traditional print?  Face-to-face? Or a combination of the three?  Know the preferences of your workforce. Manufacturing organizations generally have different communications needs than service organizations.  Verify that you have an effective infrastructure in place that allows you to credibly share information in good times as well as in bad. A catastrophic event is not the time for slapping approaches together and throwing ideas against the wall to see if they stick.

Have a crisis plan.  Understand who’s in charge.  It’s important to know roles and responsibilities in a crisis.  When former President Reagan was shot in the early ‘80s, then Secretary of State Alexander Haig got his 15 minutes of fame when he stated during a news conference that “I am in control here.” While the reasons for Haig’s incorrect assertion were many and varied, it served to add confusion to an already chaotic event.  Ensure that your top people understand who’s in charge and what their role is.  Don’t act alone.  A good crisis plan leverages a team of people who have access to key resources and who can quickly be assembled and form response strategies and plans.  Make sure the plan contains up-to-date contact information for key individuals.

Act quickly, but with precision.
  Gather the facts quickly and make sure they’re facts.  Don’t speculate.  Don’t get sucked into relying on the grapevine for your information.  Verify information from credible sources and prepare a statement that you can use with the media as well as with your employees.  Partner with the company’s legal counsel to help ensure that you don’t make a bad situation worse.

Communicate openly.  Provide the details to your workforce about what happened, what is being done to address the situation, and how updates will be communicated.  Long periods of silence will send folks to the grapevine, water cooler, Twitter and beyond. Equip managers and supervisors to be reliable information sources so that internal channels earn higher reliability ratings than external ones.

Be consistent.  In this age of instant communications, it’s more important than ever to be consistent with the information that you share.  Don’t tell employees one thing and the media another.  Mixed messages will only lead to more confusion – and a growing grapevine.

Follow through and be accountable.  If you say you’re going to have an update at 5 pm, have one, even if it’s to say that there is no new additional information to pass along. It’s important to maintain your credibility during a time of uncertainty.  You want employees to get their information from you and your leader – not the internet or other outside sources.

Gather feedback and form an action plan.  In the wake of the event, impressions and questions may linger.  The ability to gather, measure and act on feedback is an important element of a good communications program.  Use your measurement system to understand what worked and what didn’t.  Use the data to respond to concerns and improve the effectiveness of your future communications.

You will play a key role when an unexpected event occurs.  Ensure you’re ready for that leadership role by being prepared in advance.  Minimize distractions and maximize productivity by knowing what to do and acting decisively.


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