In his company’s 2010 proxy, Transocean CEO, Steven L. Newman, states that they had the “best year in safety performance in our company’s history”. This is the company that owned the rig in the Gulf of Mexico that exploded, killing 11 people leading to the worst oil spill ever. Evidently, their definition of a safety problem doesn’t include killing people. Unfortunately for them, the rest of the world feels differently.
The fact that such a statement was printed in a proxy demonstrates one of two things:
- He’s surrounded by people who don’t have the courage to tell him he’s wrong or insensitive, or
- He’s delegated the proxy writing to someone equally insensitive, and doesn’t bother to look at it before it goes to print.
So now he’s trying to correct his terrible “faux pas” by remarking in the world’s greatest understatement that it “may have been insensitive”. Wow. I’ll bet the next thing you hear from his board is that they have “the greatest confidence” in their CEO – which is usually the precursor to an exit.
So what can a leader do to ensure that he/she isn’t caught in this messy position?
- Take a look at people around you. Have you surrounded yourself with people who won’t tell you the truth? Are they so worried about pleasing the boss that they’ll put the company’s reputation at risk for fear of ticking you off? If so, you’d better change the company you keep or start making plans for your next gig – because you’re on borrowed time.
- What processes have you set up to have different people play devil’s advocate on your communication strategy? Include people who don’t report to you – either inside or outside of the company. They will often have a different perspective.
- If it’s important enough (such as a proxy), your board should want to see what goes out. Their reputation is at stake, too. If you have a board that isn’t interested in what you say, you need a new board.
- Does someone in your organization have the responsibility for doing a “brand check” on everything you say? This could be your Chief Marketing Officer, your PR Executive, or your Corporate Brand Manager. Regardless of the title, everything anyone says about the company should be checked against your brand values to make sure you aren't failing to deliver on an important promise.
Leading in the absence of a well thought out communications plan is probably one of the dumbest things executives do today. Aside from the fact that people have long memories about leaders making mistakes, in today’s world of social media, things that you say (let alone print) take on a life of their own through tweets, posts, and YouTube uploads. If you're doing business in an industry under scrutiny (which seems to be most these days), your critics are waiting for you to slip. In today's world filled with skeptics about corporate contributions to society, recovering from insensitive comments is virtually impossible – just ask Tony Hayward.
Reinforce your communication plans with the right people and the right processes. What you "say" has an indelible impact on your company, your brand, your investor base, and ultimately, your customers.