Messaging about the death of a CEO


The death of an important chief executive is more than a communication challenge; it is a leadership exercise in readiness. The question for all communicators is just how prepared are they when such a circumstance arises, to coach leaders about leadershipThe message and speed of the announcements are determined by the scenario of the death.

There are generally three scenarios:

1. Anticipated, forecastable. For example, Apple CEO Steve Jobs was ill for a long time, and there was ample time to plan his obituary strategy.

2. Unexpected, less planning time, but still doable. This is the more usual scenario.

3. Explosive, high-profile. Princess Diana, Trump executive loss, murder: it is on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, maybe a dozen other platforms within seconds of the event, and the inevitable and irritating blinking “Breaking News” signs on the bloviating channels. There is no time to plan.

The best approach, when possible, is to be quick, brief, inclusive, and present a preview of the legacy, immortality and grieving facilitation strategy for the family. Help people plan how they’re grieving.

-Quickly means being fast more than being smart. Get useful information out there as promptly as possible.

-Briefly means present the information in 150 word chunks, with some frequency in the beginning and lesser frequency as time moves along.

-Inclusively means finding a way for employees and those affected to tell their own stories, as the company or the family tells theirs.


The more important the person, the more likely it is that they and their family have a legacy or immortality strategy in place.

Become familiar with what the family wants and what the deceased may have wanted – which in some cases often surprise their survivors and family.

Generally, the family’s wishes should dominate and control, unless the deceased has left specific instructions. Many highly visible individuals think about these things and often leave very detailed instructions. These instructions take precedence over what anybody else wants, including the family.

Nowadays we do ‘dark sites’ in preparation for the death of influential people. These sites are constructed on a server and are only lit up when the death event occurs. These sites typically have recognizable components:

-Press release

-A brief summary of individual life and accomplishments

-Life highlights

-Biography pages

-Visionary ideas and statements by the deceased

-News articles about the deceased

-Produced pieces containing information and stories the deceased wanted to share

-Meaningful writings from individual business or persona/life

-Interesting and memorable video, audio, photography

-Memorial service notifications and directions

-Upload sites for personal stories and audio or video remembrances

-Links to other important sites relevant to the deceased

The aid of family members and the individual being described are needed to make the site really useful and complete.

How companies can move on after such a loss

This is the toughest area for any organization to face because the person leading the organization generally controls all activities related to succession. The more surprised the successor is the more challenges, problems, and barriers will arise to prevent a successful succession.

If the succession process takes longer than 12 months, there will likely be a successor to the successor and things may get worse.

Most leaders tend to feel, and some behave as though they are immortal. This always gets in the way of an effective succession. The death of a principle can be an effective trigger for more practical succession strategies.

We advise that in the absence of clear succession, several succession scenarios be developed and put into place. Succession, under any scenario, is among the most grueling, goofy, painful and least predictable periods in an organization’s life.

How to fill a leader’s shoes

A successor should practice these three behaviors:

Humility: resisting the urge to overshadow the deceased, and truly listening to those affected by the loss.

Compassion: helping others to deal with their sense of loss, confusion and a lack of direction. Too often, the new boss says something like, “The most important thing each of you can do for our company or organization is to give me 110 percent of your best possible work and your greatest concentration on quality.” This is not possible and is a pretty callous approach.

Engagement: get out there, meet, greet, listen, ask questions, and learn. There is a special honeymoon in these circumstances where new leaders can truly connect with the organization on a personal level. All too quickly, things will return to a new and different normal, and the challenges and crises, which faced the organization before the leader’s death, along with other internal problems, will surface to bog down the organization, make decisions difficult: in other words, business as usual returns.