The Dangers of Being a Crisis Spokesperson

 

Takeaway

  • A crisis spokesperson should be a thick-skinned person who will think before answering and stay with the story she’s trying to tell without getting distracted.
  • The ability to be on alert but remain calm is a talent required for a crisis spokesperson.
  • The combination of believability and credibility required for a crisis spokesperson is rare.

There’s no place to hide from the media today when a crisis happens. Even if your company doesn't want to talk to the press during a crisis, it must, or run the risk of having someone else tell your story. And the glamour with which Kerry Washington portrays the crisis-fixer Olivia Pope on ABC’s "Scandal" is decidedly missing from real-life crisis spokespeople.

This bleak news comes from Terry Hemeyer, who teaches in the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin and has years of experience as a crisis spokesperson and training others to represent their companies when things go very wrong. It’s serious business, he says. "How personally liable are you if you say things that are wrong? You might get dragged into court," he explains. "Or seriously criticized, like Susan Rice or Colin Powell."

Richard Ford had his crisis management skills tested with the mother of all crises — 9/11. Now retired, at the time he was the emergency response chief for America for Saudi Aramco Services. Since many of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudi nationals, and Aramco was the largest Saudi company doing business in the United States, the company needed a spokesperson to answer media questions about Saudis doing business in the U.S.

Ford dealt with death threats and upper managers who were "panicked and imploding from the stress." For many reasons, Ford felt he wasn’t the best spokesperson, so he looked within the company and found a female Saudi executive "with great poise" who had been schooled in the West to be the company's voice.

"Selecting a spokesperson has to be done with some care," Ford says. "People who are normally comfortable sometimes have a short fuse and get rattled" when they are pushed or pinned down by the media.

What’s needed, he says, is a thick-skinned person who will think before answering and stay with the story he’s trying to tell, without getting distracted by "the needling games the media wants to play."

The ability to be on alert but remain calm is a talent, says Ford. The combination of believability and credibility required is rare.   

While we’re waiting for next season to find out what Olivia Pope is up to on "Scandal," read on for tips from Ford and Hemeyer on how to choose a crisis spokesperson and what that person should and shouldn’t do.

Who Should Be the Spokesperson?

  • The spokesperson has to be someone who's "inside" the organization at the top level, one of the top people who advise and meet about the issue at hand, says Hemeyer. Ford disagrees that the spokesperson must be a top executive, but agrees that whoever the spokesperson is, she needs to be involved in and knowledgeable about the crisis response.
     
  • The executive who's heading the crisis response effort could be the spokesperson, says Ford, but only if he’s comfortable in that role and the choice is guided by upper management.

Who Should NOT Be the Spokesperson?

  • Not a PR person. The PR people may be up to their eyeballs in the crisis management effort, but the face of the company should not be a PR person.
     
  • Not the CEO. You want someone else to be spokesperson so that if someone says something wrong, the CEO can correct it, says Hemeyer. Ford agrees. "The president or CEO should be somewhat aloof from function of spokesperson," says Ford. "If something goes awry, even if you're good, the president or CEO loses credibility as a spokesperson and also within the company."

If you’re going to be a corporate spokesperson, here are some tips: 

  • Stick to your narrative. Media outlets have their own narratives, so train on how NOT to get taken in by the media narratives. Remember that you're not talking to the media, you're talking to the public through the media, says Hemeyer.
     
  • Never agree to talk to the media unless you're really prepared. Ford recommends that people talking face to face (not on camera) with media and with the community should find out how well the company is perceived to be handling the response, and then feed that information to the crisis response manager for use in preparing the spokesperson to face the media.
     
  • Treat the media with respect. If you can't tell them anything, you can always say, "I'm still getting the facts, so it's not appropriate to comment at this time." Says Ford: "If you're wrong, set things straight and be knowledgeable about it."
     
  • Always tell the truth. If you are thrust into the role of crisis spokesperson and repeating information you aren’t sure is true, simply say, "I am told that..."
     
  • Never miss a deadline. Set up press conferences regularly during the crisis. On the other hand, Hemeyer says, don’t waste time if there’s nothing to report. In the recent cases of the escape of kidnapped women and the Boston Marathon bombing, the cities of Cleveland and Boston both canceled press conferences because they didn't have all the information yet.
     
  • It’s a mistake for both you and the company to simply face the media with talking points you have not been involved in preparing. And, by the way, Olivia Pope would never do that.
 

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Faculty in this Article

Terry Hemeyer

Senior Lecturer, Department of Advertising College of Communications, University of Texas at Austin

Professor Terry Hemeyer is one of the few public relations executives that have attained C-suite status beyond typical communications functions....

About The Author

Renee Hopkins

Writer and Innochat Co-Founder, Innochat

Renee Hopkins was founding editor of Texas Enterprise. She writes extensively about innovation and...

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