When discussing the details of our service, clients often ask if I will be their “spokesperson” during an incident. While I enjoy the spokesperson role, for strategic reasons the answer is usually “no”.
Theoretically, anyone can be a spokesperson for any company, but it’s almost always better if that person is a company employee rather than someone from an outside agency. If the situation is serious enough to require a spokesperson, stakeholders (including the public) will want to hear directly from the company.
However, I do speak to journalists on behalf of clients all the time, but I do so as a “press officer” rather than as a “spokesperson”.
What’s the difference?
I personally respond to about 50 incidents a year (Navigate Response as a whole deals with many more) and of these about five become major international stories generating thousands of articles and yet, if you Google my name “Dustin Eno” you’ll find almost none of the cases that I’ve worked on – if I’d been a spokesperson you’d find them all.
A press officer will not be quoted by name or even as an individual. Instead, the report will read something like “the company confirmed that the sky was blue” or “a company representative told us that water is runny”.
Journalists are used to speaking to communications agencies to get information. Some journalists even prefer it as the process is clear – they’re talking to a communications expert and so they can be sure that arrangements like “on background” or “on the record” are mutually understood.
Most media enquiries can be, and should be, managed by a press officer; however, sometimes a company spokesperson is necessary, such as when it’s important to show sympathy for those impacted. Even if the spokesperson is speaking, there is still a central role for a press officer.
If one of my clients needs to provide an interview during a crisis, I will act as the press officer and take several steps:
- Identify the best journalist(s) for the spokesperson to speak to. Usually s/he will not have time to give an interview to everyone who’s calling.
- Provide the journalist with the facts and details of the situation – interviews are rarely the best way to accurately communicate details and doing so is a waste of the spokesperson’s time.
- Arrange the details of the interview including, time, location, format, subject matter, etc.
- Prepare the spokesperson for the interview including drafting talking points, practicing anticipated questions and coordinating details such as wardrobe and background.
On a busy case there will be many press officers working hard to deal with an endless flow of journalists and one spokesperson delivering just a few carefully selected interviews.
The press officer role and the spokesperson role are often confused – partly because most people never see a press officer and partly because some organisations combine the two roles into one.
Some years ago, when I was a Public Information Officer (PIO) for wildfire management in Canada, I was both the spokesperson and the press officer, and to some extent the community liaison officer as well, but while I filled all three roles, they were in fact three distinct jobs.
Except in rare cases (such as for reasons of location or language) an external agency shouldn’t act as a client’s spokesperson, but during a crisis they should almost always act as the clients press office and do most of the talking.
COO and Crisis Reponse Manager
T: +44 (0)20 3326 8467