The Crisis of Succession: The King is Dead, Long Live the King

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

This article contains plot spoilers.

The king is dead… No not that one. I am thinking of a fictional king, well more of a fictional Captain of Industry and his recent demise. The final episodes of the TV series Succession has just offered us an interesting insight into crisis communication. The psychological challenges as well as the real-world challenges of a 24/7 news cycle where nothing can be kept “locked down” for long.

For those not familiar with the series Succession is an American TV drama centred on the Roy family (whose name comes from the French ‘le roi’ meaning king) the owners of Waystar RoyCo which is a global media and entertainment conglomerate. Logan Roy is the powerful patriarch often battling with three of his children over the future direction of the company. In this latest series issues around Logan’s health loom large and (Spoiler Alert) in episode three he dies during a flight on his private jet on route to finalise yet another deal.

The three children he is at loggerheads with are at a wedding at the time. Lesson number one of crisis communication: it is ever thus that when a major crisis hits people are never where you want or need them to be. Make sure you have processes in place to deal with this. Who are the second in commands? What are your sign-off procedures for media statements and other communications if your usual management team are not available?

When Logan’s children hear from the plane what has happened, we see real human grief in action. Into the information vacuum of a sudden death pours questions: how, when, why, are we sure? Quickly followed by denial and disbelief: this can’t be happening, not now, a mistake has been made and there must be someone who can put this right. Interestingly, this is often the first response of any management team to any crisis not just a death. It takes up a fair amount of time and bandwidth.

Lesson number two: our role as crisis communicators is often to get the management team through this stage quickly but sensitively to enable them to focus on what needs to be done to manage the resulting crisis fall out. Waystar’s communications and legal team aboard the plane attempt to do this and it is interesting to watch.

On board the plane the team decide to pull together a timeline of events, agree on the stakeholders who need to be contacted and by whom and what any public statement needs to say. All sensible stuff but lesson number three should be that much of this should already be on the stocks in any crisis communication plan. The death or incapacitation for any reason of a Chief Executive is not exactly a Black Swan event, especially for a company listed on the world’s stock exchanges. This should be one of the key scenarios carefully planned for.

The loss of a CEO, let alone one as high profile and powerful as the fictional Logan Roy, is what is known as a “material” event.

In financial parlance it means an event likely to have a significant effect on a company’s share price. In fact, in the episode one of the son’s shows on his mobile phone Waystar’s share price falling off a cliff once the news of Logan’s death is out, wiping billions of the value of the company.

Lesson number four: identify the objectives of your crisis communication approach. This is often hard to do in the heat of battle but absolutely essential if you are ever to know your strategy was successful let along determine a strategy in the first place. For Waystar the over-riding objective must be to reassure the financial markets that even without Logan the company is viable and will continue to deliver the returns shareholders expect. As an aside, given the calibre of the three children left behind to run the company I have my doubts!

Once they are sure Logan is dead the team on board the plan decide to change course and fly home. At this point we get a twist. A reporter has called the plane to ask if all is well with Logan. Does the reporter have any real insight or is it a lucky guess based on the pilot’s unexpected change of course?  Nowadays planes can easily be tracked and an army of plane spotters do this all the time.

This highlights one of the tricky aspects when it comes to handling the media in a crisis: you can never be sure exactly what journalists know and who else they have spoken to. Good relationships with key journalists built up in “peacetime” will help but you are likely to be still working in the dark to a degree in many instances. The team decide to stall the reporter, but they cannot do this for long.

One of the reasons they can’t is linked to the concept of a “material” event. The management team have a duty backed up in law and regulation to inform shareholders equally and at the same time if something has happened that may impact the value of their investment. News is leaking out about Logan’s death and the team do not have long to meet their obligations. As one of Logan’s sons observes it is important to “not do anything that restricts our future freedom of movement.” Lawsuits and regulatory intervention over the failure to treat shareholders fairly would certainly tie them all up in knots for years to come.

A carefully worded statement is agreed and a press conference to deliver said statement organised for when the plane lands. Logan’s daughter reads the statement to the assembled “shutterbugs” as one of the team calls them. It ticks all the obvious boxes: the firm foundations of the company; Logan as a beloved family man (yes really!); the unanimity across the Board for next steps; and crucially a nod to the continuity of management and strategy. As she walks away to the question about will the children be staying in their posts the daughter replies: “We intend to be there.” May be not as unequivocal as it could have been so we will have to watch the final few episodes to find out what happens next.