A spokesperson is the public face of an organisation in the good times and the bad. When it’s smooth sailing they strengthen their organisation’s reputation by adding a trusted voice to public discourse, and when things go awry it’s their job to explain what went wrong and restore trust. If your organisation doesn’t have a spokesperson, you’re missing an opportunity to raise your profile. You also risk doing serious damage if an untrained employee or unknown figurehead is forced to face the public and scramble to establish credibility in a crisis.
Depending on the size and needs of your organisation, spokesperson will be a more or less formal and demanding position with distinct responsibilities. Unless you’re a multinational conglomerate, it’s likely that your spokesperson will also have other duties within your organisation.
Choosing a spokesperson
One person doesn’t have to shoulder the responsibility alone; in fact it’s better if they don’t. Depending on your organisation’s needs, target audiences and available media vehicles, consider having a selection of people at different levels who are comfortable and trained ready to call on.
According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, Australians’ trust in senior business leadership is declining. The credibility of CEOs as spokespeople is 26%, down from 39% in last year’s study. Globally, employees and “people like me” ranked as the most credible spokespeople on every topic, suggesting that the general public are increasingly suspicious of perceived bigwigs spouting corporate PR spin.
However, an average Joe or Josephine as spokesperson will not always fly. If your organisation is embroiled in a scandal that challenges its foundational ethics it is necessary for the Director or CEO to respond to signal that the allegations are being taken seriously.
With the exception of a celebrity brand ambassador, your spokesperson should be in-house. Employees might not fall over each other to publicly face the music if your organisation has done something wrong, but a statement from within will mean more than the words of an outsider called in to clean up. It can be useful to engage consultants to assist with media training or crisis communications, but they should not present to the public.
Qualities of a Good Spokesperson
The best spokespeople are intuitive communicators who enjoy engaging with people and never have to be pushed out the door. Characteristics such as confidence, good judgement, empathy and level-headedness are key, but can be cultivated. Prime candidates are interested in the media and active on social media, with an understanding of who’s who in the zoo (or at the very least, a keenness to find out and connect).
An authentic and genuine passion is of course important – but it’s not everything! Steer clear of a fountain of knowledge with zero people skills, or a one eyed zealot.
It’s not enough to appoint your most charismatic employee as spokesperson and expect them to flourish. The single most important thing a spokesperson can do is commit to undertake media training at least once a year. Preparation, practice and a willingness to improve through training is the difference between an amateur and professional spokesperson.
Employees as Spokespeople
Your employees, volunteers and board members are a wonderful source of engaging stories about your organisation, told in a relatable voice. However, don’t put them in the firing line without training, or before ensuring there’s nothing in their history that could delegitimise their role as spokesperson.
Through social media, any employee can fast become a representative.
In 2015 a Sydney man lost his job after making derogatory Facebook comments about writer Clementine Ford. Ford screen shotted his abuse, shared it with her 80,000 followers, and alerted the man’s employer who was clearly listed on his public Facebook profile. The organisation subsequently fired the man and issued a public statement condemning his behaviour.
It’s important for organisations to have a formal media and social media policy and make sure it is included in induction and training for staff and volunteers. Legally, having clear, formal expectations will work in your favour should you run into any issues regarding an employee’s offensive or defamatory remarks or conduct.
The clever organisations don’t censor or try to control staff and volunteers like an ever present Big Brother; they do set clear protocols outlining expectations about commenting publicly on work related issues, sharing internal information, and a no tolerance approach to racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination and violence online.