When a high-level leader abruptly departs an organization, communications professionals often step in to assist with crafting the message, sharing the news internally and communicate with local and trade media.
Experienced PR pros know how to handle these situations like the back of your hands, but this article serves as a primer to remind us all about strategies for handling the communications associated with the departure of a high-profile leader.
The Background: Learning About the Departure
Capture Public Relations & Marketing, an agency based in Winston-Salem, has worked with a local organization on a project basis for years. They know we’re here when they need us, and we’ve established a great rapport with the organization’s communications team.
A few weeks ago, on a Wednesday afternoon, the two owners of Capture received an email from the CEO of the organization with a “do you have time to talk” message. We’ve known the CEO for years, but she’s not our regular contact. So, the email got our attention. We immediately arranged time for a Zoom—the new favorite pandemic communications tool—with the CEO. After the usual greetings and chit chat, she dropped the bomb: I’m leaving the organization, and I need your help announcing it.
Let’s back up a little. This isn’t just any average CEO. This is a very high-profile leader in our community who has been the head of her organization for more than two decades.
The Strategy: Sharing the News with Stakeholders
Our Wednesday afternoon conversation with the CEO continued and, fortunately, the only person (other than her family) she had notified was the chair of her board of directors. Good first move. No matter how tempting it is to tell the “inner circle,” our advice is to keep the lid on departure news, to the extent possible, until you are ready to execute a detailed strategy. If you don’t, the information will get out in an uncontrolled manner. It’s a fact of life: people like to talk and share “inside information,” even when they are told to keep it to themselves. It is a little bit like the old adage relating to conversations with the media: “Nothing is off the record.”
We find the best way to organize announcement strategies like this is to create a “communications timeline.” We quickly developed a communications timeline for this announcement, and first on the list was another Zoom to gather more information and, more importantly, to talk to the board chair. A veteran business leader, this board chair was fully prepared and shared glowing comments that could go right into a press release.
Next up: draft that press release. At Capture, we believe the press release is our workhorse, and all other communications—like emails to colleagues outside the organization—flow from the press release. With review of the draft press release underway by the CEO and board chair, Capture outlined the next steps, which included:
Day Before the Announcement
The CEO began sharing the news via phone only with top-level key constituents and asked for confidentiality
- Finalize the press release
- Confidentially inform the entire board of directors
- Share the news with the organization’s communications director
Note: we would normally share the news with the communications director earlier in the process, but he had been out of town.
Early morning—Capture first called, then sent an embargoed copy of the press release to the reporter at the local daily newspaper who traditionally covers this organization.
8:30 a.m.—the CEO shared the news with her staff.
8:45 a.m.—tissues circulated within the organization (a joke, but they probably needed some).
10 a.m.—Capture had a planning call with the organization’s communications director.
10 a.m. to 2 p.m.—Capture worked with the organization’s communications team to draft a universal email to share the news.
2 p.m.—an email with the press release attached was sent to former board members, fellow colleagues outside the organization, and other constituents.
2 p.m.—Capture distributed the press release to local and trade media.
2 p.m. (or shortly after)—the news is posted to the organization’s website and shared via social media.
2 to 4 p.m.—the CEO was available for other possible media interviews.
5 p.m.—an email with the press release was circulated to a much wider audience of hundreds of constituents.
The Next Day
A great story about the CEO’s departure ran in our local daily newspaper, and the “shock” of the news continues to be absorbed throughout the local community. With only a few days’ notice and even with the internal communications director out of town, this departure announcement went off like clockwork.
Not every major announcement is a breeze. One of the biggest possible pitfalls is getting a call from a reporter the day before you are ready to announce saying, “I’ve heard ______ is leaving.” When this happens, we quickly try to bargain by offering an exclusive interview with the departing leader in exchange for the news not being shared until we distribute the press release.
There are many variables associated with departure announcements—particularly if the departure is an unpleasant one. That’s a whole other can of worms to address in another blog!
Scott Carpenter has more than 30 years of public relations and marketing experience in agency and news media work. Scott’s thorough understanding of media relations, communications, and innovative public relations and community relations programs has delivered significant results for a broad list clients ranging from small startups to Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits and foundations, real estate agencies, energy companies, retailers and restaurants and financial institutions. Scott is a graduate of Wake Forest University and has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, including the Forsyth Technical Community College Foundation, Crosby Scholars, the Children’s Museum of Winston-Salem (now Kaleideum) and the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina.