Let’s say your background and training is that of an engineer, or a sale exec, or a lawyer, or maybe an accountant, but here you are, your company has selected you to be spokesperson on a particular issue. Perhaps that issue is a pressing one and this situation has already reached high levels of intensity going in.
What do you do?
Hopefully, it’s safe to assume that you have the support of the organization from the top and into the communications function. You should expect to receive some level of guidance and coaching from your communications people.
But what, specifically, should you expect from your team and from yourself?
The first thing you need to know is what is the company’s messaging on this particular issue. Do you have a set of key message points that were developed by your public relations people on the issue? Were you part of the process to develop and fine tune those messages? And, do you have the proper support information to back up those messages?
Questions and Answers
Along with a key messaging document, you should also have a list of possible questions you may receive on the issue, along with recommended responses that are consistent with the key messages that have been developed.
Coaching and Simulation
If there is time, you should expect to receive coaching and an opportunity to simulate media interviews and other scenarios where you may be required to deliver the company’s story on the issue.
As with any big matter, no one can reasonably assume that you or any one person would have all of the answers to every question. But going in, you should know who within the organization may have some of those answers. And you should know what external resources can be accessed to help further tell the full story on the issue at hand.
These are the basics, and they apply in both crisis and non-crisis scenarios. What are your stories about the time you were tapped to be spokesperson. Let us know at @OBrienPR on Twitter.
It’s one of the most potent words a headline writer or a
reporter can use, and if it’s used to describe you or your organization, it’s
clear what the writer thinks, but more importantly what that writer wants the
reader to think. You’re guilty.
The word is, “Denies.” As in, “The company denies wrongdoing.”
Let’s put this proposition to the test. Let’s say a headline
writer wants to make you look bad for not walking on Mars. Yeah, the planet
that no one from earth has ever visited. All he has to do it feature the
headline, “Sarah Doe Denies Walking on Mars.”
The word itself suggests that the accusation is truth and that
you are denying the truth. If you are described as denying anything, this
frames you as defensive, guarded, trying to hide something, and therefore,
guilty in the court of public opinion.
When you are described as a denier of something, it’s
designed to put you in a bad light.
On the other hand, if a headline writer or reporter does not
want you to look so bad, they may substitute the word “denies” with the words,
“accused of.” As in, “Sarah Doe Accused of Walking on Mars.”
That would give you just enough wiggle room not to come
across so negatively. In this case, the seeds of doubt are planted in the
credibility of the accuser and not in the culpability of the accused.
These words suggest that the accuser could be making it up,
using false allegations on which to frame you or your organization, and possibly
that you should be given the benefit of the doubt.
So, what do you do when a headline writer frames you as
The first rule of thumb would be, don’t make it any worse,
and this can happen very easily. Once you or your organization has been
described as denying an accusation, you can’t do anything preventative. The
accusation and characterization are already in the public domain, and they are
already working to shape perceptions.
What you can do, however, is avoid playing into the hands of
your accusers by engaging according to the ground rules they have already set
by creating a narrative designed to work against you.
If you “double down” or try to explain away or dismiss
something that you cannot prove, you can reinforce the negative narrative that
is already unfolding, whether that narrative is fair or not.
This happens in the court of law all of the time. How can a
defendant prove that he did not do something if he did not do it? For this
reason, the justice system itself places the burden of proof on the accuser,
not the accused.
In the court of public opinion, the rules are completely the
opposite. This “court” usually places the burden of proof on the accused.
What you have to know going in is that you are not obligated
to accept the premise of the accusations. The decision not to accept that
premise and not to engage as your critics expect may be your first and most
effective course of action. You don’t have to accept their premise or their “facts”
associated with the accusations.
Once you know your messaging, craft them and deliver them
according to your perceptions of the situation and not those of your critics.
Take the high road.
The worst thing you can do is try to split hairs on which
accusations have merit or have some element of truth, and which ones do not.
Once you do that, you have committed to the narrative your critics have already
created, and you very well could be endorsing it. And by then, you are likely
so far down the rabbit hole of that narrative that it will be very difficult to
change course, and even more difficult to change perceptions.
It’s better to create your own narrative. If that narrative
finds certain common ground with other points of view, so be it. But it’s very
important to make it clear that your narrative is the right one and it’s yours,
not the baseless one created by your critics.
One other thing, if you find that you or your organization are accused in this way, don’t be in such hurry to respond that you risk creating more problems. There is a big difference between a timely response and a hasty one. A thoughtful, careful response is much more effective than a kneejerk one.
What do you do if a resident of an assisted living facility “elopes” and no one can find him? Or when caregivers are accused of possibly mistreating patients and residents?
These are just two of the hypothetical scenarios we had to address recently when we helped an assisted living facility update its crisis communications plan and conduct media coaching for senior leadership.
