When you’re about to be interviewed by the media in the midst of a reputation crisis, it’s very important to make sure you have trained spokespeople ready to give the best possible impression of your company. Your company’s reputation depends greatly on what you say and how you say it. In this era of digitalisation and transparency, your words will be immortalised online forever.
Effective spokesperson training will allow the company to showcase its vision, mission and values. It will help to make a positive case for the company, even in adverse situations. It’s not only a question of choosing very carefully what you’re going to say, it’s also about dominating the stage and steering the conversation. We’ve got a few tips on how to be a good spokesperson in a reputation crisis.
Communication in a reputation crisis requires a comprehensive approach
A few days ago, I was delivering a spokesperson training session to a client who was about to be interviewed by the media about a potentially serious reputation issue. The budding spokesperson was proper and polite. He answered the journalist’s questions and made the company’s case adeptly, but something was off. He wasn’t exactly robot-like, but he lacked credibility.
When we watched the video of the interview back, he noticed his lack of empathy and unease. He was so worried about saying the right thing that he wasn’t aware that he was being steered by the interviewer rather than taking control of the interview himself.
Why do we act like that when someone asks us a question?
Because we tend to answer using the same words that they’ve used.
To give a mundane example, when you’re learning a language (your mother tongue or a second language), you tend to use the same words in your answers as you heard in the question. It’s a way of avoiding mistakes. You can be sure that you’ve answered the question correctly. And you probably have, if you’re a diligent student.
The problem is that this approach, which is basic good manners (answering what you’re asked) as well as being useful for learning a language, is not at all appropriate for a crisis spokesperson.
A crisis spokesperson isn’t a student in class. Their aim isn’t to answer everything they’re asked but to lead the conversation, choosing the topics to be discussed. This is all the more true in a reputation crisis.
The first thing to bear in mind is your stance or how you position yourself.
Steering an interview in a reputation crisis. To be a good spokesperson
I always tell my clients something that everyone understands: the journalist asks what they want to ask and you answer what you want to answer.
But be careful. I don’t mean you should be rude or let questions go unanswered. A good crisis spokesperson replies to all the questions asked truthfully, without hesitation. Of course, they should be polite and self-assured. But that’s not at all the same thing as following the script set out by the journalist as if it were an exam. Because the spokesperson should be the one writing the script. You must establish your company’s narrative yourself rather than allowing a third party to do it, regardless of the questions the journalist has written up at home.
In other words, a good crisis spokesperson appears in the media to defend their company’s reputation and their mission is to steer the conversation and set the pace.
How many times have people complained that the media have put words in their mouth that they haven’t said? How often do they lament ‘I didn’t mean that’ or ‘I didn’t say that’? We’re hostages to our words. And if you look back at an interview, you’ll notice that an honest journalist (which most are) will always publish what’s been said in the exact words it was said in. How you ended up saying those words is another matter. And claiming your words have been taken out of context is no excuse either.
There’s no such thing as an innocent word. Just because the journalist opts to use certain words to make their case in their questions doesn’t mean that you have to use the same words in your answers.
So how can we get through an interview and live to tell the tale? Practice, practice and more practice.
A crisis spokesperson must be the predator, not the prey
During the session I mentioned earlier, I made the following analogy to my client: if you think of the interview as a hunt, you have to make sure you catch the tiger rather than becoming its prey. You have to be the tiger.
Once you’ve made the wise decision to speak up and explain your version of events, which is always better than remaining silent, you must take the initiative.
A good crisis spokesperson faced with a reputation crisis isn’t there to give the journalist a scoop, nor are they a martyr sacrificing themselves to save the company’s reputation, no matter how serious the crisis is. Instead, a good crisis spokesperson will train to ensure that they can put forward convincing arguments and defend the company’s values by being honest, assertive, truthful and transparent.