Journalists and the media are the people who deal with spokespeople the most directly and frequently. They depend on them as sources of expert knowledge, and for information in times of change or crisis. Who better to offer advice on the dos, don’ts, and best in the business?
We undertook a quick survey of our friends in the media and asked them what characteristics they appreciate or loathe in spokespeople they deal with.
Well spoken, subject matter expert, and commands authority were identified as the top three qualities of a good TV and radio spokesperson, ahead of honest, empathetic, charismatic, level headed, willing to go head to head, or the proud owner of a “face for radio.” The results were slightly different for print media spokespeople, with honesty trumping the need to command authority.
Relying on jargon – or as Australian Financial Review Chief Political Correspondent Phil Coorey delicately put it, “prattling on with corporate BS rather than providing the information” – was the most widely loathed behaviour, revealing a lack of understanding and leading to isolated, disengaged audiences. Dishonesty, unreliability and spouting useless one-liners – “you may as well employ a robot” – were other common gripes.
Survey respondents rated honesty over charisma, knowledge over warmth, and being well spoken over fame as preferable qualities.
Beyond personality traits and behaviours, what makes a good spokesperson?
Not their political persuasion, according to the vast majority of our respondents, who deemed politics largely irrelevant. The exception to this rule is a spokesperson with a significant political background that should be disclosed, such as a past life as an MP or activist.
The jury was out on whether the head of an organisation is the most appropriate person to take on the position of spokesperson. A slight majority (57%) voted no, because sometimes CEOs need a bit of cover, and according to ABC Press Gallery cameraman and photographer Nick Haggarty “not all heads are good on the telly.” Those in the yes camp emphasised the authority and credibility of an organisation’s big boss as spokesperson, although this may be more important in times of crisis.
“The head should be able to ‘do’ media, but there should be a good spokesperson to rely on for smaller media matters,” said Stephanie Peatling, senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
All our respondents consider it important for spokespeople to be active on social media as a way to increase exposure, network and be aware of public sentiment – bar one anonymous dinosaur who thinks Twitter is best left to the marketing department (ouch).
Asked to name names, Anna Bligh of the Australian Bankers’ Association, Chris Richardson of Deloitte Access Economics, Tim Costello of World Vision Australia, Alan Joyce of Qantas, ex-Rio Tinto head of external affairs Ben Mitchell, and “any of the bank chiefs or mining bosses” were listed as outstanding spokespeople. Bruce and Denise Morcombe of the Daniel Morcombe Foundation were applauded for “selfishly speaking about the tragedy of their son Daniel’s disappearance and murder, and using personal experience to communicate well-planned, strong messages that resonate with the average Australian.”
Parting words of advice for spokespeople from the media frontlines was to show R-E-S-P-E-C-T for journalists and the public.
Don’t waste anyone’s time with lengthy press releases or responses, understand the time pressures reporters are under, and before you go to pitch a story related to your organisation or publicly comment ask yourself “would I read this story on a really busy morning?