What makes for an effective spokesperson? What qualities should the one representing your organization to the media have? While a working knowledge of the media can be a real plus, there are “4 C’s” of communications that the best spokespersons develop and project as they speak on behalf of those they represent. Let’s take a look at each of them.
Concern – A trait essential to being an effective is genuine concern and empathy for the media’s and – by extension – the public’s desire to know about situations relating to your organization. Here I am speaking to issues and incidents that impact the community-at-large and draw public interest. Several years ago, a colleague of mine was counseling a client that experienced a large explosion at one of its manufacturing facilities. The plant was located adjacent to a residential neighborhood that had grown up around the plant over the years. Media coverage was very intense. As demands for information came in fast and furious, plant management became frustrated with the media’s scrutiny and demands for information….who, what, where, when and why. My colleague, himself a bit frustrated, but with his client said “Your plant blew up! Explosions are big news!” He was right. While we may want to wish away negative news and situations, the reality is that the public has a legitimate interest in and right to know about situations affecting them and the community. It is important that a spokesperson have a genuine empathy and concern for the public’s interest.
Comfort – Speaking to the media can be a daunting task, especially when they are seeking comment on a controversial or “breaking news” incident. An effective spokesperson is one who is able to project calm comfort in responding to media inquiries, especially when communicating in a crisis. Comfort is conveyed through a steady demeanor that reflects calmness and projects confidence, even in the face of a barrage of questions. Those able to communicate with a calm confidence and a sense of humanity are generally perceived to have greater credibility. If the spokesperson is perceived with credibility, that credibility more often than not extends to their message.
Conversely, the defensiveness or irritation of a spokesperson can and often does reflect negatively on the organization they represent. The demeanor of the spokesperson should not be the most memorable aspect of their interchange with the media. If it is, overwhelmingly it is for negative reasons. Great spokespersons should be regarded as great baseball umpires: critical to the game, but not its defining characteristic.
Concise Clarity – An effective spokesperson is able to speak clearly and concisely about an issue. They have clearly defined messages and communicate them in sentences, not paragraphs. The messages that have the most impact are those that can be expressed in 15 words or less. Of course, some messages warrant elaboration, but usually not to the extent one might think. The danger is that too much elaboration can compromise the impact of the message. If elaboration is necessary, it will be prompted by questions from the media. After elaborating, return to and restate the key message as you finish up.
Context – An opportunity often missed by spokespersons is offering context on an issue. Context helps ensure that information is properly perceived. Left to their own devices and limited knowledge, people can draw inaccurate conclusions. This is especially true when it comes to data or technical terminology.
For the purposes of illustration, let’s say a crime statistic in a certain jurisdiction shows an increase of 2% over the previous year. Is that a significant number? How does it compare with similarly-situated jurisdictions? Or with state and national statistics? Providing these sorts of comparisons is not “spinning.” It is essential perspective if the information is to be accurately perceived and understood.
Become a careful observer of spokespersons you see in and on the news. Consider their demeanor, the content and construct of their messages. What traits do you find positive? What turns you off and leaves you with less than a favorable impression. Then consider yourself or your spokespersons. How are you doing? How are they doing? What are they saying about your company by the way they present themselves to the public? What steps can be taken to sharpen their skills and impact on the public?
It is an adage of athletics that the level of training and practice determines the level of success in the game. That’s why athletes…and umpires…go through rigorous training before they take the playing field. It applies to the success of spokespersons, too. Those who go through media training and practice regularly are those who are most successful when the lights come on, especially when it comes to crisis communications.
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