How your organization should handle a leader’s death

The sudden loss of a prominent figure leaves questions about your company’s future, so an appropriate response is crucial. These tactics can help the transition go smoothly.

Hypothetically, brands should exist as standalone entities.

Behind the scenes, various people are pulling the strings, but your organization should be able to perform more or less the same, even if some or all of those people are replaced. In practice, however, this rarely occurs without a hitch.

Many companies rely on the “face of the company” to help develop the brand’s reputation. This person may be highly experienced in leadership roles, giving investors faith that he or she will lead the organization in the right direction. The leader might be highly charismatic, charming potential clients and warming people to the brand or could have other traits that make them—and, by extension, the organization—more likeable.

So, what happens if the face of your organization, or some other pivotal leader, unexpectedly dies? How can your company survive and mitigate the potential ramifications?

Strategies for recovery

These tactics can help you salvage a positive PR experience from a key figure’s unexpected death:

1. Make the announcement as soon as possible. Don’t let rumors circulate about your leader’s death. If the public finds out you’ve been hiding that information, it will be a bad sign. Instead, get ahead of the news, making the announcement as soon as possible. This shows that you’re not afraid of the organization’s future and demonstrates transparency, both of which increase trust.

2. Honor the deceased. In your announcement, or in a separate statement, offer some sort of tribute. If you’re holding a public funeral or calling hours, post the information for your customers and followers to see. Otherwise, you can post about how the deceased is being honored, such as where there ashes will be scattered or whether there will be a memorial. You’ll have to get permission from the family before you publicize these details, but they’re worth including if you can do so.

3. Announce a succession plan. Although many investors may care personally about the leader, they’re probably more concerned about the organization’s future performance, which is why most company stocks decline after the death of a CEO.

Power vacancies create uncertainty, so quell that ambiguity by announcing a succession plan right away. Who will be your next CEO, and why? In what direction will the new boss lead the company? Timing is a crucial balance: Don’t let your decision seem hasty, but don’t take too long, either. You don’t have to have everything running perfectly, but you must convey that you know what you’re doing.

4. Recognize the deceased’s achievements. Explain why this person was a prominent leader. Did they start your company? If so, how and when? Were they known for reinventing the brand or for their dedication to public service? Show your audience why this leader was great. Not only will you demonstrate respect, you’ll also give people confidence that you’ll honor those achievements in your future endeavors.

5. Reiterate and adhere to the deceased’s core values. Address your leader’s priorities and how they shaped your company into what it is today. Reiterate that your company is dedicated to preserving those values, no matter who is in charge. This will prove that your company isn’t going to veer off course just because its public persona is changing. In these situations, it’s vital to assure people that your organization is more than just one or two key figures (while still preserving his or her legacy).

A death in your leadership ranks is almost certain to spark changes within your organization, for better or worse. Your job is not to keep things the same forever after a top executive’s death, but to ensure a smooth transition.

Therefore, your focus should be on maintaining stability and adhering to customer and investor expectations. Once that’s been achieved, you can work on transitioning your organization to a different position—if that’s your goal. Otherwise, you can take inspiration from your previous leader and build upon their vision.

Jenna Cyprus is a freelance writer and business consultant. She has lectured for several universities and has worked with more than 100 businesses in the last 15 years.

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