CEOs Have Their Roles But Not as the Default Spokesperson Choice
Picking the right spokesperson can mean the difference between delivering your intended message and delivering a message you didn’t intend, resulting in an avoidable reputational blow.
The stakes are especially high when a spokesperson is delivering a key message amid a crisis where the slightest misstep or misplaced facial gesture can have outsized impact.
Choosing the best spokesperson requires more reflection than scanning an org chart. Presidents and CEOs shouldn’t be the default choice for every situation. They should be the choice for situations that require the top dog to announce layoffs or closures, as well as happier occasions such as expansions and acquisitions. Other top executives or key personnel can fill the role for other opportunities.
Identifying Spokespersons in Advance
One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is not thinking in advance about spokespersons and identifying candidates. Other skill sets in the workplace are evaluated, and so should the ability of staff members to deliver a clear, concise message. Not everybody is good at it, including people who hold jobs where it is part of the job. Knowing your inventory of potential spokespersons is a critical first step to being prepared when you need a spokesperson.
Selecting the best spokesperson for an assignment is a balancing act between who is the most appropriate voice and who is the most capable voice. Some choices are more obvious than others. Top financial officials are best suited, for example, to deliver messages to the financial community because they understand and speak that language. For the same reasons, financial officers can be the worst messengers for layoffs because they send an unspoken message about money over manpower.
The Challenge of Social Activism
The most challenging contemporary situation for choosing spokespersons is social activism. Organizations face consumer, stakeholder and employee pressure to take stands on controversial issues. However, a misstep can cause significant blowback and reputational damage. Sometimes organizations have no choice but to enter a public fray, so choosing the best, most effective spokesperson is mandatory to make the intended point without inflaming the other side.
Spokespersons are trained, not born. They need more than the gift of gab. They need to know how to craft and deliver a key message convincingly – and as often as necessary for a reporter to get the message. Media training, including stress-test interviews, give would-be spokespersons insight into the role and practice performing the role in the face of push-back.
It pays to take stock of potential spokesperson talent in your organization. Don’t rely on first impressions. Someone who is soft-spoken but well-informed may not be obvious candidate but could emerge as a reliable voice for the organization. The right spokesperson doesn’t always have to come from the C-suite.
Gregarious people can be wordy. Shy people can mumble. Smart people can say too much. Storytellers can ramble. Clever people can be, well, too clever. That’s where a speech coach comes in. The spokesperson’s job is to perform and deliver an intentional, hopefully well-rehearsed key message. The true test of a spokesperson is whether they can act in the role of spokesperson.
A key message is only as good as the messenger who delivers it.
It Takes a Team Effort
Developing an effective key message and the language to convey it is a team effort. In many ways, a spokesperson is only as good as his or her preparation with the help of teammates.
One of the toughest spokesperson skills to master is knowing when to stop – an actually stopping. Reporters want a good story but what they really need is a pithy quote that sums up your story. The typical quote in a TV interview lasts less than 15 seconds. Most quotes in print stories occupy two paragraphs. That’s what makes a well-constructed key message smartly delivered so important to saying what you need to say.
Being a spokesperson is less about glory and more about hard work. It’s not an easy job, especially if your message is in response to serious crisis. A lot rides on spokesperson success.
Brand marketers spend time to select appealing and convincing faces and voices to represent their brands in 30-second advertisements. Organizations should be no less diligent in selecting their spokespersons.
A key message is only as good as the messenger who delivers it. Pick wisely and prepare dutifully. Your reputation is at stake.