Eliminate the Cringe Factor: Create a Well-Rounded Spokesperson

If you have spent any amount of time pitching media and monitoring interviews, chances are you have been on the line when an interview has gone awry. You know the feeling when your spokesperson takes a hard left from the straight road ahead and ends up on a dirt path where the neat messaging bullets you painstakingly prepared and approved are thrown out the window. It’s the cringe moment when you throw your head in your hands and gasp until after a split second, you switch into high gear and find an appropriate moment to jump in and get the car back on track.

Suffice it to say that once your spokesperson talks, the comments are out there forever. But you can coach on the front and tail ends of an interview—and in between—so that your spokesperson continues to master his or her interview skills and stays on course.

It’s not just about the quote: While former House Speaker Newt Gingrich perfected the quote thanks to the regular use of quick, pithy statements, your client must remember that a successful interview is more than just a quote. If the end goal is to brand your spokesperson and company within a particular publication, they are going to have to grease the wheels with regular communication, even if it’s just providing background information.

If you find that reporters come to your client for regular background information without being quoted, you’ll need to find creative ways to morph the conversation into something that actually gets into print. For example, if a reporter comes to your spokesperson for perspective on regularly released national numbers—i.e., national housing starts—perhaps your client can create a customized, exclusive index compiled from internal marketing data that provides insight into how those numbers play out region-by-region. Regardless of whether your spokesperson can offer reports or surveys that add value to the interview, they should make sure to make every interview opportunity count.

Make the connection: Spokespeople are a wealth of knowledge and can maximize their expertise by bringing out their inner professor.  Professors are storytellers; the ones that taught you how muckrakers were pivotal in shaping social justice movements; and how simple lessons of supply and demand have been at the cornerstone of the most complex financial concepts driving today’s market. They are the ones that inspired and brought concepts full circle so that you understood the lesson of the day and passed your final exam. 

In our world, the best spokespeople are the ones who are storytellers and who can talk more than just about the deal of the day but explain what factors allowed the deal to come to fruition and how the deal will impact the rest of the industry. Spokespeople need to connect the dots so that reporters see a picture and understand a message.

Jonathan Silver, an investor in Washington, DC, drew from his past experiences as an adjunct professor of Entrepreneurship at the Business School at Georgetown University to speak to various audiences.  Teaching helped him perfect his ability to tailor his message and shape his discussions depending on the end audience and on a reporter’s knowledge of the topic. As a former government official and venture capitalist, Silver regularly spoke with media outlets the likes of Wall Street Journal, Inc., Washington Business Journal and Investor’s Business Daily

“Anytime you are standing up in front of 50 students talking about a subject, fielding questions and seeing which ways of communicating work and which don’t is definitely helpful,” says Silver.  He notes that talking with reporters and students is clearly different and adjusts his style according to his audience. With reporters, for example, he is much more careful and deliberate about the things he says and doesn’t say since what goes in print could have negative implications if misconstrued. But with either audience, he makes sure to communicate trends and concepts succinctly without getting “too far in the weeds,” at least without a thorough explanation.

“The goal is to make sure you have a message worth delivering, delivering it to the correct audience and delivering it in a way which their audience will understand,” he says. “I try to imagine that I’m talking with an interesting person seated next to at a dinner party. I keep the conversation at a level that remains interesting.”

Improve your spokesperson’s interview skills by helping them realize that every time they talk with people—e.g., a reporter, conference participants, investors, friends—they have an opportunity to educate. Education is not just about saying a snappy one-liner or dropping a statistic into a conversation; it’s about providing context that helps bring home a message.

Sonia Taylor is a Vice President with Allison & Partners (www.allisonpr.com), one of the nation’s fastest growing independent, mid-size communications firm with eight offices across the country. Allison & Partners provides public relations and public affairs services to companies and organizations across a variety of industries.