The role of a modern-day spokesperson
Determining who takes the role is an important consideration
Having someone speak on behalf of you or your organization is a huge responsibility – and one that should not be taken lightly.
Statements on company earnings or hirings/firings can affect stock prices. Statements in reference to an investigation can affect credibility and sales. Statements that are rash and sometimes false can be damaging. And, a lack of a statement can be detrimental and can create a negative perception.
Right now, we are witnessing Apple tread into challenging waters regarding iPhone security. On one hand, one can argue that providing security access to the iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino terrorists may help with the investigation. On the other hand, if access is provided in this case, then where is the line drawn and what happens if the method of gaining access gets out?
In this case and from a spokesperson issue, Apple is using its CEO as the voice for the company. Regardless of where you fall on the issue, it’s the right move to have him speak and not the company attorney or spokesperson.
Now, on to the presidential campaign. We know comments and allegations are thrown about constantly and spread like wildfire across social media. But sometimes the lines are crossed, which was the case with Ted Cruz’ spokesperson, when he sent out false information in a video regarding Marco Rubio making it sound like he was mocking the Bible.
Even though it was quickly retracted and an apology was issued, this action cost spokesperson Rick Tyler his job, tainted his reputation, and put the campaign into a defensive mode at a critical time in the primary campaign.
A spokesperson’s role is to provide factual information on an as-needed or requested basis. It is perfectly acceptable to respond to a question with, “I don’t know the answer yet, but will find out and get back to you” or “that’s a personnel question and I cannot respond.”
But there are two responses that should be avoided at all costs. First, a straight “no comment” can be perceived as an admission to something or as if someone is hiding something. Second, avoiding the call or e-mail and having a reporter say that the company spokesperson “did not respond to numerous requests” has the same effect.
Determining who the company spokesperson should be is an important consideration. When the issue at hand is significant or personal (a death or accident), have the organizational leader personally make the statement.
Sincerity is key in these cases. This can be done directly or through a spokesperson. Avoid having the attorney be the spokesperson unless she/he is required to walk through a complex issue with legal or contractual components.
A trained staff person is appropriate in most other cases. In addition, many organizations hire firms like ours to provide communications support. In this role, we provide advice and help craft and even sometimes deliver statements on an organization’s behalf. And part of this advice is to determine who should speak and when.
Last, make sure that someone in your organization has this responsibility or manages it if it is outsourced. And make sure they understand the role. Words of advice to the person in this role: when you get a request to comment, take your time to respond (within reason). Listen to the question. If it’s a simple matter, handle it expeditiously. If it is more complex, tell the reporter you’ll need to get back to them and ask about the deadline.
Responding in these ways will allow for a more thoughtful answer and will help build or maintain credibility with the media. Avoiding the call or responding with no comment will have the opposite effect.
Matt Cookson, executive director of the NH High Tech Council, is founder and president of Cookson Strategic Communications in Manchester.