Doctor SpinPublic RelationsReputation & CrisisThe Old CEO Who Allowed the Media to Completely Destroy Him

The Old CEO Who Allowed the Media to Completely Destroy Him

There's the story reported by the media — and then there's the real story.

I have a story about a job that impacted my career forever.

It changed the way I do business and how I approach digital marketing. The job taught me — the hard way! — to never assume things and go for the facts first instead of passing judgment.

It all started when I got a severe crisis on my hands:

I got an email about a company in a severe crisis from a person who knew the owner and acting CEO. I knew about the company since the crisis had been all over the news for a couple of days.

So, I called the CEO up. He seemed very confident and not startled by all the commotion around his company; however, he felt that he could help manage the media storm. So a colleague and I jumped on a plane. I remember going through the newspapers, thinking that “this guy is toast”.

I was feeling a bit uneasy about the whole thing. I help organisations communicate better for a living, and that’s a good reason to get up in the morning …

… but would I be okay with helping the evil guys communicate better? In this case, people’s lives had been at risk due to the actions taken by this CEO in a seemingly devious effort to save money and get richer.

I thought about all the defence attorneys of the world:

Everyone has the right to a solid legal defence, even the bad guys. And we’re all better off for it because it safeguards our legal system and indirectly our democracy.

But for me, I’ve always been grateful that there are people out there prepared to do these jobs because I wouldn’t want to. And then there I was, in a plane, on my way to do just that. Maybe not in the court of law, but the court of public opinion.

It was at the same time exciting. Crisis communications are often terrible with devastated and crying people — and often decision-makers in serious denial. But it’s also thrilling, quick and emotionally powerful.

I met with the CEO, and in my head, I had the steps already laid out:

Step 1: Get the facts.

Step 2: Change the lead, change the story.

Step 3: Quickly take responsibility where responsibility’s due — even when difficult. Talk like a human and address other humans. Apologise not because you have to, but because you want to. Be sincere and never hide from the media.

Step 4: Then communicate the rest through taking actions to restore what trust can be salvaged.

Step 5: Then begin the long journey back to trust.

There. I knew what I had to do, and I was prepared to do it. So, the first step — get the facts!

As it turned out, the CEO wasn’t guilty. It was an employee who had broken the rules by making a mistake. Not for personal profit or gain, just a mistake. The employee in question had been loyal for decades, with only months to retire.

However, the news media had already gone two- or even three full circles, ripping the brand and the CEO to shreds. In the eyes of everyone reading a newspaper those days, the CEO was guilty.

So for my colleague and me, it all seemed pretty straightforward:

Assign the blame where it belongs, fire the person who made a mistake to show that this isn’t tolerated and won’t happen again, adjust the routines and start restoring the business’s reputation. Boom!

But … the owner (and founder) disagreed with us. He didn’t want to hang his loyal employee out to dry, especially with only a few months left to his retirement.

“The negative media would crush him and his family,” he said. “But I … I can take it.”

And so he did. He resigned from the company he once started and retired early. By doing so, he took the blame and the shame with him, allowing for a new generation to take over the business and start fresh.

What I learnt from this story has nothing to do with whether the CEO made the right decision or not. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Only he knows.

But the truth sure didn’t prevail this time.

People did discuss this incident in the news media for quite some time afterwards. And everyone was sure that the owner was the bad guy. No one thought twice whether or not there would be any criminal charges (never happened) or if they had the whole story (they didn’t).

You might imagine how crappy I felt on the plane on my way back a few days later. And going into this whole thing, I had been one of the haters, 100% sure that this man was evil. I felt both judgemental and stupid.

So, what did I take away from this experience?

1. People are always going to assume things. This is why it’s essential to get involved in creating stories.

2. You don’t have to be one of those people who jump to conclusions too quickly. Get the facts with an open mind.

3. Instead of passing judgement, seek to understand. You’ll find humanity even where you least expect it.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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