Broken news: how untrained spokespeople can wreck even the best PR campaigns

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You’ve done it: you have finally hit the “send” button, and the announcement you have been working on for weeks is finally out. It’s newsworthy, it’s fresh and you know you’ll get interview requests from the media. It will be great for your company’s brand and reputation, it could force your competitors to scramble, and you and the rest of the communications team will look like superstars.

Sure enough, the media calls start pouring in. You line up your spokespeople, equipping them with shiny copies of the storyline and messaging. Now, all that’s left is for them to deliver, and for reporters to write the story accurately. Nothing can go wrong.

But when you check your phone for the latest headlines, you start noticing your story isn’t being told well at all. Big, obvious messages are being missed. Your spokespeople aren’t being quoted very much, and when they are, the comments are basic, bland or boring.

Then, your phone starts ringing. Your boss calls, then your business partner. They have one question for you: what happened?

If that sounds familiar, there’s a good chance that the one gap in your PR strategy is that your spokesperson hasn’t been trained on how to give media interviews, or could use a significant refresher. Asking someone untrained to be your spokesperson on a big announcement is like asking an amateur driver to drive in a Formula 1 race: the car might be an elegant thing of engineering beauty, but the driver is as likely to forget to switch gears as he or she is to crash into a wall.

Here are just a few ways untrained spokespeople can unwittingly sabotage your PR plans:

They ad lib

One of the most common spokesperson missteps is adding superfluous commentary that is irrelevant to the narrative, announcement or news you’re discussing. I’m not talking about a personalized turn of phrase, or an interesting data point to bolster the story. Rather, I’m referring to spokespeople who like to hypothesize about what the announcement might mean to the industry, who get facts wrong because they didn't prepare, or who exaggerate the importance of the news.

For example, you’ve just announced that you will use chatbots to deliver customer service. It's a good-news story, and a nice bit of innovation for your company. However, your spokesperson will sound rather tone deaf if he or she calls the announcement “a revolutionary technology which will cement our place as an industry leader.” Chatbots are no longer revolutionary, nor are you an industry leader if you’re launching them just now.

Reporters know this, and your spokesperson won’t get quoted in the story as a result. What’s more, the time spent self-congratulating takes away from delivering the messages that actually matter to your audiences: it will now take less time to address common customer service issues (consumer message) and chatbots are very cost effective (investor message).

It’s important to show, rather than tell. Instead of simply saying chatbots are amazing, imagine your spokesperson says “An average customer currently spends 20 minutes dealing with us on the phone to resolve an issue. Our chatbot lets you skip the wait time for the most common problems, so the resolution time gets cut in about half.” Much better, right?

"A trained, polished and effective spokesperson realizes that they and their brand come out ahead when they focus on providing value to the audience."

They don’t understand their role in the story

An effective spokesperson tells a compelling story in a way which is appropriate for the audience he or she is facing. They should not be doing the interview to build their own profile – that’s typically a happy by-product which accumulates over time. They’re also not there to ignore the reporter’s questions and hammer away at a scripted set of key messages they've decided is the most important.

A trained, polished and effective spokesperson realizes that they and their brand come out ahead when they focus on providing value to the audience. That’s what the reporter covering your announcement is most often focused on, and your spokesperson should be focused on it too. Their job is to inform, contextualize and, if the subject matter permits it, entertain.

If the spokesperson doesn't do this, the storyline will not land, they will rarely be quoted, and the reporter who just interviewed them might reconsider covering your news at all.

They have poor delivery

I'll keep this point short because it's an obvious one, especially in broadcast media interviews. If you're not good on camera, you shouldn't be on camera. With that said, spokespeople who don't know how to tell a story using short, simple and quotable sentences can also be a major problem in print interviews. Long-winded answers containing unnecessarily complex vocabulary choices don't do anyone any favours. The reporter tunes out, the message gets lost, and the audience doesn’t get to hear a good story.

"Having a group of polished, prepared and knowledgeable storytellers at your disposal can differentiate you from your competition."

How training can help

Practice really does make perfect when it comes to media interviews. Regular training and refresher sessions using either your in-house team or an external expert can be a big help in addressing and avoiding the above-mentioned pitfalls.

Company spokespeople are eager to conduct dry runs of crisis scenarios to ensure they're prepared for a misstep or emergency. That's a best practice, and absolutely worthwhile. However, fewer are willing to invest time to practice good-news media interviews, or to refine how they present information to journalists more generally. I’ve never understood this dichotomy. After all, one would hope that the average company conducts a far greater number of positive interviews regarding its products, services and expertise. You should be at least as prepared for good-news interviews as you are for the bad!

Simply put, companies are leaving significant value on the table by neglecting to train their day-to-day spokespeople. Having a group of polished, prepared and knowledgeable storytellers at your disposal can differentiate you from your competition and meaningfully elevate your brand. After all, if reporters see your spokespeople as more interesting, entertaining or informative than the competition, you can bet your media relations phone line will be ringing with greater frequency.

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