Who should be spokesperson in a crisis?

The best person to be an organisation’s spokesperson in a crisis is its leader. Unless, of course, it’s not. Expertise, empathy and credibility are key factors a spokesperson needs to possess if they are to be effective. And if the big kahuna lacks these qualities – aren’t you setting yourself up for failure by using her?

You can lead a horse to water...but CEOS?

Expertise is needed to be able to discuss all relevant crisis issues. Without this expertise, the leader will come across as unprofessional and insincere. The lack of sincerity perception stems from them being seen as not caring enough about the situation and the impact it is having through his lack of knowledge, especially if human lives or the environment are involved.

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It has been observed time and time again that unless an organisation’s spokesperson in a crisis is perceived as empathising with those being impacted on,s then she will be failing in her role. Empathy will manifest itself in a number of ways:

  • The way in which language is being used. Are people, for instance, being referred to in a caring enough manner? Are their families being referred to?
  • Actual physical presence. A leader who is able to locate herself physically at the actual site of the crisis, or within close geographical proximity, will be perceived as having more empathy with the situation and those involved than a leader who is on another continent or who is, for instance, in a capital city miles away from a mine disaster in a distant rural area
  • Clothing. Would you agree that a leader who is in high vis workwear, at the site of a mining crisis, is more likely to be perceived as having empathy to the situation than a leader who is in a corporate office set up for a media conference office wearing corporate suit and tie?

Or, on the flipside, is a corporate leader normally seen in a suit and tie going to be perceived as ‘try-hard’ and insincere by, all of a sudden, donning the gear of the ‘common man’?

The credibility factor in crisis spokespersons

The issue of credibility is relevant to both expertise and empathy. Credibility is rarely won overnight. Like reputation, it’s built up over years. And a challenge with this is that different groups of stakeholders may perceive totally different levels of credibility within people.

The CEO of a mining company, for instance, may be credible to employees and business media, but may not be credible to environmentalists, politicians and environmental media.

It would seem patently obvious to me a public relations/corporate communication etc employee should not be the spokesperson for an organisation in a crisis.

Despite PR professionals being adept at proactively communicating key messages, responding elegantly to difficult questions and effectively positioning the organisation, I would argue there is no way known stakeholders will perceive this as positively as the organisational leader putting himself out there.

What were we saying about sincerity? If an organisation doesn’t care enough for one of its leaders (if not the leader) to take the time to lead from the front in difficult times then, really, does it care at all? And if it doesn’t care – then why should I?

Being practical, however, there are subtleties to this situation. It may simply be that there is so much media wanting information, an organisation’s corporate communication leader may well need to respond to media with a smaller, and/or less geographically relevant, readership etc as the organisational leader simply can’t tick all the boxes. That would seem an appropriate use of resources to me.

Desire – impacting on the credibility of crisis spokespersons

One challenge it is not unusual for anyone leading corporate communication for an organisation to face is having a CEO who does not like being interviewed by the media. Escalate this to a crisis situation and, um, it’s only human nature that this dislike turns just a little bit more passionate.

At the end of the day, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

If the CEO is someone who isn’t normally the organisational spokesperson as a matter of course (e.g. for good times), then there is a strong argument for her not to be the spokesperson in a time of crisis:

  • She won’t have done the hard yards of consistently dealing with the media, so will probably come across as clumsy and lacking in expertise and empathy – not to mention she may well not have done the requisite media training, so won’t have the technical skills to adroitly manoeuvre her way through difficult lines of questions
  • Stakeholders may not attach credibility and relevance to the CEO as she isn’t normally seen in the media. Whereas they may attach relevance and credibility to the spokesperson who does normally represent the organisation.

Whilst without any doubt whatsoever there is a very strong argument for any CEO or CEO-equivalent to be adept at dealing with the media, there is a difference between what should be occurring and what the reality is.

And, yes, whilst having the desire or passion for communicating to important organisational stakeholders should be a default, considering the profound importance stakeholder relationships and organisational reputation are, sometimes it’s just not a happening thing.

