|Identifying a Spokesperson.|
By Judy Hoffman
Thursday, 11th January 2007
Every organization should make it a part of its written policies that all media inquiries are directed to a previously identified spokesperson. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to the possibility that any employee could provide a statement to the media.
It could be your most loyal and capable employee, or it could be the one recently disciplined for unsatisfactory performance. Such a policy does not “forbid” employees from speaking to the press. You really don’t want an employee to tell a reporter, “I’m not allowed to talk to you.” Your company policy (written and communicated to everyone) should simply provide an agreed-upon procedure whereby employees can deflect questions to someone with this official responsibility. They are usually happy to do that.
Why Is the Spokesperson Not Always the CEO?
Many organizations assume the spokesperson always has to be the highest-ranking official. It is true that, in the case of a serious crisis, the media will eventually need to hear from the CEO. However, it is usually wise to identify someone else as the initial spokesperson. Here are three good reasons:
Who Should Be Your Initial Spokesperson? Your initial spokesperson fulfills a very important role. If your organization has a competent communications/public relations professional on staff, your choice should be obvious.
- It saves the CEO time and aggravation. Many questions from the press are routine. The CEO has more important things competing for his attention and he should not be distracted by having to respond to routine questions.
- It automatically signals that the organization places more importance on the issues the CEO does comment on. If the CEO has been answering questions about what the company does for its employees around the holidays, for example, it will detract from the emphasis desired when the CEO comments on a serious incident.
- It provides the CEO with a needed buffer. This is critical. The initial spokesperson takes all incoming media inquiries and answers them whenever she is confident she knows the company position. When there is a crisis and the issue warrants a statement from the CEO, having the initial spokesperson as the first media contact will provide the CEO with valuable time. He can spend it - whether a few minutes or a few hours - developing a well thought out statement with a group of managers (called the Crisis Management Team, which will be discussed in the next chapter). If the CEO spoke directly to the media in the first moments of a crisis, he might give comments “off the top of his head,” which could cause problems later.
Smaller organizations often have to look throughout their workforce (senior or middle managers, health/safety/environmental professionals or administrative assistants, etc.) for someone who has as many as possible of the following characteristics:
If both your CEO and your initial spokesperson display all of these characteristics, LUCKY YOU! Most organizations have to choose people who fit most of these characteristics and then train to fill the gaps.
- Accessibility: The media has to be able to get to the spokesperson readily. Choosing someone with a heavy travel schedule does not make much sense.
- Willingness: You are not doing your employee or your organization any favors by appointing someone who is terrified at the prospect of doing this job. (However, neither do you want someone who is too willing to see her face on camera or her name in print!)
- Coachability: The person cannot be so headstrong as to say whatever she has decided is right, regardless of the guidance and direction provided by the Crisis Management Team. No room for loose cannons here.
- Assertiveness: However, the spokes-person cannot be a doormat either. If she realizes that management is not providing the community with the information that the public wants and needs, she has to have the confidence to bring this to their attention. Bucking the rest of the management team can be a little tricky, so it takes someone with tact, self- confidence, and trust in her instincts.
- Appropriate demeanor: The organization should be proud of its spokesperson. Management should choose someone who looks and acts professionally, conveys sincerity, and is generally a nice person. Putting someone in this position who lacks interpersonal skills or who loses her temper easily is an invitation to disaster.
- Ability to act calm: Although it is difficult to be calm in a crisis, it is important to choose someone who can act calm. You want to convey that the company is effectively handling the situation. If the spokesperson appears on camera wild- eyed and frantic, it will not convey the proper message. It helps if the spokesperson has had experience with crises before and knows that, if the crisis is handled professionally, the organization will survive. As my grandmother often said, “This too shall pass.” An ability to maintain perspective is important.
- Facility with written and spoken language: It is critical that this person be able to take notes on management’s comments in a Crisis Management Team meeting and, once back at her desk, quickly put together a clear, logical statement. Someone who gets frequent writers blocks and will not succeed, especially since there is NEVER enough time in a crisis. Reporters rarely will just accept the company’s written statement, so the spokesperson must be able to think on her feet. She has to be able to answer follow-up questions clearly and concisely.
- Knowledge ofyour business: A spokesperson does not need to understand all of the technical aspects of your business. However she must be able to answer basic questions about your organization, its products/services, history, normal methods of operating, and its place in the community. If every question the media asks is met with “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you on that,” reporters will quickly lose patience, and your organization will lose credibility. Certainly, the spokesperson cannot be expected to know the answer to all questions. That’s where you bring in your subject matter experts.
You Must Also Identify Back-Ups!
Now that you are happy to have found two people who can fulfill these roles, you need to identify at least two more! Murphy’s Law is always in effect. The day you have a crisis, your CEO will be in Europe on business and your spokesperson will be camping in the wilderness or have the flu and laryngitis.
Everyone in the organization, particularly the receptionists, security guards or anyone who usually answers the phones, needs to know who to turn to as the initial spokesperson and as the alternates. It is important to provide media training to all of these folks and to your subject matter experts as well. You don’t want them to inadvertently stumble into major problems and undo all of the solid media and community relations work you have been doing.
Choosing your spokesperson is one of the most important decisions you will make. It must be done carefully, taking into consideration all of the above. Handling a crisis is difficult enough as it is. Not being confident that you have the best possible person on the “front lines” will make things even harder and can possibly even lengthen the crisis for you.
From Judy Hoffman's book "Keeping Cool on the Hot Seat"