We’ve found that the crisis planning process rarely changes, but the potential types of crises, challenges and unique characteristics of the operating climate change every time. We’ve found that even with organizations that have crisis plans in place, and senior managers who’ve been media-trained, it’s important to maintain constant vigilance against new communications challenges.
That’s what was on the mind of the senior leadership at an assisted living facility when they worked with us to develop an updated crisis communications plan.
The approach we took was to conduct extensive interviews with key managers, staff members and other constituents to gain the best perspective on the types of possible crises that could happen, and to begin the process of analysis and prioritization on what challenges could be faced, what resources were available, and what resources may need to be added to effectively respond to the full range of crisis situations.
With that intelligence, and a treasure-trove of data from internal reporting, protocols and processes, and other background material, we were able to create an informational mosaic that enabled us to develop a crisis communications plan that was concise enough to be an actionable, useful resource in an actual crisis, while at the same time being extremely specific in the range of roles and responsibilities manager would assume during a crisis.
This particular crisis communications plan was developed to work in conjunction with other organizational and operational emergency response plans and policies.
The plan included the major levels of crisis categories, recommendations on monitoring and identification systems, an internal and external notification process, and the most efficient means for convening a crisis communications team in the minutes after, or even before a crisis situation unfolds.
Processes were created for mobilization and messaging, and then for implementation, scaled to meet the challenges of crises from mild to major.
After the crisis communications plan was complete, senior management, who were tapped with spokesperson duties, felt more comfortable and ready to engage in media coaching, which encompassed classroom-style training, along with role-playing and other interactive exercises.
In my media training work, I once worked with a colleague who liked to handle the portion of the workshop on key messaging. That segment included classroom lecture followed by an independent exercise.
She would “click” to the Powerpoint slide that featured this question:
“What is the meaning of life?”
Then she would ask the group to spend a few minutes writing their own individual and personal answers to the question. She’d remind them, “There are no wrong answers. Please take a few minutes to think about this and after a break we’ll discuss your answers.”
Most of the time the break would start quietly as people would contemplate their answers. Sometimes a few stand up and get a cup of coffee or just stretch their legs, and they would talk to each other informally about the question, seemingly as a way to prep themselves for open discussion of such a personal topic.
After I saw my colleague do this in a few sessions, I learned to expect the same group behaviors every time.
When the break was over, group discussion would follow a round-robin format with volunteers reading from their notes. One might start with, “To me, the meaning of life is golf and sleeping in on Saturdays,” which would predictably get a few laughs from the group.
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But pretty quickly, the tone would get serious, and some very simple and short concepts that had almost universal appeal and understanding would emerge:
Consistently, it didn’t take many words or much time for people to answer the question, and very rarely was there any confusion or self-doubt. Almost to a participant, there was tremendous conviction behind the words or sentences.
At the end of the exercise, my colleague would tell the group that what they just did was come up with their own key messages. Then she would tell them what makes for a powerful key message.
If I may paraphrase my colleague, she would tell the group that good key messages are simple, clear and direct. They represent universal qualities that targeted audiences readily understand and appreciate.
She is no longer with us, but if my colleague were here, I know she’d add that a good key message is credible and believable because it isn’t just a set of words, at its core it’s honesty.
So, you’ve just finished a grueling media interview. Some of the questions were easy, some were tough, really tough. Like the one about expectations for the next fiscal year, and whether rising costs will affect customer service.
But you were ready, and overall, you feel you handled the interview well. The reporter across from you seems to feel the same way.
“Thank you for your time,” she says. Then she asks, “Do you have anything to add?”
This is a fork-in-the-road question for a lot of people. You wonder:
“Shouldn’t I just be glad the interview is over and say nothing?”
“If I do add anything, will that open the door to a new line of questions for which I’m not prepared?”
“Should I try to clarify a point or two that I might not have nailed?”
The answer to each of these questions is, “no,” “possibly,” and “no.”
When a reporter asks that question at the end, the interview is not yet over. You still have an opportunity to deliver your message.
To the second question, yes, your instincts aren’t betraying you. When a reporter asks this question at the end of an interview, she knows that whatever you say could open the door to some additional areas she may not have considered.
And to the third question, the reason you don’t want to spend your final remarks clarifying previous points is that you already know that those weren’t your best moments during the interview. When you revisit them, you’re just re-starting at a low point and could make it worse. Your attempts at clarification could come across as defensive, flagging the earlier comments for more attention when the reporter begins to write the story.
Reporters typically ask if you have anything to add at the end of an interview to leave no stone unturned, while affording the interviewee (you) the courtesy of getting everything you want on the record. Remember, everything is on the record, including your chit chat as you escort the reporter and her crew to the elevator.
