Identifying the Right Spokesperson during a Complex Crisis

Communicating about complex scientific issues is difficult on a normal day, but add stress and it can be overwhelming. Communication changes when concern is rampant and emotions are high. Building trust and credibility requires speed and accuracy, simplicity and empathy. And, when you’re talking about complex issues, it requires technical knowledge, too.

On a normal day, expertise is king. The Center for Risk Communication estimates that expertise accounts for 80-85% of trust determination during times of low concern, while all other factors account for less than 20%. Add stress, though, and the equation changes. Competence and expertise account for only 15-20% of trust determination, while honesty, openness, caring and empathy and other factors are most influential in determining trust.

But, it’s not necessary to throw out the “techies” and go straight for the spokesperson or CEO. If a person with technical expertise can be adequately trained as a spokesperson in advance of a stressful situation, they could be the appropriate person to communicate with the media regarding a sensitive issue. During the crisis, though, is not the time to train a technical expert to serve as the company’s key spokesperson.

There are a few essential traits a subject matter expert must have to be an effective spokesperson:
1.    A healthy respect for news media deadlines: Whether all the answers are readily available or not, it is imperative the news media be fed information as soon as it’s available. Even if an organization is fortunate enough to have a dedicated communicator, it may be a full-time job handling the media and triaging questions. The subject matter expert must be available to answer the questions that are coming from the public and the fastest way to answer those questions is through the news media.

Speed and accuracy are not mutually exclusive. This is an area where the technical spokesperson can be a valuable asset. They know the information and can provide it quickly. You may be tempted to rely on that researcher or engineer with expertise that is highly regarded but with a reputation for not returning phone calls for days at a time. Heed that as a warning that the same is likely to happen—or even be amplified—during a stressful situation.

2.    An understanding of the elements that make news: It is important for any spokesperson to understand the perspective from which a reporter is coming to cover a story. The spokesperson should be prepared for questions surrounding the elements of news: timeliness, proximity, prominence, human interest, consequence and conflict. Take for example, a veterinarian acting as the key spokesperson during an animal disease outbreak. He or she may be prepared for all of the questions about how to protect other animals and prevent transmission to humans but may not realize a national news network just broke a story about an animal rights group blaming modern veterinary medicine for the crisis. If a professional communicator is on hand to select the spokesperson, it is imperative that all angles have been covered and that the technical person is aware of all the news elements surrounding their “piece” of the story.

A good indication of whether the person is aware of the elements of news is whether he or she regularly reads the newspaper or online headlines.

3.    A staff that can operate effectively with or without the person present: During a crisis, it takes every technical expert available to respond to the operational needs of the situation. For example, if all hands are required to get a national research system back online after a major power outage and backup failure, it is not a good time to pull away a technical expert from the operational fray. Responding to the media—and therefore the public—is, and should be, a lower priority for this person. Only redirect essential operational personnel to a spokesperson role when you are certain the remaining staff can handle the operations. Redirecting staff in the midst of a crisis will only complicate an already stressful situation.

4.    Discipline about his or her choice of words and the ability to paraphrase technical information: The midst of a cataclysmic event like an airplane crash is no time to delve into the finer points of turbine engine blade failure. People want to know the facts of the situation, they want to know you care and they want assurances that their air travel is safe. If a technical person can explain the situation to you in a sentence or two and hit the essence of the situation, then it is likely that they will be able to do the same with a camera in their face. On the contrary, if it is typical for you to leave such a conversation scratching your head, please choose a different spokesperson.

5.    A low level of confidence about their expertise as a spokesperson: It may seem counterintuitive to choose someone who is not a publicity magnet, but an ego can be a big obstacle to remove in the middle of a stressful situation. The best subject matter experts are confident in their abilities as a technical expert but question their abilities to go on the record. You have the ability to deconstruct their messages, reconstruct them and rebuild their confidence. With proper coaching, they will approach their interview with the appropriate level of assurance and will be on target with their messages during the interview, rather than droning on about irrelevant technical details. If you have confidence in the person’s ability to perform under pressure, don’t hesitate to use them. Just know that you must take the time to prepare them prior to any interview or interaction.
Crisis is the time to respond, not just react, so be sure to invest in spokesperson skill assessments and training during routine times. That way, regardless of your choice of a subject matter expert or a seasoned communicator, the choice will be as easy as dusting off your crisis communication plan.

This article was excerpted from the forthcoming PR News' 2009 Media Training Guidebook. It was written by Melanie Wilt, president of Wilt Public Relations, Inc. To order this or any PR News guidebook, visit