All change at the top

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

When there is a change of leadership in an organisation there is an important job for PR people in helping the organisation to manage it well.  The last thing anyone wants is a tumbling share price. 

Two towering (albeit seemingly different characters) have just announced that they were leaving powerful positions they had held for, given the sectors they dominated, laudably long periods of time.  Very different contexts but surprisingly similar lessons for those of us in the PR community which can largely be summed up with the phrase: “Steady as she goes”.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to quit as the manager of Manchester United has led to an amazing number of eulogies: 16 pages in the Telegraph, 12 in the Sun and even the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition were moved to pay tribute to him in Parliament on the day of the Queens Speech no less.  But then again Sir Alex can claim to have steered Manchester United to 13 Premier League titles and two European Cups.  He was club manager for an astonishing 26 years in an industry where staggering from season to season is something of a success.

Meanwhile in the City Paul Walsh the highly-respected Chief Executive of the world’s biggest drinks group, Diageo, had also just announced he too was stepping down.  Paul Walsh has spent 13 years at the top making him one of the longest-serving FTSE Chief Executives.   Paul Walsh has steered Diageo to see a £30 billion increase in market value, an incredible achievement in the teeth of a severe global recession.  Again there were suitable eulogies albeit ones more aimed at the financial and business community.

Leadership changes have to be amongst the trickiest of PR tasks.  As well as the facts that need to be dealt with there is an awful lot of ego that requires plenty of diplomacy and there is never a more important time for the PR to have top table representation.  The key message stakeholders, especially investors, want to hear is one of stability so there needs to be a careful balance in messaging between lauding the outgoing leader but also demonstrating that the organisation is far from wholly dependent on one individual.  Manchester United can be seen to be doing this in Sir Alex’s farewell statement when he says the current make up of the team:  “bodes well for continue success at the highest level”.

Unfortunately for the messaging the news was soon out that star striker, Wayne Rooney, has asked to leave the club.  Stakeholders and in particular investors keen to see stability do not want to see a new man or woman at the top leading to a race to the exit for key executives (or in this case players).  The new man at Manchester United already has his work cut out there.  For any of us PRs handling a succession we need to make sure we have the inside track on any additional executive changes following on in the wake of a change at the top, for example, is anyone likely to ‘flounce’ out because failed to get the top job?

Over at Diageo the succession process was also focussing on the stability message.  The incoming Chief Executive was keen to stress continuity and issued the following quote: “I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Paul (Walsh) for 13 years.  We jointly forged the strategic direction of the company.  My key focus will be to step up the execution of that strategy.”  As strong a ‘steady as she goes’ message as you are likely to get.

In terms of the management of the actual handover itself Diageo had obviously thought a long time ahead.  The new Chief Executive, Ivan Menezes, had previously ran the drinks giant’s North American operation but had been promoted to Chief Operating Officer last year apparently in preparation for his elevation to the top job.  Investors would have had time to see him operating and known he had the confidence of the management team – the PR team would have had time to build a narrative.  Strangely, Manchester United’s hand-over has been less smooth.  Whilst the message that David Moyes, currently at Everton as I write, is being described as Sir Alex’s anointed heir we are still awaiting formal confirmation.  It must be a sticky time in the Manchester United press office getting through this period.

So stability is the watchword here (along with careful planning) and the slick transition at Diageo won the ultimate accolade as newspapers were able to report that following the succession announcement shares closed in Diageo slightly up on the day.