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Microphones and tape recorders are thrust at you. Harried reporters ask brusque questions. What kind of person voluntarily steps into such mayhem? If you are a member of a Crisis Communications Team that person might very well be you. Even if you aren't going to face the bright lights and microphones, as a communicator you will undoubtedly play a role in preparing the person who will tell your organization's story to its stakeholders: your spokesperson. Communicating in a crisis - not an option There is no question that, at first blush, crisis management principles seem counterintuitive. With controversy swirling and few facts to go on the need to communicate what you do know about the situation is critically important. Refusing to comment or merely issuing a written statement does not constitute communicating and raises doubts about the credibility and competency of management. It also causes your stakeholders to wonder what the organization is hiding or whether the crisis is worse than was thought. The first step in preparing your crisis plan is to obtain senior management's commitment to communicate and be accessible to the media. The role of the spokesperson is to implement that commitment. Selecting a spokesperson Select the appropriate number of spokespeople based on the size and nature of your organization. It's a good idea to appoint a primary and backup. Of course, you'll include their contact information in your crisis communications plan. For example, if you have multiple facilities you may want to appoint spokespeople for each location and the company headquarters. If you are a local not-for-profit group you probably only need two spokespeople. Job description and title aren't important when selecting a spokesperson, especially for interviews early in the crisis. At that point, reporters then are looking for basic facts and background information. As long as your spokesperson is available and credible they're satisfied.
Depending how the incident develops someone from senior management may be called upon as a spokesperson. Situations involving serious injuries, fatalities or significant property loss almost always call for a senior management spokesperson. Bringing in a senior management spokesperson is always a question of timing and visibility. Involve them too soon it looks like the situation is worse than it is, wait too long and it looks look like they are aloof. There are no universal right answers; as with many issues in crisis management it's a factor of your organization, the nature of the crisis and your professional judgment. Spokesperson qualifications Here's what you are looking for in a spokesperson: • • • • • Sincere, credible on-camera presence Can simplify technical information Knowledge of organization and products/services Completed media training Must be an employee/member of organization (see below)
There are two important caveats to the above guidance: if at all possible, don't use attorneys or outside consultants as spokespeople. If your spokesperson is identified as an attorney the underlying message you will send to stakeholders and people affected by the crisis will be all about legal issues. If your spokesperson is identified as an outside consultant that sends a strong signal you don't have anyone competent enough or responsible enough to represent your organization. As we've noted in previous articles in this series there are roles for outside consultants analyst, writer and administrative assistant - other than serving as a spokesperson. You should include attorneys and consultants in crisis response drills, exercises and media training to understand - and buy-in the case of attorneys - the organization's crisis response plans and procedures. How it works In the early 90s the oil company for which I worked had a crude oil pipeline leak in a remote stream in Colorado. The district manager, who had attended media training two months prior to the incident, worked with reporters on the scene. A public relations staff member acting as the writer for this incident helped the district manager prepare his key points on which our initial statement and press release were based. During the first four hours of the incident the manager participated in three interviews; two were live on-the-air telephone interviews for radio stations and the other was for a TV news crew at the location.
The district manager was confident he could handle in any further interviews at the site. Meanwhile, we appointed a second spokesperson in our Denver office to work with Denver media. She participated in two interviews and provided updates as more confirmed information became available. Altogether we had five interviews that day and two follow-up radio interviews the next day. Those follow-ups were handled by the public relations staff in Denver. Media training is a must Our article about the basics of media training provides an overview of this subject but it can't be said enough that people identified as potential spokespeople must be trained. Effective media skills are not inherent, no matter how many interviews a person has watched on TV or listened to on radio. In most of those interviews the newsmaker performs poorly. The training must be designed to give the attendees the confidence they need to represent the organization to its stakeholders through the media. "Media training allows you to identify who's an effective spokesperson in general, and who, specifically, may be better for different types of interviews: TV, radio, print or online. And who, perhaps, should not be a spokesperson." From Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual by crisis management expert Jonathan Bernstein. Inviting local officials such as police, fire, staff and administrators to attend media training is an excellent way to build positive relationships. By the way, your crisis communications team members should also attend media training, perhaps in a special session just for your team. It's been my experience that many communicators are good writers but could use some help with their television and radio interviews skills. Availability is key Once appointed, speaking to reporters about the crisis becomes the spokesperson's fulltime job. Nothing is more exasperating for a reporter than to be given a spokesperson's contact information only to discover that person is unavailable. If this is an ongoing crisis, enough spokespeople must be available around the clock and on weekends and holidays. What should the spokesperson say?
The spokesperson must disseminate only on confirmed information. Speculating is absolutely forbidden. If you don't know, say you don't know. Then promise the reporter you'll get back to him or her with the confirmed information as soon as possible. Although usually your audience is not the reporters - it's your stakeholders - it's important that reporters regard your spokesperson as a responsible, professional and reliable source of confirmed information who understands what's needed for a news story. Media query information If at all possible, ask your spokespersons to maintain an informal log, sometimes called a media query record – or simply media-q - of the interviews he or she does. Include the following information: • • • • • • • • Reporter's name Media outlet affiliation Contact information Questions asked Answers given Questions for which you had no answers Issues raised Tone of interview
Your analyst will appreciate these "intelligence tidbits." For more information about crisis management visit Crisis Response Communications. # # #
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