Spokesperson Management: More than you ever wanted to know
Updated: Aug 15
In my last blog on media relations I touched on spokespeople, but these little rascals deserve a whole post. This is a rather in-depth topic the way I do it, so let’s delay no further…
Define your spokespeople
First thing’s first. You need to make sure you’re clear on who is a spokesperson and who isn’t, and what the difference is. A spokesperson is permitted to speak on behalf of the company (aka they are an official company mouthpiece) to the public or media. This may be on matters specifically about the company, or to express the company’s point-of-view on relevant matters (for example, a fintech company’s POV on the current market).
I tend to tier spokespeople. The people I refer to as “official spokespeople” include some subset of your senior / C-suite executives – CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, CPO, as well as communications professionals in the company (your VP of comms or PR director, for example). These are the folks PR turns to frequently for media interviews and speaking engagements, and rely on to consistently and competently convey the company’s point of view. These spokespeople should be well-trained and kept up-to-date on anything that would require them to adjust their talking points.
Second tier is “subject matter experts” (SMEs). These folks speak to the media or general public on behalf of the company perhaps a few times a year on their specific subject matter area. They can provide a deeper perspective on a certain topic than your typical spokespeople. For example, if you release a new product, in addition to your CPO, you would rely on the manager of that product to take a few interviews or speak at your user conference about it. These SMEs do not need to be trained as deeply as spokespeople, but they do need to be prepped before their interview and have a basic understanding of PR do’s and don’ts.
Keep up-to-date lists of your spokespeople and SMEs so it’s easy to reach out to all of them when you have an important update to your messaging.
Create a Speakers Bureau
Sometimes employees who are not on these lists will be approached for speaking, marketing, or media opportunities. For example, a sales enablement leader is not a typical spokesperson at a company. However, they are often approached by their vendors to speak at conferences or podcasts, or provide customer testimonials. I find it is best to not hamper these activities. They are important to these employees, and deepen relationships with other companies.
The important thing that ALL your employees should know is to bring ANY public speaking opportunity to the comms team Speakers Bureau for review and approval. Speakers Bureau sounds fancy, but it can be as simple as a couple steps. First, create an intake form, such as a Google, Asana, or Airtable form, that requires the employee to list details of the engagement – host, audience, topics, date, etc. Someone from the comms team, typically a junior employee with a good head on their shoulders, can review this. They can flag anything problematic up the chain (for example, if you’re trying to sign a big deal with one company, you should probably avoid high-profile speaking opportunities with their competitors), but otherwise can approve most applications.
Then, instead of a whole speaker training, the PR employee can provide a one-pager to, or have a quick 1-1 with, the employee detailing some do’s and don’ts. At scale, this may turn into a monthly speakers’ training session. Do’s and don’ts include not revealing non-public information such as customer details, company financials, and the secret sauce of how they do their job. The last one can be tricky. Going back to that sales enablement person as an example. Let’s say they have some really cool processes that 3x the sales team’s efficiency. They may really want to share that accomplishment, but the last thing you want is for your competitors to know about those processes. So you have to work with the speaker to figure out how they can share their successes but not provide their whole playbook.
Develop and communicate policies
Once you know your spokespeople, you have to make sure EVERYONE in the company knows the rules — spokespeople and otherwise.
You want all employees to understand:
Only official spokespeople are permitted to speak publicly about the company
All employees – spokespeople AND non-spokespeople – should submit any public speaking or co-marketing opportunities to the comms team instead of immediately responding yes. This includes when co-marketing is on the table as part of a vendor negotiation before they sign the contract
If a journalist or analyst reaches out to you, instead of responding directly, forward it to the comms team for response
(VIPs such as your CEO may not use the Speakers Bureau form. This is fine. As long as they are sending everything over to the comms team by some manner, you can consider it a win.)
