7 Tips for PR Pros Dealing with Leadership Changes

May 3, 2018 Lacey Miller

We’ve written quite a bit on this blog about how PR pros can be prepared for and successfully navigate an unexpected crisis. When we think about crisis communications, we usually consider events like a product failure, legal problems, accidents, or a company created environmental disaster. We advise folks to think ahead about what kind of bad news is likely or even remotely possible in their line of business. Executive leadership changes aren’t necessarily a crisis, but leadership turnover is something that PR professionals need to be prepared to address in much the same way. Here are a few tips to keep in mind so that you are ready to respond before, during, and after a leadership change.

Don’t put your eggs in one basket.

We understand that training someone to be a company spokesperson is a lot of work and it takes time. That’s why the temptation is strong to have only one or two executives who regularly speak to the press and public on behalf of the company. But that strategy can put you in a bind if the spokesperson leaves the company, even under the best of circumstances. That’s why it is a good idea to have several people who can speak on behalf of the company, and importantly, develop relationships with journalists and influencers. This extra effort will pay off when there is a shakeup in the C-suite, especially if it is unexpected or accompanied by controversy.

Understand each executive’s PR impact.

One of the first things that you’ll want to understand when executive turnover becomes an issue is how big of a deal it is for the brand. In some cases, the impact will be minimal, in others, it may be huge. To get a feel for the scope of the issue, you’ll want to track the sentiment, and key message pull through for each of your most visible leaders. Is this person someone who the press loves to quote? Does public perception lean positive, negative, or neutral when their name comes up? Understanding the level of impact for each individual will help you prepare your narrative when change happens. 

Make sure you have a seat at the table.

PR might be the last thing on the executive team’s minds when there is a leadership change, particularly if it is unexpected or due to a crisis, but effective communications requires access to information and guidance from the leadership that will remain. This is why we so often say that no one should put PR in a corner. Smart PR pros provide valuable insight into the health of the business and earn the respect required to be invited into difficult and important conversations. The moments after a crisis or a leadership change are not the best time to get yourself invited into the room.

Focus on the future.

Unless the executive departure is due to some criminal or ethical behavior that impacts the functioning of the company, it is wise to thank the person who is leaving for their past efforts and quickly turn to what is expected to come next. If the replacement has been announced, focus on their capabilities and plans for the future. Devise a plan for introducing them to your key audiences and craft a narrative about what they will mean for the brand. If there is an ongoing search for a new executive team member, be as transparent as possible and let people know when and how to expect updates.

Don’t forget anyone.

As with any breaking news PR situation, remember that you have multiple audiences who may need different information. Internal PR is of the utmost importance during a leadership change. Employees should be given as much information as practical and also reminded about instructions on who should speak to the press and what should be shared on social media. Of course, you’ll want to touch base with your media contacts, but don’t forget about messaging for customers, analysts, investors, community leaders, and others who may be interested or concerned about the change.

Develop a timeline.

Think about the first 90 to 120 days of your new leader’s tenure. Are there events that they can attend to meet key stakeholders or journalists? Is there news that you can announce within a short time frame, giving the new team member an opportunity to increase their visibility? Set up a time to sit with the new leader so that you can share the PR reports you regularly produce and find out if there is anything else they’d like to know. This will help establish the PR team as a valuable resource and an ally in completing the transition to the new leadership team and style.

Monitor changes in mentions and metrics.

It is critical to keep a close eye on your media and business performance metrics from the time the change is announced until the new leader is well established. You’ll likely see a bounce in mentions as the news breaks, but that may or may not have an impact on your key metrics like website visits, conversions, and social media engagement. By monitoring these outcomes, you’ll get an idea of the level of response needed as you go through the transition period.

A leadership change may be great news for your brand. It may be a terrible blow, or it might not be much of anything. But a well-prepared PR pro is ready to respond and make the most out of the situation in any case. A robust PR reporting platform and some planning ahead will go a long way to making your change management efforts a big success.

 The key to handling a PR crisis: Top tactics you need to know.

About the Author

Lacey Miller

Passionate about public relations and empowering practitioners, Lacey Miller found her dream job at TrendKite, where she carries the crown of 'word nerd'. With a background in public relations and technology, she's a great fit with her desire to innovate the industry! You can find her most days writing for PR Forward, PRSA, and other marketing trade publications.

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