The short answer is – it depends what they’re needed for. Is it to be an authority figure, to show who’s in charge and demonstrate leadership? Is the priority to be able to remain on-message and keep a cool head while dealing with tough questions in a crisis? Or is it more likely to be someone who can enthusiastically market your company or product? (Think Sir Richard Branson on a good day). In a perfect world the Chief Executive can take on any of these challenges as required, but few have the ability to be really good at all these roles.
All too often companies do not think nearly enough about this – the person who speaks on the organisation’s behalf is simply the person with the job title, who may not be the best communicator at all. In particular, radio and TV audiences are unlikely to remember the specific words you use, but they will remember whether they warmed to you, or if there was instinctive distaste – in the words of the writer Maya Angelou “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. The ideal spokesperson is therefore not necessarily the CEO but someone we instinctively believe, like and trust. Those qualities are created through being open and honest in your communication, coming across as someone who is genuinely dealing with the issue rather than someone who is ‘spinning’. If you are too ‘on-message’, never really answering the question, this is not a ‘win’ – in fact it’s counter-productive. Your interview may even go viral’ for al the wrong reasons, an example being the car-crash interviews given by BlackBerry’s UK spokesman earlier this year.
Companies have to accept that however hard they try, there are some customers or consumers who will never be happy, and there is no point in obsessively worrying about this particular group. Rather, the aim when coaching key spokespeople should not be heavy-handed media training to ‘ignore everything but the key messages’ but to create a situation where the average, non-committed person thinks ‘that’s reasonable’ or even ‘I like him/her’ when your representative makes an appearance – it’s what I call in my book The M-Factor. As ever, any spokesperson needs to prepare properly, and be clear about what they want to get across. The right media coaching can make an enormous difference. Be confident but not over-confident – as the Department for Transport’s Director of Group Communications, Vickie Sheriff pointed out at last month’s CorpComms conference on managing corporate reputation, ‘there is a fine line when preparing spokespeople between confidence and smugness’. Getting the balance right is a lot easier when clear, effective communication comes high up your list of skills, and is seen by the organisation as a key priority.