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When should the CEO NOT appear on television?

When should the CEO NOT appear on television?

by Tony Jaques, Director of Issue Outcomes Pty Ltd, for people who work in issue and crisis management

As the dust settles in Australia after the train wreck TV appearance by Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci, it’s time to step back and ask: “Should the CEO agree to participate in what is certain to be a negative interview?”

The CEOs of Australia’s two supermarket giants both agreed to appear on a programme about grocery price-gouging and duopoly bullying for ABC Four Corners, an investigative TV show celebrated for its combative, take-no-prisoners style. Neither CEO came out well.

Coles boss Leah Weckert appeared to have been media-trained to the point where she came across terse, unsympathetic, and robot-like.

Brad Banducci, CEO of Woolworths fared even worse when he forgot the most basic rules of a TV interview, walking out over a seemingly trivial response which the reporter wouldn’t agree to delete. His PR advisor – on camera – persuaded him to return, but the damage was done, providing the programme with a shock promo on a silver platter and guaranteeing a record audience

Just days later Mr Banducci announced he would retire. He strongly denied his train wreck interview was a factor in his decision to leave, but it surely cannot have enhanced his opportunity to stay.

As my colleague Gerry McCusker commented on Linkedin: “True crisis preparedness is as much about knowing how not to create a crisis as it is about how to lead the response to one you didn’t actually start by yourself.”

With the advantage of hindsight, did this debacle have to happen at all? There was the usual line-up of PR professionals keen to offer their opinions about what went wrong and what the company should do next. Most made the self-evident point that the two CEOs should have been properly prepared, but none apparently considered whether the two CEOs should have agreed to be part of what was certain to be a confrontational program with a very clear editorial purpose.

There is no doubt that when a real crisis strikes, the leader needs to be seen and needs to speak publicly, especially about issues of policy and governance. But this was no immediate crisis, and the CEOs had no need to agree to a TV grilling at this stage. With six separate government and regulator inquiries launched into supermarket pricing and profit, the two sector giants will have plenty of much more controlled opportunities to present their position.

They could have politely declined, or they could have delegated to a well-trained operational manager to keep the focus on technical issues.

McCusker agrees that to decline is right in some circumstances, especially when there is a clear negative agenda. But he told me refusing this particular interview was not really a choice, simply because the issue-in-play was the transparency of duopolistic pricing policy. “To refuse a reasonable request for interview would have missed an opportunity to frame the issue, and could have been turned into ammo in the upcoming government inquiry. So in effect, both CEOs were on a hiding to nothing with nowhere to hide.”

Although the CEOs were certainly on a hiding to nothing, you have to ask whether it still would have been better in the long run to decline to appear and accept that criticism. It is primarily a question of strategic risk management, not just media management.

Too often, going on TV can simply be a massively unwise choice. Think no further than Prince Andrew’s ill-fated decision to give a TV interview to “settle once and for all” about his relationship with sex-offender Jeffrey Epstein. Instead it cost him his royal position, and his newly-appointed media advisor resigned when his advice not to do it was rejected. In fact this disastrous interview has become so notorious it is the subject of a Netflix movie, due out in April.

While every circumstance is different, a useful first step when asked for an interview should not be “What shall we say?” but “Shall we say anything?” That key question just could save a lot of pain.


A Parting Thought

Sometimes it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt. (trad)


Learn more about Reputation Risk, CEO apologies, and Crisis communication in Tony Jaques’ new book, Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict.tony-jaques-rothstein-publishing

Click HERE to find Tony’s book at


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