Identifying the right people to be the voice of your business is an important and tricky task. Get it wrong and you could find your PR strategy derailed with potential crises on your hands.
As you get your PR programme up and running, you will find yourself faced with not only picking the right spokespeople, but also preparing and training them, being their cheerleader, providing constructive feedback, and picking them up after difficult interviews.
The power dynamic is often shifted here. Senior executives can become vulnerable, nervous and unsure, looking to their PR team for guidance, reassurance and support - this can be challenging to navigate.
In this article, we will share our top tips for striking the right balance and getting your spokespeople media-ready.
1. Pick the right spokespeople
CEOs are obvious picks as spokespeople, and they will likely be your primary spokesperson, particularly in the very early startup stages.
However, for a few crucial reasons, it’s valuable to have a bench of spokespeople you can draw on:
The CEO won’t always be available
It’s a good way to demonstrate strength in leadership
To avoid the ‘cult of personality’ perception - businesses that place too much emphasis on one spokesperson have their reputation tied to that individual
To become an expert in different areas
When you come to broaden your pool of spokespeople, think about the topics you're prioritising within your PR strategy. With these topics mapped out, you can make a short-list of relevant spokespeople.
Go through the following checklist to narrow this down and identify individuals with the skills and attributes to make them great spokespeople:
Strong communication skills - the ability to deliver key messages and adapt to different audiences.
Authenticity - they need to believe in the business and the messages you want them to deliver, and be able to convey this in a genuine manner.
Able to remain calm under pressure - journalists can, and often will, throw in curve balls during interviews. They need to be able to handle this.
Authority - they need to have the relevant experience and expertise on the topic, as well as a degree of seniority.
Relatable - your spokespeople need to come across as humans who understand their audience, using simple and clear language and breaking down complex issues.
Social media presence - while not imperative, you may want a spokesperson who is already an authority or influencer in their area of expertise.
Most importantly, and in addition to having a level of capability in these areas, they need to be willing to be a spokesperson. Trying to force someone to be a spokesperson if they don’t want to won’t work. You might have to be a little creative in identifying someone who could step into their shoes.
2. Adapt your key messages for your spokespeople
Ok, so you’ve picked your spokespeople. Now you need to work out what they are going to say. Your overarching key messages will be your starting point (if you don’t have these yet, take a look at our guidance on creating them, here).
You will need to build on your overarching messages to cover the topics each of your spokespeople will talk about. Creating a message house is a nice, visual, way to do this.
Presenting each of your spokespeople with a bespoke message house will help them to understand the messages you want them to deliver, and provide them with the key data to back up their points.
Working with your spokespeople to refine and perfect their message house will allow them to feel ownership of what they are saying and ensure you have a set of messages they are comfortable delivering.
3. Preparation, preparation, preparation
As with everything in life, preparation is key! Being a spokesperson is daunting, and if you haven’t done it before, it’s nerve inducing and something that needs to be practised.
Start preparing your spokespeople before you have any media opportunities on the cards (beginning by attributing quotes to them in press releases can help them get used to seeing their names in the press). This allows them to familiarise themselves with the messages and practice their delivery pressure-free.
Here are a few steps you can follow to properly prepare your spokespeople:
Make sure they view their message house as guidance and not a script. The messages should be delivered within the context of the conversation and come across naturally.
Know the audience. Know who listens to the programme or reads the publications. If the programme or media outlet is B2B focused or aimed at your peers then the messages will be different to talking to consumers.
Make sure you understand the journalist’s agenda. What is the story they are looking to get? Look at your messages from the journalist’s point of view, and ask yourself whether they satisfy their need for a newsworthy story. Will they make the journalist say: “So what?”.
One phrase that journalists and presenters often say is they want to give their audiences ‘news they can use’ – so worth having that in mind.
Briefing on difficult topics - let your spokesperson know about the topics you don’t want to cover and how they should answer difficult questions. For example, fintechs are often asked about funding rounds and profitability. Make sure you give your spokesperson a number of ways to answer these questions to avoid disclosing any sensitive information.
For example, you will often hear spokespeople deflect from giving a personal viewpoint by using third party stats or details. Or ‘bridge’ to something you do want to talk about “That is a really interesting point, but I think it is key to also remember x..”
Other 'deflection techniques' can be to make it into a question or query eg. “Yes if will be interesting to see what your listeners make of xxx “
Media training - this can either be done in-house, or by an external consultant/agency. The trainer should ask the spokesperson questions they will likely face in a media interview, as well as throwing in some curveballs to test them under pressure, including the techniques mentioned above.
Mock interviews - hold a mock interview with your spokesperson just before they go into the real interview. Do this in the format that the interview will take place in to make it as realistic as possible (ie. over the phone, face to face etc).
Practising for interviews can be uncomfortable for spokespeople, but by starting the preparation phase early on, they will have time to reflect on their performance and continue rehearsing.
When your spokesperson has undertaken an interview with a journalist, make sure you have a session with them to debrief.
This should be a two-way conversation. Find out from them how they found the interview, what they liked, what they didn’t, whether they felt well prepared, what would make them feel better prepared in the future etc.
You should also take this time to give your feedback on the interview - highlight the answers they gave well and the areas for improvement next time. You could re-rehearse messages they struggled to get across to help them to feel more comfortable.
If you feel a spokesperson performed poorly in an initial interview or if they disliked the experience, then you may need to look at how you use them in the future. It might be that you use them for written opportunities more than live interviews, or that you prioritise other spokespeople until they have undertaken more training etc. This will help to ensure their confidence isn’t damaged and they don’t cause damage to the business’s reputation.