Cool, calm and collected does it
A good spokesperson is vital to any business wanting to build their profile and reputation
By Tshepo Sefotlhelo, director of operations, Vuma Reputation Management
In the disruptive age of social media, the democratisation of communication has changed the rules of the game. This makes the selection of a good spokesperson vital to any organisation wanting to safeguard its reputation, and communicate effectively with customers, the media and stakeholders.
If you need a quick reminder of what happens when a spokesperson does not get it right, think of some of the recent controversial events on Social Media and in South Africa, which have caused embarrassment for companies and institutions in the public sector. Think back to the McIntosh Polela incident in 2013, or the Lumka Oliphant, or the most recent being the CEO of Ford in this week’s episode of Check Point.
News spreads like wildfire, putting spokespeople under significant pressure more than ever before, which is why they need to up their game. Because they represent the brand, they are the caretakers of its reputation. Any mistakes they make cause harm to that reputation. It is the duty of every organisation to ensure that spokespeople are well trained and responsible.
Spokesperson disasters are potentially even more damaging for big brands that have to manage their reputation with customers who are fickle, and who have more choice and access to information than ever before. Social media, in particular, represent an opportunity and a threat for organisations, and never more potently than in times of crisis.
A well-trained, seasoned spokesperson positions the brand in line with the organisation’s mission and strategy. Often, when people seek comment from an organisation, it’s because they seek the company’s position on key issues, at times on contentious ones. If that spokesperson does not maintain their composure in what may be a heated exchange, they will feed negative perceptions of the brand instead of clearing the air, and maintaining brand integrity.
A spokesperson should be approachable and deal with perceptions by sharing correct information about the organisation in a calm and measured way. They need to get right to the point straightaway, and be concise in the way information is presented.
They are there to enhance the reputation of the organisation if not maintain it. Regardless of how they may feel about an issue, what’s important is how they convey key messages. Fielding incoming queries from customers or the media requires the ability to position responses in line with strategy.
To ensure this alignment, it is vital to have communication and social media policies in place to guide not only the spokesperson, but also every member of the organisation. It’s possible to have a robust debate on social media, provided that it is not racist, homophobic, misogynistic or in any other way disrespectful. Remember, even if you delete a status update or a Tweet, the footprint is there for ever.
It’s important to also gauge the mood of the audience. In South Africa, the current public narrative is focused on greed, corruption, and arrogance, all of which have an impact on the way messages are interpreted. And while the public can say what they like, a spokesperson cannot be confrontational. Rather, they can address the issue reported, and clearly state what the organisation’s position and strategy are in relation to those
Do not argue. Much damage is done when a spokesperson becomes aggressive. They need to depict the brand’s values, message and mission, while maintaining cohesive marketing consistency. Think of people who deliver without breaking a sweat, who understand timing, inflection and the power of a well-timed pause. Because they are confident, they are convincing. Know what the facts are, be authentic, and do not change your stance to defend yourself from an attack. Sticking to the key messages gives you a greater position of strength. Think of Jackson Mthembu, former ANC national spokesperson, or the Department of Water and Sanitation’s spokesperson Mlimandle Ndamase; even under challenging circumstances, they have the ability to remain unflappable.
A composed spokesperson has thought about all the questions they could be asked and developed answers before the interview. They are in control of the situation and they are therefore credible. They don’t avoid questions, because they know that if you don’t answer a question it looks like you have something to hide.
A great spokesperson knows that your reputation is everything, and building it takes time and effort.