You can explain to employees that you typically do approve speaking or co-marketing opportunities, but that these processes exist to:
Protect the brand / voice of the company
Prevent misspeaking that could lead to disastrous consequences (hello SEC)
Make sure employees don’t waste their time – sometimes “interview” opportunities are actually thinly just veiled sales pitches; comms can see right through these
Communicate these policies in partnership with your compliance team to give it an extra oomph. Do it at All Hands at least once a year, and send quarterly written reminders.
Train your spokespeople
Now that you have your spokespeople, an intake process, and have told everyone your policies, it’s time to train your spokespeople. A few things to make sure you cover:
Journalist motivations and needs. This is a BIG topic, but in short, make sure they understand that the journalist is extremely busy, on a deadline, and needs a clear narrative from you so they can get to writing. If you can provide the journalist with what is the news, why is this news, how it connects to a bigger trend (ideally something they care about already), and back that all up with proof points, you’re golden.
Related, the spokesperson is here to get a message across and the journalist is here to publish a good story, and if the journalist can find some tension to make that story more interesting, all the better for them. The spokesperson can get ahead by introducing tension that is good, or at least neutral, for your company. Maybe it’s competitive, legacy vs. new, David vs. Goliath, and so forth.
How do you talk about your company in your own words. This sounds basic, but you wouldn’t believe how often people stumble or ramble when asked a simple, “Tell me about [company]” or “How do you think about your role at [company].” Make sure they are very comfortable and practiced with tight talking points to these common gimme questions.
Clear understanding of “on the record” (you can print this with my name), “on background” (you can print this, but don’t use my name/title; expect something like “a source close to the company”), and “off the record” (don’t print this at all, or sometimes / more realistically, you might print this as a general concept, but do not ever associate it with me or my company). The spokesperson should know that everything is assumed to be on the record, and that going on background or off the record should be discussed before, not after, they make a statement. Also these norms can vary a bit by region and by journalist, so if you really don’t want something printed, just don't say it.
Don’t make “unreasonable” requests. Many legit journalists will find the following requests unreasonable or even insulting:
To see the questions before the interview, although you should have some general sense of topics
No recording – many journalists rely heavily on recording to write their stories
To see the story before it runs, although you can remind them you’re happy to help if they need to fact check or follow-up
Practice answers to the tricky Q/A they might face. Stock fluctuations, competitors, culture wars -- these might not be germane to the topic at hand, but a reporter could ask about any of them.
There may be some things about your business that you just can't talk about publicly. So your spokesperson should know when (and how) to close off a line of questioning. A journalist might ask a question repeatedly in different ways if they sense you’re evading the answer. Give the spokesperson specific phrases so they can be empowered to shut it down: “I don’t have that answer right now; we’ll come back to you on this by tomorrow," “We can’t discuss that quite yet / during quiet period, but I’m sure [PR person] can reach out the second we’re able,” "I'm just not the best person to answer this, it's just not my area of expertise. Let me take it back to our team and try to get you more information," or, worst case, “I’ve pretty much said all I’m going to say on this topic, I’m more interested in discussing [bridge to better topic]”... and so forth.
Get comfortable with silence. Sometimes a journalist will let the conversation lull for a few seconds either because they’re thinking of their next question or because, honestly, people say the most thoughtless stuff when they are just trying to fill silence. Say what you want to say, shut up, and wait for your next question.
Importantly, spokesperson training should include a live practice. Quiz your spokesperson until they’re solid on the expected questions. Their answers should be punchy, tight, speak to their core audiences, and sound like a human being in the process. “We looked around and saw a huge gap in the baby food market. Parents could not find actually affordable, nutritious food for their children. We set out to create snacks and pouches for babies that are low in sugar, cost under $2 per pouch, and the babies will actually eat instead of throwing across the room. And, unsurprisingly, we’re seeing tremendous demand from all types of parents.” Good, moving on.
