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The art of putting the right spokesperson forward

TRENDAFRiCA October 8, 2014

By Janine Hills, founder and CEO of Vuma Reputation Management

Selecting the right spokespersons for your organisation in any give situation, is essential to build and maintain its reputation.

A good spokesperson gives your organisation a human element that your audiences can relate to in any medium. Selecting the right spokesperson though, really depends upon the situation or the story, and contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t always have to be the most senior person in the company.

However, some organisations send out their top PR person, while others insist that only the CEO speak. Neither of these two approaches are perfect for all situations, and in many other cases, neither of them would be a good choice.

Many reporters cynically might think the PR spokesperson would be too polished, slick and rehearsed, and is therefore serving as a buffer to protect executives who are afraid to talk, and who are vulnerable to difficult questions.

Conversely, if the cynics see the CEO, or another senior executive, out front as the spokesperson, they could assume the event might be far more serious than they thought because the CEO is to handle the situation. On the other hand, the public might assume your company does not take the issue seriously enough if your spokesperson is too low in the company’s hierarchy.

Picking the wrong spokesperson could harm your company’s standing in any of the above cases. That’s why I recommend training lots of capable speakers along with the PR and CEO and build, as they refer in sport, bench strength, in order to have a large number of spokespeople to send forth in various situations.

The media would want to talk to the person who is closest to the story to get the facts, so the spokesperson you choose should be the most qualified and knowledgeable person for the topic in crisis, issue or adverse situation. This way, when approached by media for interviews, they are totally competent in what’s being talked about, and can answer any question thrown their way.

It’s important that your spokesperson is involved from the start of this process so they can be prepared for any media interviews and always stay on message to remain consistent.

The spokesperson must also understand the value of publicity, if they don’t, they may not convey the right messages to the media, or be motivated to respond as quickly and efficiently as required.

Training is key and essential in honing your spokespeople’s skills and to ensure they deliver information that is consistent, on-message and clear. Untrained spokespeople run the risk of distorting your company’s image and message, confusing your audience, and damaging your reputation.

Specialist media training practices, like we facilitate at Vuma, are designed to train spokespeople in a media environment with real and competent journalists who know what the media want and look for.

Media training is beneficial as it provides a risk-free environment for critique, gives a platform for the spokesperson to learn how to convey key messages correctly and stay in control of an interview.

A rule of thumb in talking to media would always be to think, “Will what I say next make the company money, or lose it money?”

Generally, in the first hours of a crisis, when information is still limited and most executives are busy managing the crisis at hand, I suggest the PR spokesperson read a first statement, laying out the very basics of what is known until more details are available.

The initial statement is followed a couple of hours later with a more detailed statement delivered by an executive who has more expertise and knowledge about the subject at hand. That’s why it’s always a good thing that various mid- to high-level executives are media trained.

In most cases the CEO will then only lead the crisis team during the crisis, and be the final spokesperson for when the crisis is over. As what we’ve experienced in the past of what CEOs can voice irresponsibly, CEOs cannot and should not make mistakes. This is crucial, as there’s no one higher who can come in afterwards to clean up.

Leaving the CEO for when the crisis is handled or over, allows the CEO to be portrayed as a leader who was managing the crisis successfully. However, in the case of a large-scale tragedy, it might be better for the company if the CEO is the spokesperson from the start to publicly show the crisis is taken very seriously.

A better strategy in normal crisis situations, might be to use a team – consisting of a senior manager together with a key technical staff person – who can explain in detail what has happened and how the crisis will be resolved. The public is immediately reassured in two ways, thereby restoring the confidence in the company faster.

Highly qualified but less charismatic experts, are the right choice for print interviews, but for broadcast interviews, the appeal and personality of a person is often more important than the spokesperson’s actual knowledge of the topic.

Regardless how senior or how expert your spokespeople are, it’s of no value to the company if he or she does not manage to deliver the company’s messages with compassion and trustworthiness. The public has to believe in the credibility of what the spokesperson says, no matter what.

A good spokesperson is therefore anyone who can find the connection between sympathy, passion and calm, and communicate that throughout the entire crisis, meaning they have to be available 24/7.

 

Source: Vuma Reputation Management

 

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