January 19, 2023
The Tragedy of Sam Bankman-Fried (And Why Every CEO Needs a PR Fool)
Prior to his arrest, Sam Bankman-Fried’s attempts to explain the collapse at FTX did little to reassure or assuage his audience and stakeholders. Nor did they inspire confidence in the company’s ability to rebound from its downfall. Rather, by over-explaining his position, SBF seemed intent on proving that FTX lacks (and apparently has always lacked) any sense of organization, discipline, or accountability.
Allegations of fraud aside, among Bankman-Fried’s mistakes is his insistence on behaving like a classic tragic figure. Like Shakespeare’s King Lear or Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Bankman-Fried appears to be unaware of how the world sees him. Yet he can’t seem to stop trying to convince everyone that his own flawed vision of himself is just and true.
What SBF needs (or, rather, needed) is a fool, just like the fool in King Lear’s court — a brave and discerning advisor who’s close to the center of power, able and willing to speak the truth that no one else can. If you’re a PR or communications leader, you’re uniquely suited to meet this need at your organization.
What Executives Can Learn from a Fool
In King Lear, the Fool is not merely a court jester. Sure, the Fool cracks jokes at the expense of the king. But the fool is there to do more than entertain. This character sees through the artifice of the king’s self-delusion and uses irony and wit to force King Lear to look in the mirror and face the consequences of his behavior.
The Fool is loyal to his ruler, for sure. He has the king’s best interests at heart and knows his strengths and weaknesses better than anyone. The Fool uses his position within Lear’s inner circle to try to protect the king, continually warning him of the folly of his poor decisions.
Where’s the Fool at FTX?
In an interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin, Bankman-Fried said there was no one at FTX who challenged him. If his account is to be believed, not a single person advised him of the missteps his company was taking. No one was responsible for monitoring risk or alerting higher-ups that what they were doing was dangerous or wrong. (Of course, perhaps someone did try to speak out and SBF was simply unwilling to listen. Lear ignored his Fool, too — and it led to his undoing.)
The result? FTX is bankrupt. Bankman-Fried has resigned as CEO. He lost his personal fortune and the fortunes of others. Many of those who previously lauded SBF’s ingenuity have disappeared. And SBF has pled not guilty to allegations of fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering — underscoring his commitment to proving that his vision of himself is true.
It’s impossible to know if things would have turned out differently for FTX had someone seized the Fool’s mantle. But the lesson here is that every king (or CEO) needs someone who’s willing to play the wise Fool, especially in the face of a PR maelstrom.
Here’s why PR leaders are uniquely suited to play this critical role.
You Know How to Shape Messages Your Audience Will Accept
Of all the executives in the CEO’s sphere of influence, PR and communications leaders are closest to the organization’s audience. On good days, you’re the person who’s carefully crafting messages that resonate with the public and advance your organization’s strategic goals. On bad days, you know which messages stand a chance of breaking through the noise to reach and reassure your stakeholders. Therefore, you know what your audience will accept as credible, and what it will find disingenuous.
As much as they may want to, CEOs can’t kill a negative PR story or otherwise spin their way out of a crisis. They also shouldn’t blindly take legal counsel’s advice to stay silent (although, in SBF’s case, silence would likely have been the better strategy).
It’s your job to help your CEO communicate responsibly in the midst of any PR challenges your company may face. If you don’t believe what the CEO is saying, you know your audience won’t either. And because it’s your responsibility to protect your firm’s reputation, you have an obligation to rethink any messages that ring hollow or — worse — untrue. It’s not about doing the right thing from a moral perspective (though it is…), it’s about doing what’s best for the company’s reputation.
To play the Fool effectively, you’ll need to:
- Trust your instincts
- Put your CEO and other executive leaders in your audience’s shoes
- Get comfortable pushing back effectively on your CEO’s ideas in order to tell a better organizational story
- Foster the right kind of transparency and accountability
You Understand How the Firm Should (and Should Not) Respond to a PR Crisis
Following the FTX collapse, the only information Bankman-Fried offered led many reasonable people to draw one of two conclusions: either he’s a criminal or he’s profoundly incompetent. Whichever conclusion you drew, he certainly did little to repair his image, or restore the reputation of his company, or at least slow the erosion of either.
True, he apologized. But a shallow demonstration of contrition without meaningful insight into what went wrong or what he’d do differently next time doesn’t mean a whole lot to people who’ve lost everything. Bankman-Fried provides an excellent example of how CEOs should not respond to a PR crisis.
During a crisis, PR counselors remind their CEOs that:
- Now’s the time to set ego aside
- Bad stories are probably inevitable, but good PR can make bad stories less bad
- Statements framed in default corporate-speak alienate the audience further — now is the time for authenticity and vulnerability
- Crises are an opportunity to fix what is broken within the organization
- It’s ok to punch back (purposefully) against false claims, misinformation or carelessness
PR firms have spent decades creating effective crisis communications playbooks for a reason. Your CEO might want to break with convention to share her or his desired message. But there should always be a thoughtful strategy behind the approach your organization takes.
Play the PR Fool to Direct a Smarter Conversation at Your Firm
The downfall of FTX — and SBF’s subsequent media tour — provide an extreme example of a badly handled crisis. And though the whole situation is a train wreck you can’t help but watch, there are valuable lessons here for CEOs as well as PR professionals.
CEOs must create space for trusted advisors to tell them the truth — even the hard truths they don’t particularly want to hear. And PR/communications leaders must be willing to play the Fool — especially when, like King Lear, their CEO seems bent on folly of another sort (whether they’re aware of it or not).
Greentarget can help you put a PR plan in place that upholds and protects your firm’s reputation. There’s no need to speak truth to power on your own since we’re here to help.