So if this passion and desire does not exist, I think there is a strong case for using a senior organisational employee who does have this passion and, just as importantly, possesses the expertise, empathy and credibility to do the job well.

Multiple media spokespeople for organisations

In a crisis, to help with consistency of messaging and positioning, by default it is best to have a single spokesperson as much as possible. An assumption in this observation being that the spokesperson is doing a pretty good job!

Outside of the crisis situation, however, I am an advocate of there being multiple organisational spokespeople. As long as the organisation’s brand and positioning has been clearly defined, which includes the tone it should use in its spoken, written and visual communication, then multiple spokespeople achieves multiple organisational benefits.

Having multiple spokespeople achieves a number of outcomes:

  • It helps external stakeholders and employees understand talent is recognised and the organisational leader, for instance, is humble enough to recognise this and not want all employees to operate in his shadow
  • In enriches and humanises the brand
  • Employees operating in a specific area of the organisation will have a deeper degree of expertise on topics than employees from outside this area. By allowing them to speak on behalf of the organisation, it builds awareness of the depth of capability of an organisation
  • The ownership the various spokespeople have of certain areas of the business and the frequency with which they deal with the media, for instance, will make them more attuned to issues in the media and amongst stakeholders. This gives them enhanced capability to be an early warning issues management detector for an organisation
  • It provides ‘insurance’ for the brand if the leader or other spokespeople leave the organisation. If all media commentary is centred in one person, if she walks out the door so does a great deal of brand equity.

So, one spokesperson for one crisis. But business as usual? Multiple spokespeople is the way to go

What war stories can you share of working within a crisis and facilitating organisational spokespeople? Do you think there should be one organisational spokesperson or a number of them – in both the crisis situation and a business as usual setting?

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Tactics before strategy in PR: should the tail wag the dog?

It is surely self-evident why strategy should come before tactics in public relations. But there are many instances where, in fact, it is better to get on with the job of achieving visible results before contextualising, exploring, rationalising, framing and articulating a game-plan.

Tactics in PR can be AOK without strategy__

This is not to say an individual tactic or campaign cannot be implemented strategically without a formal strategy being in place – whether it be a whole-or-organisation exercise or one which is more narrowly defined (say for social media, for instance).

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There will be many salient factors staring a competent strategist in the face (e.g. the sorts of messages and/or positioning to include and to stay away from). In fact, the continuing articulation of some of these factors may come across as condescending to communication professionals, employees and even external stakeholders – and thus counter-productive to pontificate on.

Testing public relations strategic thinking to build momentum

The day-to-day operations of an organisation do not stop just because a new or revised communication strategy is being developed. Iterations of strategies occur all the time. In fact, one of the chief characteristics of any good strategy is fluidity – the ability to integrate new learnings into its fabric so it can better meet organisational communication strategy and business objectives.

An advantage of rolling out tactical campaigns whilst a strategy is being developed is the latter can integrate findings and reflections on these findings, identified through the campaign process.

This ‘on the run’ market research is an excellent way in which to test and strengthen what will, ultimately, be embedded into the strategy (or not, as the case may be…!).

As more and more campaigns are rolled out, the pillars underpinning the strategy will become more and increasingly more refined. This also has the benefit of building momentum for the strategic approach and providing evidence of their appropriateness to the organisation.

Any excellent strategy will be built on market research, so this ‘on the road’ or ‘in practice’ less formal market research is invaluable to the leading communication strategist.

Very importantly (and usefully) to the strategy development leader(s), by the time the formal strategy is presented to senior organisational stakeholders such as CEOs and Boards, there may well be evidence specific to the organisation of the positive impact this strategic approach is having. This will help gain support and sign off for the strategy.

And just as importantly, as the tactics are being rolled out, they have the very practical advantage of schooling the communication team in how the emerging strategy manifests itself through campaigns. So by the time the strategy gets full organisational approval, the momentum (that word again) has been built to a sufficient level that it kicks into a higher gear more quickly, with positive results accruing with greater alacrity than would otherwise have occurred.