The best way to answer the question is to revisit your key messages. Recap your messages in a narrative form. Tell your story one more time in a way that suits you. Don’t worry about being redundant. Just quickly recap your story and then stop.
If there are some issues that may need clarification, you can incorporate those into your closing comments, but be sure to do that in a positive way, and not in a way that could create the impression you’re looking for a do-over.
Be strong, confident and to-the-point. Think of this question as an opportunity to make your closing arguments to a jury in a court room. Speak to the reader or viewer of the final piece, and not to the journalist herself. And then close on a decisive end note.
If you’d like to discuss media relations or any communications topic, please feel free to get in touch.
You’ve been tasked with speaking on behalf of your organization to the public. Maybe it’s the media, or maybe you’re going to speak at a community event or town hall-style meeting.
Regardless, there are two things you know: first, that there are so many uncontrollable variables that you never really know what you may be asked; second, once it starts, there is good potential that word-of-mouth, social media and possibly professional reporters in the audience will amplify and extend the life of your words.
With this in mind, the best way to eliminate or minimize the impact of factors beyond your control is to prepare. The following are eight critical success factors for powerful spokespersons:
Media/audience analysis– Good preparation is always the starting point. Prepare an analysis that includes a profile of the reporter, publication or group of reporters that may be covering you. If it’s a public meeting, generate as best as possible, a profile of the audience and people who will be in attendance, what they care about, why they may be interested in listening to you, and most importantly, what they may want to tell you once they get there. This can be the basis for the other planning you will do.
Anticipate the questions– Once you have a sense of what people in the room care about most, you can begin to anticipate the kinds of questions they may ask. Start by listing the questions you’d rather not have to answer, and then develop responses. Be thorough, plan for the worst and work toward the best. You may find that the reporter or audience may only ask a fraction of your questions, and they may ask a question or two that you didn’t consider, but this kind of preparation will go a long way towards giving you the confidence and comfort level you need.
Develop key messages– The major difference between anticipating Q&A and your key messages is mostly one of size and focus. Your key messages must be more focused and condensed than a long list of all the questions you could receive. These key messages are the core themes and points you want to make in order to pre-emptively address the things your audience cares about. They should follow your larger communications strategy, helping you to achieve your communications objectives.
Dress for success– Think about the venue, the time of day, the location, the audience’s culture, and the non-verbal message you want to send with your appearance. If you’re going to a county fair, don’t wear a suit, try jeans instead. But even in jeans, look sharp. If you will be at a Downtown club for a luncheon event, think about what the audience will be wearing. By working to blend you are eliminating a non-verbal barrier to communication. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes it’s necessary to make a statement that calls for a different appearance. I remember a few analyst meetings I attended where the Harley Davidson senior management team wore leather jackets and some rather upscale casual clothes as they addressed a group of Wall Street execs in suits. Imagine a hotel ballroom filled with analysts in suits, sitting behind tables set-up classroom style. Then the speakers ride onto the platform in full chrome-plated volume on their Harleys. They made their point even before they began to speak.
Don’t forget your voice– Too many average spokespersons don’t pay enough attention to how they sound when speaking to reporters or in the public. By “voice” in this larger context, we also mean your words. Speak loud enough to be heard. If you have a microphone, use it and don’t turn away from it while you look to the side at your presentation screen and continue to speak. And avoid jargon and excessive use of acronyms in your comments. Keep it simple, relatable, and look at the people to whom you are speaking when you speak.
Keep it short– While your larger remarks or interview may take some time, avoid rambling on specific points or topics. Broadcasters would characterize this as speaking in sound bites. These are 30- to 40-second comments or responses that have a clear beginning, middle and end, structured to deliver a key message and then stop. The best sound bites do not include qualifier words or long words. Simple words and memorable messages that get to the point.
Be compassionate– This does not mean to fake it. Just the opposite. It means not to leave your human compassion and your own emotional investment in the topic at the doorstep. Incorporate your genuine interest in the issue, the audience and the subjects that are raised by reminding the reporter or your audience that everything you are discussing is very important to you on a personal and professional level.
Rehearse – Never think you will be that effective if your plan is to “wing it.” I’ve seen some spokespersons say things like, “I’m always better if I improvise.” Or, “I sound fresher, more genuine and more spontaneous if I don’t rehearse.” They’re wrong. The rehearsal process is not a memorization process. The goal of rehearsal is not to create a robotic spokesperson who never strays from script. The goal of rehearsing is to allow the spokesperson to truly master the subject matter, to internalize it, so that when the speaker gets in front of the media or the public, he or she can be more comfortable, flexible and spontaneous. A rehearsed speaker can better stay on message, not be surprised by certain questions that come up, and stay in the moment.
These critical success factors for powerful spokespersons, which represent a good deal of planning and preparation, can serve as a model for you to make sure you provide your audience with content that effectively addresses their most important issues and concerns.