The Right Spokesperson is Key in a Crisis

For most organizations, having a crisis communications plan in place is a lot like having flood or fire insurance. You’re not sure when or even if you will ever need it, but knowing it’s there during a time of need can give you peace of mind, not to mention give you a leg up as you start to recover.

The best crisis plans have soup-to-nuts checklists that cover putting the necessary preparations in place before, during and after a crisis. It may present various scenarios (from building fires to computer hacking to an executive’s malfeasance), include sample news releases and media lists and cover step-by-step protocols at each phase of an unfolding crisis. And the best-prepared organizations will find the time for their crisis teams to practice by reenacting a crisis situation at least once a year.   After all, given the fast-breaking nature of the media these days – both traditional media and the Wild, Wild West that is social media – reacting to crises with a sure hand can make all the difference.

What many plans often overlook, however, is identifying the spokesperson that will serve as the organization’s face during a crisis. Many operate under the assumption that the company president will take the reins at a time when a calming and authoritative influence is called for. But not every leader is cut out for that role and putting an ill-at-ease executive in front of the glare of media can be counterproductive, making the situation worse instead of better. There also are occasions when the president or CEO is not available, or they even could be the reason for the crisis, making it inappropriate for them to serve in that capacity.

Identifying the Best Spokesperson

So when preparing a crisis plan, when it comes to determining who the organization’s spokesperson should be, consider the following factors.

  1. Gauge the crisis level. Not every crisis merits the involvement of your top leaders. While company executives will certainly contribute to – if not dictate – how you respond to a crisis, they may not always be needed on the front lines. For example, when a Kitchen Aid employee slipped up by tweeting an insensitive comment about President Obama’s grandmother on the company’s twitter feed, the company likely assessed how important it would be for the president of the company to get involved personally. What it ultimately decided is to respond through its regular spokesperson. She quickly deleted the offending post and tweeted an apology. The response was appropriate and generally well-received, and the potential damage to the brand was minimized.
  1. Determine the level of knowledge needed. You obviously need a spokesperson who knows what he or she is talking about. Don’t instinctively trot out the company president only to discover that they are not conversant with the specifics of the situation. Let’s say your organization was the victim of a computer hack. It might be more suitable for the head of IT to speak about how the hack happened and what steps were being taken to address it. Then again, if your head of IT is camera shy, you’ll need to ensure that the spokesperson you pick is well prepared.
  1. Assess whether the spokesperson accurately reflects your brand. The face that you put out in front of the media during a crisis should reflect what you want people to feel about your company and brand. You’ll need to consider intangible elements like likeability and believability. You want someone who conveys confidence and care, and if you don’t believe your CEO does so, then you need to have some hard conversations internally.
  1. Get your president’s buy off. You should identify potential spokespeople as part of your crisis plan, but you also need to get your leadership’s input on what he or she is thinking ahead of time. Are they assuming they will always take on this role? Would they be suitable? Don’t default to thinking that your head of communications will take the lead only to find out that the president has other ideas. Get consensus on this during the planning phase.
  1. Consider geography. If you have multiple offices or plants, you need to consider who the spokesperson would be at each one. If there is an incident at your Austin office, you will likely need to respond to local media on the scene, and breaking events will not give you the luxury to fly in a spokesperson from HQ. Determine who the best potential candidates are at each location, and then have conversations with them ahead of time to get their buy-in on assuming this role.

In short, the best candidate to represent your company in times of crisis should possess the right skills, the right position, and the right training (Read also: 4 Questions to ask when identifying an internal spokesperson). Whether you hire an outside PR firm (typically not a great idea, at least with respect to serving as an external spokesperson) or use an internal executive or manager, it’s important that she or he is knowledgeable about and can speak on behalf of your brand in such a way as to compel the audience to move in your favor. The best spokespeople tend to have the perfect combination of charisma and empathy, are well-spoken and will maintain their composure under pressure.

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Don’t put off selecting a spokesperson until a crisis occurs. Prepare today for what may happen tomorrow. There may be times when you may need to have more than one spokesperson, with each one playing a different role. Just make sure that your preparation includes defining their roles. Remember, the credibility and viability of your brand may well fall on the shoulders of how well your spokesperson responds at a moment of crisis. Choose wisely, train thoroughly and you’ll breathe easy.

Amanda Colocho

Amanda joined Hodges in 2015 after earning her undergraduate degree in mass communications and public relations from VCU. Since then, she’s been flexing her media relations, content strategy and social media muscles on accounts like Virginia Distillery Company, Motorcycle Law Group, Hilldrup, Kroger, Virginia Outdoors Foundation and Swedish Match’s Umgås Magazine.

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