This is a post I’ve been writing for a while, and finishing up the night at the Washington State Democratic Convention on the eve of the death of someone as good a journalist as Tim Russert was, I thought I might just go ahead and post it.
So, for a long time I was the spokesperson for Microsoft during security response situations, either routine or crisis. This post isn’t really about the particulars about that. Nothing of the below really is meant to describe that time, it’s just meant to show what I learned from my own experience and watching others in similar roles in various venues both public and private.
In short, this is about how to be an effective spokesperson.
Not a good spokesperson, that requires a lot of things I would not presume to say I have or could pass on. I just mean how to effectively communicate what needs to be communicated to express transparency, as well as what needs to be fully understood that WONT be communicated so that you have the full context such that you won’t lie. Intentionally or otherwise.
First and foremost, dive into your beat reporters. Know them well. I dont mean their tone, I don’t mean what a PR agency report tells you about their tendencies. I mean know them as people. Do they have families? What’s important to them? And find this out from THEM. Talk to them, never be afraid to make the time to know them ahead, during, after the interview. I don’t mean waste their time of course, learn this over several encounters. But know it and truly internalize it. Then, be sure you share the same.
Never use that information as leverage, the point is that communications is never without human context. I think Tim Russert knew that very well, which is why anyone he ever covered today is talking about his family and his dad and his life in positive terms. The journalist is not your enemy, nor your friend. They are a human worthy of respect, and the understanding of the context they bring to the topic you are representing is crucial. Know that. Respect that. For any journalist I have spoken to officially to this day I can tell you the saliant facts about them in a positive and respectful manner. Even if I didn’t like their coverage, I can say what makes them a three dimensional person with character.
Crisis communications, in and of itself, is easy. Tell everything you know, and tell it yourself, first.
Such a simple rule. But often it becomes so caught up in "but if we did that we would get sued!" or "if we did that the terrorists would win!" or "if we did that [insert excuse]"
Regardless of the mechanics of the rule, the most important part about having a communications expert is to trust them. They have to know everything. Every decision. Every reason behind it.
I’ve been locked out, and seen others locked out, on the premise (bought into by the decision makers) that "we can’t tell the communications folks yet…they talk to the press!"
If you’re in that position as a spokesperson, immediately communicate that the person who has hired you has just expressed a "no confidence" vote in you. The worst case danger here is that the people who hired you are not interested in true PR and respect for journalists, they are interested in not being transparent (for whatever reason) and making you the mechanism for that lack of transparency. You have to point out to them that you’re the most trusted individual in the process, not the least. Otherwise, you have to eventually quit and your only recourse is a book. And then you just become a regretful whistleblower for profit.
Good communications people and spokespeople insist upon being in the room when the decisions are made that they will have to communicate. And they point out to their clients that they were hired to communicate effectively and with integrity when they might be presented with resistance.
Journalists will challenge you up to a point at the outset, but the Internet and speed of news cycles today means that you could possibly get away with a deception (intentional or not). But for only so long if the stakes are high enough, or the long tail of the topic is long enough.
Here are the warning signs to the fact you, independent of skill, cannot be an effective spokesperson: Crucial meetings on critical public topics you find out about later that didn’t involve you. Messaging you didn’t write and had no hand in creating suddenly appearing as "we need this communicated broadly ASAP", when you push back you are told "don’t worry, this is all lawyer approved, we didn’t want to involve you" or worse: "you are legally bound to say this and only this" when you were never in any discussion with a lawyer.
To be an effective spokesperson, never let anyone that you represent communications-wise cut you out. Period. There is no "letter of exoneration" where you can claim "hey they MADE me say this!" You’re either a communicator who trades on integrity to only communicate for people you trust, or you’re the sucker at the poker table, where you thought it was all fun and games until everyone else figured out you had a weak hand and some money.