The Obama Salary Cap: A Study in Media Crisis Management

by | May 28, 2009

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Last month’s dustup over President Obama’s proposed executive compensation cap provides an intriguing case study of corporate crisis management. With public ire high after months of above-the-fold examples of Golfing While Wall Street Burned, government-mandated pay restrictions seemed inevitable by the time Inauguration Day rolled around. Obama, of course, followed through, and while some c-levels capitulated, others protested, attempting to move the bullseye of popular opinion from the three-pieces of pilloried c-levels toward that of the new president. In the end, the campaign arguably proved successful: Obama enacted a relatively weak set of restrictions that applied only to a thin cross-section of leaders at those companies set to receive “exceptional” amounts of TARP bailout money going forward.

 

Unless your company’s in its infancy, it has probably employed a media specialist at some point, either on a full-time or freelance basis. That said, as a current or aspiring business leader, there may well come a day when you’ll have to step up as the public face of the company. While most of you haven’t had the pleasure of exchanging verbal barbs with the commander-in-chief, the reaction to Obama’s shot over the executive bow provides basic lessons that apply to anyone attempting to blunt critical media coverage:

 

a.) Strap on the Armor: Huddle with a small group of trusted colleagues and confidants to define your response to the crisis. If you don’t already have a crisis communications plan in place, lean on any media specialists in your inner circle and quickly brainstorm an effective argument. Next, make sure that everyone who may speak to reporters is primed to present similar—yet not semantically identical—viewpoints. Have any potential commenter run through practice interview sessions in front of an audience to prepare for the pressure of creating coherent responses under scrutiny. 

 

b.) Measure your Environment: Each media crisis is unique. Therefore, it’s absolutely essential that you’re keenly attuned to the elements at hand as you craft your plan. In some instances, this requires that you remain aggressive even as critics try to keep you on your heels. In others, a more contrite approach is fitting. If appropriate, hold press conferences to further your cause. No matter what, always customize the tone of your message to fit the circumstances.

 

c.) No Time to Waste: With the emergence of online newspapers and talking-head news networks, the media is now on a 24/7 churn. Your campaign must reflect this: Have an informed response ready as soon as possible after new developments or accusations surface.

 

d.) Shape the Discussion: Savvy media relations folks agree that in the court of public opinion, establishing control over the parameters of dialogue is paramount. The degree to which an involved party (in this case, your company) can do this is, of course, limited by the subject of discussion—it’s tough to spin Enron or, for that matter, Jeffrey Dahmer. Accordingly, the success of such campaigns is measured in relatives: A practiced and persistent media blitz—fueled by exhaustive repetition of coordinated talking points—can transform target into victim. More frequently achieved, however, is a partial paradigm shift in which the public’s perception of an issue changes as players vie to frame the discussion to benefit their cause.

 

The media challenges you face depend on your company’s size, industry, and, to be frank, embrace of the popular definition of social responsibility (there’s a reason Altria and Chevron pay big for PR). Clearly, the prevailing politics of the day can also play a hefty role. But as the champions of executive pay showed six weeks ago, you can mitigate any threat to your company with something as simple as a consistent message and a timely, well-executed delivery—even if the whole world is against you.    

Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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