Runs on the board for PR credibility

The necessity of getting runs on the board in public/stakeholder relations is, I imagine, no different to any other professional discipline. Speaking from personal experience, there is always pressure to show your worth within a PR role almost as soon as you occupy the seat.

And whilst the most inexperienced professionals might get some grace on this, you only need a couple of years under your belt before that pressure kicks right in. And in a PR agency environment, you might not even get those couple of years. This is partially because many practitioners in PR agencies have served time in an admin role within PR first and, almost certainly, have spent an extensive amount of time in an intern role (though the internship dimension is certainly not exclusive to agencies).

Whilst the ‘ease’ of achieving ‘runs on the board’ varies greatly, the first port of call for most PR professionals is still getting some media coverage for your organisation/client. This could be suburban/regional and or vertical industry sector media, which is generally the easiest sort of coverage to generate.

Perhaps the next best, or most common, outcome to achieve ASAP is the generation of quality content. Even up to one year ago I would have said this entails researching and writing a media release, or writing a fact sheet, case study or section or two of an annual report. Writing content for Facebook or LinkedIn could also tick the box.

More recently, I’ve come to the conclusion generating quality photographs or video footage (not necessarily editing the footage into shape, however) will be equally as valued. My advice, in fact, to any less experienced PR practitioner or one studying PR at university is to develop these skills as much as possible. They are rapidly becoming almost as valued as writing skills due to visuals’ impact on content marketing in digital spaces.

Strategy in public relations: a necessity but not a suffocation

As much as I am arguing the value for proceeding with tactical campaigns before a strategic approach and full communication strategy has been delivered and authorised, I assert even more stridently the absolute necessity of having a communication strategy in place.

Over the longer term, no business function will deliver what an organisation requires without this strategy, which:

  • provides a game plan for the various multitudes contained within it to be implemented in a coordinated and consistent manner, helping achieve organisational business objectives and fulfilling organisational vision
  • enables the ongoing building of the ideal organisational positioning and differentiation
  • helps ensure reputation and brand activity are travelling in the same direction, giving stakeholders the clearest possible picture about what the organisation stands for
  • ensures those public relations and marketing professionals responsible for implementing tactical campaigns and developing supporting strategies have the strongest possible framework from which to work effectively, as well as giving them confidence to implement their full professional capability. It will also help these professionals proactively add value to the communication and to stretch their capabilities, including where they should best focus their own professional development.

In short, whilst tactics rock, strategy wins the gold medal every time.

Where have you put in place tactical campaigns without having an articulated and authorised strategy in place? What were the outcomes? Is strategy overrated – would it be best, do you think, if we took many things for granted, curtailed the navel-gazing, and just got on with doing the job?

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Social media: freedom or fiefdom for public relations?

Social media is an antidote to the nanny state, for young people in particular, offering them a freedom that they are increasingly being deprived of. With its virtually (sic) non-existent rules, ever-evolving ‘etiquettes’, yet-to-be-determined legal precedents and myriad of platforms – which offer opportunities for expression and showboating never known before – social media frontiers are being extended each passing moment.

Social media playground for PR

This is a view recently touched upon on by John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs in The Australian. No doubt it’s not the first time this observation has been made, but it’s one I found quite striking and worth exploring.

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The nanny state which Roskam bemoans has been extensively discussed. It is a state of being which is seeing freedoms curtailed for the sake of occupational health & safety. It is having its most extreme manifestation in Australia’s economy, where safety is a major factor in the rising cost of doing business in Australia (e.g. mining, oil & gas), frightening off investment dollars (and jobs) elsewhere.

For Roskam, the freedoms lost to Australian youth are frustrating, too. Examples include children not being allowed to play physical games at school, no matter how seemingly benign, or playgrounds only being permitted to be constructed using certain equipment and after extensive and expensive risk analysis has been undertaken.