Finish your practice by channeling your inner sadist and asking them a couple of the worst possible questions you can think of. “I see the French government has put out a warning on your products. Can you comment on that?” “You’ve just laid off 10% of your workforce, and yet you just did a stock buyback. How do you weigh shareholder value vs. your employees’ ability to survive in this economy?” “See, you’re not really answering my question, let me ask it another way.” Yes, you’re practicing the answers, but you’re also a) giving them the worst case scenario so they will be pleasantly surprised by how easy the real thing is (and assure them it almost certainly will be so they don’t get the yips), and b) helping them rehearse the rather unnatural-feeling blocking and bridging.
Only if the executive is game for it, video tape their mock interview and do a playback with them. They may notice their own strange little habits and issues on re-watch before you even have to tell them.
The week of their interview, reconnect with your spokesperson in-person or in writing to provide them:
The facts of the announcement in-and-out, including the top three messages they should get into the journalist’s head before they part ways. Again, “Tell me about [announcement]” sounds like a simple question, but make sure the spokesperson actually knows how to answer it without rambling.
Reasonable takes on the topics du jour. Make sure you look at the week’s major events. Your spokesperson could be asked their opinion on everything from border control to whatever nonsense some celebrity has gotten themself into. Make sure they are aware of the top few events of the past week and feel prepared with mildly intelligent or reasonable takes. (FYI, in my opinion, reasonable takes include admitting they’re not an expert on a specific left-field topic – they don’t have to know everything.)
Answers to new tricky Q/A they might face. You’ve probably practiced the long-term tricky questions, but consider if there are any au courant tricky topics. Is your stock down, did an executive just depart, any pending lawsuits, and so forth.
For a high-profile interview, ideally you can practice live with the spokesperson the week of. If your spokesperson is going to do broadcast, I'd recommend bringing in a trainer specifically for that.
In the interview, your role as a PR pro should be fairly minimal. You can make intros, tell the journalist you’re glad to see them, you know, niceties. Then you’re going to shut up. You can even turn off your camera if you’re on Zoom so it feels like a more intimate convo with your spokesperson. While your mouth is still, you should be all ears. Listen carefully and take notes on everything your spokesperson says. Make special note of any issues or missed opportunities so you can coach them for next time (and anything they did particularly well so you can gas them up). Also make special note of any follow-up info and so forth that the spokesperson offers to send the journalist.
I tend to jump into the convo only on a few occasions:
The spokesperson literally asks for help recalling a fact. “Oh, Priscilla, what’s our latest headcount number?” I jump in and tell them.
The spokesperson has not understood the point of the question and is missing an opportunity to give the journalist key information. This can happen especially with spokespeople interviewing in their second language – a fast aside, sarcasm, and so forth can slip by them – so I’ll jump in and say, “That’s a great point, but I don’t want to miss one other part of the question, [paraphrase it].” I only do this when I’m quite sure that the spokesperson accidentally, and not purposefully, missed part of a journalist’s question.
The spokesperson has answered a question to their full extent but they’re really struggling to get the journalist to move on. In this case, I might pull the role of the heavy and say something like, “We just can’t get into launch dates at this time. It’s too early. But I can send you more specifics as we get further along in the year.”
Can you just skip the interview and let the spokesperson do their thing? Well, that depends. An early-stage company with a media-savvy spokesperson and a tier three publication talking about the company’s bread and butter? Sure. If that makes everyone more comfortable, maybe PR could sit this one out. A later-stage or public company spokesperson talking to a business reporter? No, sorry. At some point it’s too risky to not have full, real-time visibility into what your spokespeople are saying to the media. It’s your job and your compliance team is counting on that.
All in all, spokesperson management starts way before the interview. Make sure you know who is and isn’t a spokesperson, and that ALL your employees understand what is expected of them when they get the opportunity to speak outside the company. Training with live practice is essential, as is making sure they understand the fundamentals of what they and the journalist are doing in the interview.
Some part of most PR pros probably wishes that we could just have programmable robots as spokespeople, communicating only in 100% approved corporate messaging. But honestly, the magic comes when the spokesperson comes up with a unique moment of genius rooted in their professional and personal experience and genuinely connects with a journalist. You can’t write that for them. But if you give them the tools and the practice, hopefully they’ll find it.