CEO DRIVING LESSONS: DESPITE NEW TECHNOLOGY WONDERS, THE BUCK STILL STOPS WITH THE CHIEF WHEN A CORPORATE CRISIS WHEELS UP

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My apologies to the consumers of Belgium. I should have spoken to you earlier."

Those are the first lines of copy in new ads being run in 15 Belgian newspapers to explain the health scare caused by tainted Coca-Cola. The apology comes from none other than M. Douglas Ivester, CEO of Coca-Cola Co. While this reputational crisis for Coca-Cola continues to unfold and Mr. Ivester is tried in the media and court of public opinion, a timeless truth is once again revealed.

As much as we cheer the techno-wizardry of the new economy and applaud teamwork and flattened hierarchies, CEOs are still regarded as the ultimate face, voice and guardian of the enterprise. No other substitute can stand in for the "real thing"-the CEO.

CEOS BEHIND THE WHEEL

Research conducted by Burson-Marsteller and Wirthlin Worldwide on the reputations and roles of CEOs clearly shows a good CEO reputation protects a company in times of crisis or censure from the media. As we witness the conclusion of Mr. Ivester's 18-month honeymoon, four lessons are worth repeating for CEOs at the steering wheels of their companies.

* You are the company. Rationally, we know the CEO is not the company. Emotionally, however, the CEO is widely recognized as the embodiment of the company's heart and mind. In order to penetrate the data smog we inhabit each day, people tend to personify companies and use a mental shorthand to put a face on the inanimate nature of most companies. Try to picture Sun Microsystems without Scott McNealy, General Electric Co. without Jack Welch and Virgin Group without Richard Branson. This is never so true as when a company faces a crisis.

No matter how good your executive officers are, or your company spokespeople and your outside counsel, the public demands the CEO be fully visible and accessible. Privacy is no longer an option. A quick glance at Mr. Ivester's photo in The New York Times recently gave the media and an anxious public what they were looking for-a take-charge leader with a serious demeanor; a man with his lips half open about to say something of grave importance to the microphone pointed at his face.

* Speak up. During a time of crisis, CEOs must set goals and define a strategy in line with the company's mission. One of our strongest research findings on what makes for a strong CEO reputation is the ability to express the company's values and guiding purpose. This new "narrator" CEO is in greater demand today, whether he or she is speaking internally to inspire and motivate employees or speaking externally to remind customers, Wall Street, partners or the media of the company's promise to them.

Gerald Levin, CEO of Time Warner, faced such a crisis several years ago when the lyrics from a song by the rap group Body Count, with lead singer Ice-T, laden with hostility toward law enforcement, were the cause of a Time Warner boycott. Whether one agrees with Mr. Levin or not, he spoke up in defense of the freedom of speech for which his well-regarded media company is known and was founded upon.

* Act out. Symbolic acts often can be more important than words in moments of crisis. Don't talk about what the company is doing, show it. My colleague in crisis management, Ray O'Rourke, points out that no matter how many background statements and press briefings were issued by Exxon during the Valdez oil spill crisis, the image of oil-soaked otters and birds could not be erased from memory.

Visual problems require visual solutions. A recent example of non-verbal signals that words could never replace is Ford Motor Co. Chairman William Clay Ford Jr.'s response to the February explosion at the River Rouge Powerplant. As soon as Mr. Ford heard about the tragedy, he dashed to the site to help victims and their families. He handed out personal money for meals, hotels and supplies. The following day Mr. Ford was greeted with bear hugs from employees, not your typical employee greeting. Ford President-CEO Jacques Nasser, away at the time, kept Ford employees informed about what they could do to help through his weekly e-mail.

These co-leaders of Ford Motor Co. were able to demonstrate visually that this company was a kinder and gentler place. This unscripted "acting out" most probably had the unexpected benefit of increasing employee and customer loyalty as well as attracting new ones.

* Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. The 1994 crisis at Intel Corp. over the floating point processor error has been likened to the mythological "butterfly effect"-whereby the flapping of a butterfly's wings deep in the Amazon can set off a chain of climatological effects that wind up causing a tornado in Texas.

All CEOs face crises of one sort or another during their tenures. Some get magnified and played out in the media and some never see the light of day. In addition to the annual process of identifying successors, setting compensation and selecting board members, it is imperative that CEOs add crisis training, simulations and planning to their company agendas. CEOs Meg Whitman of eBay and Steve Case of America Online most probably have crisis scenario planning at the top of their lists after their recent unpleasant experiences with online outages.

AVERTING A CRISIS

After driving his company through the lightning and thunder of the recent Coca-Cola crisis-often without full headlights-it might be nice for Mr. Ivester to know that there is a silver lining. Last fall's threatened FedEx pilots' strike was aimed squarely at the company's value proposition of reliability. The crisis, however, provided CEO Fred Smith with an appreciation for the company's strengths-its intense employee and customer loyalty-and a renewed confidence to expand from moving boxes to moving bytes.

Mr. Ivester too will be back in the express lane soon. And on his driver's license he will most probably be adding chief reputation officer to his list of titles.

Ms. Gaines-Ross is chief knowledge officer of the Americas for Burson-

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