Stop spokespersons from sabotaging your campaign

Five spokesperson blunders and how to prevent

Some corporate spokespersons can supercharge a communications campaign by delivering energized storytelling with every interview or presentation. Others, for myriad reasons, are like a flat tire:  they slow your momentum, lose traction and make it difficult for a campaign to stay on the road. They seem to risk cringe worthy moments every time they get in front of a mic. A communications campaign is only as good as those who deliver it, but the good news is many underperforming spokespersons can be turned around. I hope you’ve made room in your budget in 2020 for focused training to help the spokespersons in your organization. Meantime, here are five classic blunders I’ve seen throughout my nearly 25-year career as well as my best advice for overcoming them:

  1. Long answers – the problem with long answers is they dilute the power of a spokesperson’s key message. A long answer relies on the reporter to find your key message among a bunch of fluff. If you are fortunate enough for the reporter to publish the long-winded response in its entirety, you still must depend on the reader or viewer to decipher your remarks, if they don’t get bored and jump to another article or channel first. The solution is to help your spokesperson understand that they aren’t seeking to download the entire story with all its details, they are simply trying to deliver a headline that influences the perception of the receiver. The best way to help a spokesperson understand this is by sharing video examples of other spokespersons they admire properly delivering a short, concise, 7-10 second answer. Then, through role playing and simulated, on-camera interviews, you can help the spokesperson improve this skill.
  1. Off message answers – when a spokesperson goes off message, at best, they miss a chance to communicate important brand attributes and positioning that could help distinguish you from a competitor. At worst, it could confuse your target audience and build misperceptions that send them fleeing to other brands. The key to helping a spokesperson avoid this is to explain the risk behind going off message and how it causes other corporate leaders and employees to lose confidence in the spokesperson’s leadership. Have them spend more time reviewing and rehearsing delivery of their key messages. Get them to master a few bridges that will help avoid distracting topics and stay on message. On one occasion, I created portable flash cards and an audio recording of the key messages the CEO could save on his phone. This made it easier to review them with headphones while traveling or any time the busy leader had a few extra minutes.  
  1. Repeating the interviewer’s negative phrasing – sometimes it’s tempting for a spokesperson to repeat a negatively phrased question followed by a strong denial. Unfortunately, if you do, it’s likely the same negative phrasing will be repeated in your quote. A better approach is to simply say no and transition to a key message. In some instances, the best approach may be to reformulate the question. This is done by removing the negative language from the question, which often contains incorrect assumptions, and rephrasing it in a way that allows you to answer it safely, and then transition quickly to a key message. For example, if a reporter asks you, “Why did you lie when asked about topic x?” then you could answer by saying, “If you are asking about topic x, the truth of the matter is…” No need to repeat the negative assumption.
  1. Fumbles his or her words –  One naturally assumes a spokesperson who fumbles words is nervous, ill-prepared or maybe even hiding something. Some people fumble their words more than others, especially in public speaking situations that can make them feel uneasy. Even so, all people can reduce fumbling through realistic interview or presentation simulations. Book a conference room, simulate the interview or presentation environment as closely as possible including lights, camera, microphone and a tough interviewer. Rehearse your spokesperson again and again. The more familiar they are with the key messages and the room set up, the more confident they will feel, and the less they will fumble.  Following the training make sure the next media interview the spokesperson does isn’t too tough. Then, work up to more difficult ones. It allows the spokesperson to build confidence and leave fumbling behind for good.
  1. Doesn’t recognize his or her own errors – we’ve all worked with leaders who are unaware of the interview mistakes they make. Some of the executives I have trained complained to me about reporters misquoting them and getting the story wrong. What they didn’t realize is their long answers, lack of key message inclusion, and off-message remarks contributed to the negative outcomes. The solution is two-fold: first, video record simulated interviews with the spokesperson and use playback to help them see where they are going wrong. At the same time, have a writer sit in on the interview and then draft up a headline and lead paragraph based on the spokesperson’s answers. Have the writer walk the spokesperson through their rationale for the draft. This should help the spokesperson understand the connection between their interview mistakes and what ends up in print or on the air. Commit the spokesperson to better preparation and more discipline in staying on message. Repeat recorded simulated interviews until needed improvement is achieved.

Don’t let another great communications campaign get sabotaged by a struggling spokesperson. Get them the help they need now and increase chances for your campaign’s success in 2020.

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