During a crisis, it’s is critical to tell your story first before anyone else does. If you don’t take the initiative to communicate honestly about the issue as soon as possible, someone else will, and it’s very likely that they will have their facts wrong or that their take will be biased—and not in your favor.
Because of this, one of the most important decisions to make when a crisis hits and you decide to speak to the press is who will be your spokesperson.
Initially, as your management and legal team (or HR or operations teams, for example) assemble and work to gather the facts, it is perfectly appropriate to say in the initial hours that, “As a company, we are still investigating the matter and working to gather all the facts. We will provide a statement as soon as we have more information.” Try to commit to a timeframe, if possible. Therefore, it may well be your public relations person who issues that preliminary statement to media. But after that initial window of time, you should be prepared to communicate more complete information -- both to the media that contacted you initially, as well as to any additional reporters making inquiries or that routinely cover your company.
It is at that time that you need your delegated spokesperson accessible and ready to speak to the press. Here are some things to consider When selecting your spokesperson:
It doesn’t need to be your CEO. In fact, depending on the nature and scope of the crisis, it most often won’t be. Perhaps it is the VP of HR, your chief operating officer, plant manager or head of IT. The spokesperson should be knowledgeable about the issues or problem, as well as the potential impact on any legal or regulatory action.
Should your advisors speak for you? In some cases, particularly where litigation or regulatory action is currently or potentially involved, you may want your legal counsel to speak to the press. While you never want to be perceived as “lawyering up,” your counsel will have a good sense of what you can and cannot say if any legal proceedings are in progress or expected to follow.
Should you have your PR person speak for you? I recommend that your PR person not act as your spokesperson. You never want to have them be perceived as “spinning” your story. More importantly, it is crucial during a time of crisis that your company executive/spokesperson be willing to talk directly to the media in a show of willingness to “own” the mistake or the bad news and take responsibility. For maximum credibility, have an “insider,” e.g. someone from within the company serve as your spokesperson.
Your public relations counsel should, however, coordinate all media events, inquiries, interviews and statements, develop your key messages throughout the crisis, create a comprehensive communications plan and advise on communications strategies for all of your constituencies.
Conduct media training as soon as possible. During the initial hours while your PR person is fielding media inquiries, it is a good idea for your spokesperson to undergo some media training if at all possible. This will be key to helping them nail your key messages, as well as provide them with the tools to handle difficult questions and feel more comfortable in a variety of interview scenarios. Better yet, media train a few of your top executives before any crisis hits so they are well-prepared to speak to the press as early in the process as is possible.
What makes a good spokesperson? Obviously they should be well-spoken and present themselves well visually. They should look professional and be comfortable in front of a camera or with a microphone in their face. Media training can go a long way toward helping them achieve that comfort level. They should also be seen as a trustworthy source among your key audiences, including the media, which speaks directly to their credibility. This will ultimately impact how your message is received.
Make sure no one besides your designated spokesperson(s) speaks to the media or any of your other audiences. Issue a company memorandum or hold a staff meeting to outline the process and apprise your employees of those all-important guidelines. It will be key to sharing consistent messages and information, while limiting the chance for misinformation to get out there.
Is your company ready to act in a crisis? Do you know how to handle a crisis from a communications standpoint? Read more here. If you want help in formulating your crisis communications plan, media training, or handling your next crisis, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.