An unprepared or untrained spokesperson can be a ticking time bomb for your brand. The company spokesperson represents the voice and personification of your brand, so it’s imperative that they be informed, prepared, trained and knowledgeable. This extends to the media contacts listed on your news release or website; are they ready?
Here are some tips to ensure your spokesperson is the best possible representation of your company.
If you are listed as the media contact on a news release, you need to be aware of when the news release has crossed the wire, and what it’s about! Media contacts are often in place to field inquiries to other experts, while others can be expected to answer media inquiries on behalf of the company.
If you are routing inquiries, you need to be equipped with access to your spokesperson’s calendar, a means for tracking incoming calls and conversations, and a media interview brief that you can complete and share with spokespeople for each booked interview. This document should be brief but detailed and include essential details like the date, time, location or call information, reporter profile, links to past articles written on similar issues, potential angles they may pursue, and key messages that the spokesperson needs to share.
It is your responsibility to make sure these people are informed. Yes, it is a pain to follow up with each and every one of the people on that list and verify that they’ve actually read your brief and understand the issue. However, imagine what would happen if your speakers just improvised instead.
Seek professional media training
Experts speaking on behalf of your organization, from project leads to scientists to senior executives, need to be properly prepared for the media. These people may be exceptional in their roles, but interviews with journalists can be terrifying for those who are unprepared. Work with them in advance to ensure they can speak knowledgably and naturally to reporters.
“Media spokespeople need to be articulate, knowledgeable and able to perform under pressure,” said Irene Bakaric, principal at MediaPrep. “Preparing in a non-crisis environment with media training will allow them to more easily learn the strategies and skills they’ll need should a crisis situation hit.”
Media training doesn’t mean being wooden and over scripted; in fact it’s opposite! Basic media training means gaining a comfort level with the process: knowing how an interview generally plays out, what to expect, how to handle an awkward pause, what to do with your hands while talking, and how to ensure responses are natural and quotable.
Occasionally it happens that a media contact on a news release becomes part of a template that is simply carried over from previous releases issued by the company or agency. Take a moment to ensure the media contact listed on your news release is correct and available to take calls. Journalists can’t stress this enough.
“If you’re going to send out a news release or make a pitch, make sure your spokesperson is actually available to us that day. There’s no point in sending something out if you don’t have anyone for us to clip,” stressed CBC reporter Anita Bathe.
This sounds painfully obvious but is a very common mistake. Think about it: PR teams are usually very busy on announcement days. They are playing a number of important roles related to the news release – event coordinator, conference call host, crisis lead – and are often not checking their phones. For that matter, ensure that a desk line is not provided when the contact is likely to be offsite. Cell numbers conveniently make it possible for a journalist to text if need be.
Expert spokespeople are in demand throughout your organization, so be sure to book time in their schedules prior to announcement day to ensure they’re not on planes or booked in other meetings when reporters are likely looking for interviews. Believe it or not, your CEO or head of product development may not see a media interview at the same level of priority that you do, so take appropriate time in advance to confirm their participation.
Develop a message and reinforce it
Does your spokesperson know what you want them to say during an interview? Hopefully yes, but consider this a nice refresher opportunity and give them a succinct list of one to three key messages. Make sure they’re written in such a way that your spokesperson can relay them in a comfortable and conversational tone.
Without repeating the same words over and over again, encourage your spokesperson to reinforce your message by ensuring the idea of at least one of your key messages is conveyed in every answer you give.
Speak in everyday, straightforward language
Journalists like the Globe and Mail’s Jeff Jones prefer plain language over jargon-filled text, so apply the same principle to your spokesperson’s vocabulary. While you may think you are giving a superior and intellectual answer, you are more than likely just confusing your listener. If they don’t understand your message, they cannot relay it accurately. Think about making your story easy for someone else to retell.
Also, think through the length of a quote. If your speakers can package their thoughts in groups of two to three sentences at a time these will be more easily packaged for radio, television and even print.
Journalists are experts at lie detecting. They will probably do some research on this story that includes talking to other people. If your facts don’t add up or seem stretched, they’ll find out.
“They may not start out trying to ‘get you’ but it they catch you in a lie, this is how it will turn out,” said Laurie Smith, Vice President, Strategic Communications and Audience Relations at CNW.
If your company is in the midst of a crisis or scandal, a sure way to exacerbate the issue is for your spokesperson to blatantly lie or knowingly mislead a reporter or journalist. This is often the work of a panicky spokesperson. Ensure the media brief contains messages that will help your spokesperson field unpleasant inquiries with language that demonstrates your company’s willingness to share information when more is known, for example.
It is important not to ramble and so when you have made your point, simply stop talking. Trying to over answer a question can be as unfavourable as not having answered it at all.
Avoid statements that include “no comment,” as it’s often interpreted as evasive and a sign of guilt. “If you can’t answer a question for legal or other reasons, say so instead.” said Robert Cribb, Investigative Reporter at the Toronto Star.