Succession Series Takeaways and Corporate Communications “Wins and Fails”

By Emma Prenn-Vasilakis

Many of us are mourning the recent end of the HBO series ”Succession” and seeking new ways to fill our Sunday evenings. While the showrunners may have taken creative liberties, the corporate crises they depicted over four seasons reflect many real-life situations that require careful communication, from shareholder activism to hostile takeovers and – of course – succession planning. We can learn some lessons from Waystar Royco and what the Roy family did and did not do. Spoilers abound below!

  • Prepare for the Predictable: Season 1 kicks off with octogenarian CEO Logan Roy suffering a stroke. Karolina Novotney, Waystar’s corporate communications chief, wants to issue a public statement to alert stakeholders, but the Roy children pressure her to remain silent. Karolina’s approach was likely the right one. With no clear plan in place for who would serve as acting CEO in this situation, the company should have signaled the market that the business remained in safe hands. However, while Karolina had the right idea, the real blunder is that the Board failed to prepare either a succession plan or the framework for managing any sort of disruption in senior leadership in advance. Companies should prepare for the crises and events that they can reasonably predict will occur, and an aging CEO suffering a medical emergency should not have been a surprise here.
  • Speak with One Voice: Throughout the series, Waystar executives and Roy family members engage with the media independently to further their own agendas. For example, following Logan Roy’s death, Waystar’s communications team presents two message options to new co-CEOs Kendall and Roman Roy, and they agree on one. Kendall however directs a member of the communications team to quietly push the other narrative to the press without alerting anyone else at the company. Having two company communications representatives push different narratives conveys a sense of division and that company leadership lacks cohesion and control. Pick one message and stick to it.
  • When a Crisis Hits, Communications Can’t be an Afterthought: When allegations of harassment and assault surface in Waystar’s cruise division, media relations appears to be an afterthought. As executives scramble to get a handle on the situation, they learn that a reporter has received a tip and plans to publish a story within the next 48 hours. Only after attempting to “kill the story” – and failing – does the family turn to damage control and consider how they will handle this news becoming public, even though the issue has been bubbling beneath the surface for days and poses a serious threat to the company’s reputation. Well before anything became public, the company should have prepared a robust communications response protocol, vetted by legal counsel, including a plan for how to engage with key stakeholders and respond to media inquiries.
  • Pick Your Spokesperson Carefully and Prepare Them: After the cruise news has broken, Waystar executives are called to testify in-person before Congress. The testimony is a (hilarious) disaster, as Kendall and other executives and family members fumble predictable questions and fail to instill confidence in how the issues were handled. When asked to simply confirm his own title as an executive assistant, hapless cousin Greg responds “Yes. Yes, if it is to be said. If it is to be said, so it be. So it is.” If Greg received any media or presentation training prior to his appearance, it certainly didn’t stick. While it made for entertaining television, if you fail to prepare executives for this kind of public Q&A, not only will you fail to achieve your objectives, but you may make things worse.
  • Know Who is Reading Your Documents: In the series finale, another company has made a bid to acquire Waystar and Siobhan (Shiv) Roy has been promised the role of Waystar CEO in exchange for her vital support. She is informed, however, that she may have been double-crossed, a suspicion that is confirmed when she finds that her name has been replaced in the draft press release for the transaction with a placeholder – “[XXX] will serve as CEO.” Some viewers might be surprised to learn that placeholders like this are common practice when drafting sensitive documents – that’s a great bit of realism. Shiv’s name, however, should never have appeared at all in a draft press release before the CEO decision had been finalized. While documents are in progress and decisions are evolving, the safest and best practice is to utilize placeholders or codenames and keep the circle with access to the drafts small.

The common threads between these various Roy family communications missteps are a lack of advanced preparation and a tendency react to individual events and crises rather than plan ahead and think strategically. Succession might have been a lot of fun to watch, but if you want to manage your company’s own crises, you cannot treat communications as an afterthought.