COVID-19: How to become a spokesperson at a time of crisis

15 April 2020 | 6 min read | News
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

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There’s no doubt that media coverage can increase the profile of an organisation. In fact, a body of research has shown time and again that when the CEO or MD has a ‘presence’ in the public domain, stakeholder perception can be as much as ten-times higher than that of a similar organisations whose potential key spokespeople are relatively inactive in PR terms by comparison.

At a time of crisis, such as the pandemic being faced in the here and now, the need for organisational leaders to, well, lead and do so in a visible way has never been greater.

However, one cannot simply claim to be an authority on a pressing issue facing your industry and the customers (to use a catch-all term) your organisation serves; journalists won’t give you the time of day if they smell bulls**t. So, here’s how you can put yourself at the top of the list as an effective media spokesperson.

Be visible

To be attractive as a spokesperson, you’ll need to build your personal brand in-person and online. Journalists often look for people who are active in their community or industry sector, they want to know who they’re dealing with and whether they’ll have something interesting to say before they contact them.

So, make sure they can find you, whether it’s through regular blogs on the organisation’s website, LinkedIn pulse or on social media. Without this, they’re unlikely to come across you in their research or be aware of what you can offer.

Know your area of expertise

To be a spokesperson, you have to be a true- not a wannabe – expert in something and if you can become an expert in something that’s topical, which not many people can comment on, all the better.

Once you have this, it’s a case of keeping your eyes peeled for opportunities to contribute. If your job makes you a real subject of authority on a particular topic, there will be many opportunities to shine, which is why it’s always worth keeping up to date on the latest developments.

Real-world example from the last few weeks:

The CEO of one client we work with penned an article for one of the most read and respected tech publications. With operations in the UK, France and Germany as well as hubs in the USA, the CEO could see some of the major challenges that many organisations across multiple territories and sectors were facing when it comes to business continuity.

So, he penned an article that highlighted the risk that shelving key digital transformation projects could have both on the mid and long-term prospects of these organisations, and how deploying IT contractors could help business continuity efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Expect difficult questions

Journalists don’t want a corporate machine, they want someone who can give them a real and honest answer, helping them to get to the heart of the issue they’re investigating. If they’re good at their job, they’ll be thorough in their line of inquiry, and have an uncanny ability to scrutinise the story from every angle.

Therefore, to be an effective media spokesperson, you need to respect this, realising that your agenda might not be on their agenda. Plan for the worst and think about the difficult questions you might be asked before you’re interviewed. If you prepare, you’re less likely to be caught off guard.

As with every answer you give, take time to consider your position and don’t be afraid to offer an opinion. Media spokespeople who can offer a measured and considered viewpoint, backed up by evidence, are the ones who come across the best.

Build relationships

While there are hundreds of publications in the UK alone, in order to build your profile, you don’t need to target all of these. Instead, look for the places which are a natural fit – with journalists who are interested in and writing about the same things as you are. Once you have this, get to know these media outlets and how they work. Dip your toe in the water and you’ll soon find that every news desk works differently.

Understanding this, and adapting the way you communicate accordingly, will work wonders when you’re trying to get a response from people. Find the pain point, whether it’s the reporter who struggles to fill a monthly business page or the broadcast journalist who often needs a last-minute, urgent comment and offer your services.

Above all, show your human side and get to know people personally, it’s not just about who can scratch your back, it’s about how you can scratch theirs.

Always be available

News is a fast-paced business, and also incredibly unpredictable – never has this more apparent than right now. Therefore, the best media spokespeople are contactable. To get media coverage, you may need to be flexible, to be prepared to drop what you’re doing in order to provide a swift, insightful comment in the timeframe that’s needed.

When faced with a tight deadline, journalists will always go to the person who’s the most reliable. With that in mind, make sure you adhere to the following key rules:

  • React and respond to the journalist right now – not in an hour after you’ve had a brew or run your planned comments past a colleague for their input. Do this and the opportunity will be lost.
  • Don’t believe your own hype. We secured an interview with the BBC for a client some years ago and they requested that we ask the producer if “it would be OK to push the interview back to the following day?” The answer was of course “No”. Arrogance has no place in PR and said producers and journalists will never deal with that client again – irrespective of how supremely qualified they are as an expert in their field.


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