In a #commschat Twitter debate last night, which discussed how companies prepare for crises and manage their communications when there’s bad news, the tricky issue of how to choose the best spokesperson popped up.
— Mary Whenman (@marywhenman) April 15, 2013
Style of message delivery is more important than who. They need to be confident and able to not just recite a script #commschat
— Stacey Atkins (@stackieb) April 15, 2013
So here’s the dilemma: when a crisis breaks does the best media performer go in front of the media or the big boss?
You might be tempted to think they’re one and the same: the big boss ought to be the best media performer, but all too often this is not the case. This misconception might well arise because that chief executive or chairperson is so confident of their ability to shine in the boardroom or dazzle shareholders at the AGM, they think that skillset will serve them well in a crisis. Alas, too many discover too late that it won’t. But it can take a brave PR person to warn a CEO they lack crisis media skills and urgently need training!
The real answer to who you should put up for interviews is this: it depends.
It hangs on these key points:
– firstly, how big a crisis is it? There’s a world of difference between a book publisher admitting to printing guidebooks with the title mis-spelt, to a cruise ship running aground with a high number of fatalities. The former calls for a response from the marketing director, whereas only the CEO or chairperson will do for the latter
– secondly, what needs to be communicated? If it’s a technical issue, such as the recent network outages affecting a mobile phone company, there’s a good argument for putting up someone with a real understanding of the issue, who can speak knowledgeably, but without “geek speak”, so perhaps the technical/operations director
– thirdly, what sort of interviews are required? Our training has often highlighted that senior executives in organisations have different media strengths – just because you’re a brilliant communicator on radio, your quirky facial ticks or distracting hairstyle may make you a poor candidate for TV, for example. So if it’s possible and appropriate, consider using different spokespeople for different media, but always ensure the messages are consistent
– finally, how long is the crisis likely to last? If it’s big enough, the demand for interviews, briefings, press conferences etc can be overwhelming and if the issue continues for many hours, even days, with the best will in the world, your key spokesperson is soon going to look tired, ragged and not 100 per cent in control. Using both the CEO and a chairperson means the burden can be shared, without compromising authority, gravitas and credibility.
In truth, you might only discover who your best spokesperson is when a crisis breaks. But all the above shows how much good preparation can help and that should include regular and robust training and testing. By that we mean the kind of crisis training that increases the pulse rate and gets the adrenalin pumping. It might seem daunting, but so it should…otherwise you could be facing something far worse than daunting in a real crisis.
As @TheWriter put it last night:
It’s a v simple equation: Poor comms response = probably guilty / lying / got something to hide #CommsChat
— The Writer (@TheWriter) April 15, 2013
And that adds up to one thing: disaster.