Crisis Messengers Matter as Much (or More) than the Message

Marketers devote time and energy to match their message with a messenger. In crisis response, almost the entire emphasis is on the message, not the messenger. That’s wrongheaded and backwards thinking.

Who delivers a crisis response message can be more critical than the message itself. The reason is simple: Effective crisis response requires conveying confidence and building trust, which words alone cannot achieve.

Written statements can fall flat without a human voice. And the human behind that voice needs to be able to demonstrate the proper emotion and tone to match the moment. Not everyone in an organization has that skill or training.

Crisis preparation should include an inventory of potential crisis scenarios and comprehensive media training for designated – or default – crisis responders. Too many leaders and crisis counselors focus on messaging and ignore the role of the messenger.

Knowing how to respond to a particular crisis scenario, including who will be in charge of crisis management and who will be the designated spokesperson, is far more important and useful than coming up with placebo statements. Every crisis is unique, so how could anyone predict what to say in advance? What can be anticipated is the need for someone with the capability of saying what needs to be said in a convincing, authentic way that elicits trust and confidence.

It would be not be accurate to say the messenger is the message in crisis response. Words matter. The messenger conveys the force and truth of the words.

The right way to think about message and messenger is to understand the messenger must be a good speaker, disciplined in what he or she says and agile enough to deliver a key message that is on point to the crisis at hand. Not everyone fits that description or can fulfill that function.

Media trainers aren’t often asked to select organizational spokespersons. They should be. We’ve seen good ones and bad ones, and we have some idea of what it takes to do the job.

Sometimes clients ask for group media training, with the underlying objective of auditioning spokespersons. That’s a good idea, though not always practical.

From personal experience, the difference in skill levels of potential spokespersons can be startling. Someone who can memorize a key message or read a statement isn’t always the person who can think of their feet or deal with aggressive, even hostile questioning. That’s why you put potential spokespersons through the rigors of media training. Trust me, this role is not everyone’s cup of tea. Putting them in the epicenter of a crisis could make a bad situation worse.

There isn’t a magic formula for picking a spokesperson, but it is worth the time to consider the available internal and external prospects and not just ordain someone because they have a communications role. It does help to have journalistic experience when dealing with reporters, but that won’t necessarily help when speaking to an angry group of employees or neighbors. That’s why some crises may require more than one spokesperson.

Look for someone in your organization who is knowledgeable about the subject, who can speak clearly and simply and who doesn’t get rattled easily. If that person isn’t on your payroll, hire someone with relevant experience as a spokesperson for the most difficult situations.

Developing a crisis plan and the selection and training of spokespersons are often undertaken as separate projects, with media training too often postponed to some indefinite date. The plan should only be considered complete when the messenger has been identified, trained and tested.

Yes, your crisis message is vital. Your crisis messenger is essential. One without the other can spell disaster.