A beginner’s guide for new communicators

First posted: April 2013 - an oldy but a goody!

A client just honored me by asking me to serve as their organization’s media spokesperson.  I also had a chance recently to interview about a dozen spokespersons for a client project, frankly with mixed results. The two situations caused me to think about spokesperson basics. If you’ve been tapped to be spokesperson for your organization, here are a few key tips for getting ready to shine in your new job.

  • Know your key messages. Good spokespersons don’t just passively answer reporters’ questions; they seek to actively drive those conversations to advance their company’s interests. Every interview is an opportunity to tell your company’s story. So new spokespersons must learn and internalize the company’s messages, and be prepared to work them into every interview. If you go into an interview without key messages in mind, you are failing yourself and your company.

Probably the toughest skills for a new spokesperson to learn are how to transition from the question you are asked in a way that satisfies the reporter – known as bridging – to deliver your key messages in an engaging, easy-to-digest way – aka sound bites.

  • Practice, practice, practice. For most people, bridging and speaking in sound bites are acquired skills. So is avoiding the deer-in-the-headlights moments every spokesperson dreads – an unexpected question at best, or by an ambush interview or a company crisis at worst. So you should regularly participate in media training to hone your skills and pare down your messages. And plan out what you want to communicate for any and all scenarios you can reasonably expect to face, so that you are ready when that day arrives.

Even experienced spokespersons never stop learning and training. I’ve been at it for more than 20 years, and I still brush up regularly. For example, I just finished reading Brad “Mr. Media Training” Phillips’ The Media Training Bible, and highly recommend his soup-to-nuts coverage of the topic.

  • Prepare. When a reporter contacts you, it is completely reasonable for you to: (1) ask the reporter to schedule an appointment to interview you (well within his/her deadline, of course!); and (2) ask for a list of questions, or at a minimum some specifics about the interview topic and the media outlet. (Phillips calls this “interviewing the interviewer”.) In both cases, your goal is to prepare for the interview. Credible reporters will typically respect that, and understand that they’ll get a better interview as a result. I literally sketch out my talking points on a notepad before every interview, and check them off as I deliver them. (I use a notepad rather than a computer because I don’t want to risk distraction.)

  • Be strategic. I’ve previously written that PR professionals are strategists, not order takers or followers. That’s true of spokespersons as well, even if you don’t work in the PR department. As I see it, one of the key responsibilities of any spokesperson is to help protect your company from bad news. Not by sweeping a situation under the rug or stonewalling about it, but by identifying a potential problem and encouraging company management to take steps to prevent or mitigate it in the first place. Smart senior management will value you more for it.

Your turn: From your experience, what would you add to this list of basic “musts” for new spokespersons?