Every day a new drama unfolds in the media leaving us dismayed and disappointed. At the highest levels, we see behaviors and commentary from PR spokespersons that make us reluctant to turn on the television, open a newspaper or log on to social media. It is as if public relations has become a combination of contact sport and reality television.
A Gallup poll last year indicated Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to its lowest level in its polling history. Only 32 percent said they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from the previous year. What would those statistics be this year?
These startling statistics underscore the value of having credible public relations spokespeople to get our stories out and represent our interests to the media and our stakeholders.
As those in the public relations profession continue to stand back and try to make sense of all this drama, we realize there is no sense making here. But, there is an important question to be raised from what we are seeing in our midst. Beyond technical ability, what attributes make a public relations spokesperson credible? Think about it this way…if you were to hire a spokesperson for your organization, what are the traits you would want them to have? What capabilities do they need to represent your leaders, your organization, and your brand?
Here are some of the traits experience and research indicate that are especially important for credible spokespeople:
Respect. Have it, show it, and engender it. While this might seem like a fundamental principle, it seems it needs to be said. Disrespect is at epidemic levels. Deborah Norville wrote eight years ago in her book, “The Power of Respect,” that respect is a forgotten element of success. And nearly eight in ten Americans stated eight years ago that a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious national problem. Are we, as a profession, contributing to that decline?
As spokespeople, we have the power to not only reinforce the values we hold as individuals but also those of the organizations we represent. Importantly, the best spokespeople respect the media and see them as a critical conduit to get their message out. Regardless, respecting the questioner is fundamental, even if we don’t like the question. It is vital to maintain a healthy reciprocal relationship. In Spike Lee’s film Inside Man, the Dalton Russell character played brilliantly by Clive Owen states, “Respect is the ultimate currency.” We need to have it in our wallet.
Calm and Emotionally in Control. We know remaining calm and emotionally in control leads to top performance. Notably, 90 percent of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions during times of stress. But we also know that by remaining calm, we can engender calmness in others. We see this during a crisis. The best results are when spokespeople can respond to inquiries during highly stressful times with a calmness that reassures our stakeholders we have things under control.
Elegant. When we think of the word elegant we conjure many images, right? But we often don’t apply that to spokespeople. We should. As pointed out in the article, “Elegance by Design: The Art of Less” (May, 2009), author Matthew May provides some valuable concepts we can apply for spokespeople. “Elegance,” May says, “requires simplicity.” However, not everything simple is elegant. It is more than that. Being elegant is “emotionally engaging, profoundly intelligent, and artfully crafted to be two things at once: simple and powerful.”
Spokespeople should not add to confusion. Some organizations like to think they are too complex to be understood. They are so esoteric only the more sophisticated and educated can understand who they are and what they are about. We have learned valuable lessons from the companies like Apple and Amazon, by making the customer experience elegant, our brand will be embraced.
Agility. Questions can come out of nowhere. You want someone who can ably and comfortably field questions and be unflappable. A great spokesperson is able to handle any question at any time with finesse and gravitas. Someone who is able to think quickly on their feet and come back with a thoughtful response reaffirms they are in command. “The Best Leaders Balance Agility and Consistency” (Coleman, 2017) makes the case that in order for leaders to succeed they must be agile enough to adapt to a changing environment, that consistency alone will not get them to where they need to go. Darwin certainly understood this when he professed it was not the most intelligent or strongest species that survive, but the ones who were the most adaptive to change.
Knowledgeable and Prepared. As spokespeople, we need to know as much as we can about what we are talking about. Basic, right? By being knowledgeable we establish a demeanor of authority and confidence. Whether you like it or not, there is an expectation that while you may not be an expert in the area you are talking about, you better be very prepared. In the Harvard Business Review article, “The Making of an Expert” (Ericsson, Prietula and Cokely, 2007) there is a concept described as ‘deliberate practice.’ Research indicates by working at things you cannot do you are able to eventually become an expert at them. People become adept as a spokesperson by working at it. Spokespeople must not only become experts in being a spokesperson, they must then work at understanding and becoming conversant in areas they will be questioned about.
The article, “Successful Companies Don’t Adapt They Prepare” (Satell, 2016) provides the perspective that in order for successful companies to shape the future, agility alone is not enough. It takes years of preparation. For spokespeople, preparation is fundamental. They have to know what they don’t know and say so. John Kotter’s affirms this in, “The Power of Saying ‘I Don’t Know’” (Kotter, 2016) and the importance of admitting when you don’t know something. Saying you don’t know something is considered a crucial element of both confidence and leadership.
Honest and Trustworthy. Honesty builds trust…that is fundamental. However, trust is on the decline. Studies indicate while Baby Boomers are the most trusting (40 percent), Millennials trust the least (19 percent) according to Pew Center research. Moreover, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer indicated trust is in global crisis. Overall, the general population’s trust in four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly.
For Americans, however, honesty is on the rise. According to a 2014 survey for The National Honesty Index, when faced with a choice to be honest or not, 95 percent of Americans were honest, an increase from 92 percent the year before. So it seems while we are already viewing ourselves as overwhelmingly honest, we are becoming less and less trusting of others. What does this mean for spokespeople? They need to be vigilant about being honest in order to build and maintain trust. They need to express to the media the truth and take ownership no matter how difficult and state things as they really are. Arthur Page considered by many to be the “father of corporate public relations,” created what has become known as ‘The Seven Page Principles.’ The first of those seven principles is: “Tell the truth. Let the public know what’s happening and provide an accurate picture of the company’s character, ideals and practices.”
Does the media get stories wrong? Of course. But usually not all wrong. By having spokespeople embody these traits, we will improve the chances of the media getting our story right. And next time there is a story to advance, the media likely will be more willing to listen to it. Most importantly, our spokespeople represent our workplaces and organizational affiliations…whether they are a business, a non-profit, an educational institution, a religious group, or a government agency. And, with that they are an extension of each of us.
Jacqueline Strayer is a faculty member in graduate programs at NYU and Columbia and is a principal with the Sound Advisory Group, Inc. She served as the Chief Communications Officer for three global publicly traded companies. You can reach her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @jfstrayer.
Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula and Edward T. Cokely. (2007, July/August). “The Making of An Expert”. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert.
Matthew E. May. (2009, July). “Elegance By Design: The Art of Less”. MIT Sloan Management Review. Retrieved from: http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/elegance-by-design-the-art-of-less/
Gregg Satell. (2016/October) “Successful Companies Don’t Adapt, They Prepare”. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2016/10/successful-companies-dont-adapt-they-prepare
John Coleman. (2017/January) “The Best Strategic Leaders Balance Agility and Consistency”. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-best-strategic-leaders-balance-agility-and-consistency