Are your spokespeople prepared for the next crisis?

The best spokespeople are those armed with credibility, eloquence and empathy.
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By Casey Chua
Criss Response Manager

When a crisis befalls an organisation and reputations are at stake, organisations need to act quickly to minimise fallout and restore trust.

Shaping the crisis narrative in the early stages of the crisis is a top priority in most cases, but it is often a complex process where outcomes are hard to predict.

To achieve this, organisations need to share their side of the story with the media, customers and other key stakeholders. They can do so through an appointed spokesperson who serves as the de facto storyteller.

The spokesperson gives your organisation both a face and a voice, which helps build trust with your audience.

Appointing the right person for the spokesperson job

The best spokespeople are those armed with credibility, eloquence and empathy.

When selecting a spokesperson, these attributes will come under intense scrutiny. His or her grasp of the subject matter should never be in doubt, and they must be able to explain complex issues in a way the public can easily understand.

Being a spokesperson can be stressful as they may face difficult questions where no immediate answers are available. Potential candidates for the role must thrive under high pressure situations and remain calm and composed when the lights are on, and when the cameras are rolling.

Establish credibility from the get-go

Credibility is critical to the success of any crisis response. Organisations that appear to lack credibility will find it hard to build any semblance of trust with their audience, and their subsequent actions may face negativity or scepticism.

It follows that a spokesperson’s credibility must never be in doubt. The spokesperson must carry an air of authenticity and be clearly identifiable as a permanent staff member with expertise and gravitas. Red flags will be raised if a spokesperson is suspected to have been chosen hastily and parachuted into the role.

In general, organisations should refrain from appointing their legal counsel as spokesperson except in situations where litigation is central to the crisis at hand. CEOs should only step in as spokespeople for crises of a significant magnitude which requires their direct involvement. If not, that role can be delegated to another senior executive.

Never neglect the personal touch

Crises create negative emotions, and an organisation must be careful not to ignore or downplay these emotions. Affected stakeholders who are angry and frustrated are not just looking for solutions; they also want to be heard. Spokespeople need to recognise that emotional catharsis is a natural process as a crisis progresses, and they should strive to be as empathetic as possible when managing these negative emotions.

While tangible outcomes are important to the affected stakeholders, being heard is just as important if not more so. Spokespeople should not underestimate the importance of providing the listening ear and must never hide behind legalese when direct answers cannot be provided. Doing so will only alienate your stakeholders and escalate the negative emotions.

Train your spokespeople

Once spokespeople are chosen, they need to be trained to handle a wide range of interactions including media interviews and closed-door dialogue sessions with stakeholders.

The training will guide the spokespeople on the subtle differences between different media formats, how to handle difficult questions and how to use key messages to control the conversation.

With the use of extensive practice and simulated interviews, including on-camera sessions, spokespeople will learn how to appear calm and sincere and to balance assertiveness with the right amount of contrition if needed.

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