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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