Selecting the Right Spokesperson for Crises

Adm. Paul Zukunft, federal on-scene coordinator for the BP Gulf spill, to my right and Steve Lehmann, NOAA scientist, to my left as we wrap up a media overflight.

To my right, Adm. Paul Zukunft, federal on-scene coordinator for the BP Gulf spill; and to my left, Steve Lehmann, NOAA scientist. We had just completed an overflight of the spill with 14 members of the media on board.

In times of crisis, the top communication objectives are typically to provide information to the public that will help them stay safe, that will tell them how they can help your organization to help them, to reassure and to instill confidence.

All communication strategies and tactics, therefore, need to be developed with these objectives in mind. This includes what, where, when and how you communicate … and, naturally, it includes who’s doing the communicating.

One of the more short-sighted mistakes I see made during crises is communication professionals not giving enough thought to who’s best suited to speak on behalf of the organization, agency or operation effort.

In crisis situations, in particular, a popular school of thought among practitioners is to put the boss or most senior official out in front as a sign of how seriously the crisis is being taken. And while that’s something to consider, it’s only one consideration among many others when selecting the right spokesperson.

The truth is choosing the face of your organization during crisis shouldn’t be based on job description or position alone. While the big boss may be the smartest person you know (or not,) he or she may not be the best communicator or most comfortable in front of a camera or an angry town hall meeting.

No two situations are exactly alike but in crisis, I’ve found the following characteristics in an official spokesperson important. It’s pretty rare to find someone who fits each one, but I’ve seen it. The idea is to find someone who meets as many of these as possible. The more check marks, the better spokesperson they should make.

Here’s what I look for, in no particular order:

Someone with the 5,000- to 10,000-foot view of the situation or operation. Notice I didn’t say 40,000-foot view. They don’t need to be omnipotent in every detail of the incident but they should be experienced and informed enough to understand how the parts are moving together.

Someone who has the confidence of leadership. If he or she is not the boss, the boss should be comfortable with the person representing the operation. If it is the boss, then the boss should have the confidence of his or her boss, who may be shareholders, politicians in D.C. or board members. During the Deepwater Horizon disaster a mandate came down from D.C. that only two people could speak on behalf the operation: the guy in charge of capping the well and the guy in charge of cleaning up the mess. The latter was Thad Allen, a retired Coast Guard admiral who had earned the White House’s confidence over the years due to efforts during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Someone who is capable of speaking clearly and concisely. Often I find the higher you go up the chain and the more experienced the person is, the more they have to say and the more company-speak they use. Referring back to Deepwater Horizon, the latter spokesperson was Paul Zukunft, a walking recruiting poster for Coast Guard ship drivers (full disclosure: I have a man crush.) Around the same time he was given the job, I was assigned as his press officer. He was easily the smartest guy in the room and when he got behind the press briefing podium, he showed it. The problem was his answers were about 3-5 minutes long and he spoke like someone who’s only known Coast Guard speak since he was 18 (probably because he’d been in the Coast Guard since that age). Nevertheless, note I wrote someone who is “capable” of speaking clearly and concisely. One of my first conversations with him was about brevity and clarity and to his credit, he adjusted.

Someone whose appearance or mannerisms won’t be distracting. Shallow and hair splitting, perhaps, but it’s these types of things that separate the pros from the armchair communicators. Always remember the ultimate goal here is effective communication and the pros know that how a message is received is part what you say, part how you say it and part what you look like when you’re saying it. Anything that will distract from the message; a unibrow, a crooked mustache, a nervous smile or jazz hands, has to be factored in.

Someone who has media training. Caution: don’t mistake media interview experience with training. I have a lot of experience swinging at a golf ball but I still suck at golf. Likewise, having done 20 media interviews doesn’t mean they were any good. Often with senior leaders, in particular, they don’t always get objective feedback on their past efforts.

(First Meeting with Admiral Zukunft (Z) during BP Deepwater Horizon Response.)

Me: “Admiral how much media training have you had up ‘till now?”

Z: “Paul, I’ve been around the block and spent some time in front of a camera.”

Me: “Yes sir, understood. Have you had any formal training or taken any courses?”

Z: “The school of hard knocks, lieutenant.”

Me: “Yes sir. Did you have an opportunity to get feedback from your aides or input on areas you did well or, maybe, areas you could improve on?”

Z: (After quietly staring at me for an uncomfortably long period of time) “You know Paul, now that I think of it I get a lot of fan mail.”

And finally, Someone who is willing. This is one that can get overlooked. It’s human nature to do better when you’re doing something you want to do. At this point, if you’ve found someone who meets the lion-share of the criteria, willingness becomes less important. Time to get them motivated.

Once again, you may be hard pressed to find a spokesperson with all these characteristics but the more you can check off, the better.

P.S. – Last month Z was sworn in as the 25th Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. The vote of confidence from the Secretary and White House was, no doubt, earned during his adept handling of public affairs during Deepwater Horizon … coincidence?

… yeah, probably.

 Image taken by Wendee Nicole, blogger and freelancer writer. Originally published on Bohemian Adventures:

4 thoughts on “Selecting the Right Spokesperson for Crises

  1. I harp, nag, and repeat all the time the appearance/image piece ! So often ignored! I’m a jazz hands kind of gal in my personal life, but had to learn early on to keep them in check on camera! REALLY great tips all around.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this. All excellent guidance. I used to be a fire department PIO and had to report occasionally “live from the scene.” Really forced me to work on my expressive hands 🙂 and brevity. Still struggle with both. To spokespeople out there: take my advice, don’t copy what I do!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lol, Kathryn, I think most of us have had to overcome a few distractors … if we were naturals in front of the camera, we’d be behind an anchor desk, right? Thanks for reading and sharing!

      P.S. – I would have loved to be a PIO for a fire department.


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