An extension of this is the political correctness applied to situations such as children’s sport, whereby coaches of young children are chastised if they answer questions about a match’s score, rather than answering in an obfuscating way along the lines of, “The score doesn’t matter, it’s about participating and having fun.” (Of course this is true, but if the kid asks the question, as a kids’ sporting coach myself I think there is a safe middle ground here which is not condescending to the children.)

Social media as freedom

It’s hard not to agree with Roskam’s assertion that social media offers freedom, though perhaps there is worth in the observation, too, that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

And this is not just a throwaway line, not in the context of social media, anyway. Because freedom means being able to act like an idiot, a bully and a saboteur, just as it means being able to behave in a manner useful to society and/or simply to have some harmless fun.

We could talk at length about the cloak of invisibility social media offers those who choose to go down this path. How many times have we heard of cyberbullies and/or those who make comments whilst not choosing to make their identity known, potentially causing all sorts of unhappiness, yet running from taking responsibility for what they have contributed to?

Is this the sort of freedom we want?

Yes, the same sort of thing can and does happen offline, too.  But offline doesn’t have the same viral, audience multiplication characteristics:

  • More people can learn of an opinion, accusation, rumour etc online than they can offline
  • Social proof – the credibility of numbers. An implication of this is that if a piece of information is shared often enough online, then by its sheer proliferation it is assumed it must be true, when clearly this isn’t necessarily the case.

It is true, also, that many online environments can have a moderating effect on information, calming the waters of outrageous pieces of supposed information (more like a piece of data, really).

And it is similarly true, and here we have a wonderful example of social media freedom, that the information posted online can be curated by those choosing to share it. This can mean adding further (perhaps qualifying) insights and opinion, scrutinising what is being shared and, ultimately, accelerating a dialogue on the topic in a much more expansive (if not necessarily in a more intelligent) manner than could have occurred offline.

So yes, social media does offer a unique sort of freedom to all of us. How society ends up using the freedom, well, only time will tell. But it will be interesting to see how it evolves!

Freedom at last: implications for communication/relationship management

For communicators, social media offers wonderful opportunities to share information, enhance reputations and build relationships. And it can help mitigate the impact of crises, through issue identification, conversation monitoring, information sharing and having 3rd party advocates assist in the application of social proof.

Of course, when it comes to crises, social media has made worse many an organisational crisis, too, due to the number of people who can very quickly pick up on a piece of information (or disinformation, as the case may be) and share it.

Another major challenge for communicators are the proliferation of social media platforms which can be utilised. And it’s not one size fits all. One piece of information articulated in the same way cannot simply be replicated across all platforms.

All this interaction requires not just strategic insights, technical skills and creativity, but increased budget.

The many opportunities for expression social media and digital offers creates further new challenges. Video, photos, illustrations, software which makes and distorts all of this, with text being either bastardised into new forms or iterations of language or being superseded completely by digital’s current darling, video .

It’s tempting to accuse still images of dumbing down communication, with infographics being one manifestation. But that would be to deny a powerfully large thing we call the visual arts. Still, you have to wonder that whilst, yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes those ‘words’ may not make much sense.

Or, and here’s the killer, words may not be connected in a manner which the viewer is able to ‘decipher’ to give the words meaning.

Furthermore, the meaning audiences gain may not be the meaning intended. It is my belief words can be much more specific than images, both to capture the meaning and to customise the meaning in a manner more attuned to the individual’s ability and desire to decipher it.

Really, even at the best of times it’s hard to know to know whether social is a bane or a boost to professional communication. It’s certainly complicated it! And, as well all know, it ain’t going nowhere, so best we figure out excellent solutions and be ever open to a rapid evolution to the approaches we choose to take.

Where have you seen, or experienced, the impact which social media’s freedom characteristic has had on public relations or marketing? Where do you feel the freedom dimension is helpful or a hindrance to professional communication? Have you observed where the nanny state mindset is being applied to social media (apart from China!)?

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