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How To Be A Credible Spokesperson: 10 Tips For Senior Executives

Wynna BrownGuest Post by Wynna Brown. Wynna is a senior-level communicator with expertise in media, issues, digital and crisis communications.   You can connect with Wynna on LinkedIn or Twitter.

As a senior executive, good media coverage is good for you and for your organization. When engagement with the media goes well, it can position you as an industry leader, help you build your personal leadership brand and it can help drive other communications or marketing efforts for your business or organization.

MicrophoneWhen a media opportunity doesn’t go well — well, it can have the opposite effect. A bad media interview can be damaging to you, your personal leadership brand and your organization. So, if you are the CEO, a member of the C-suite or part of the senior leadership team of your organization, when the media comes knocking you need to be prepared and positioned to effectively leverage the opportunity to achieve the best possible outcome.

As a communications professional, I am very particular about when I will make the top-gun of an organization available to the media to speak on an issue. If I make such a recommendation it’s for one of two reasons:

  1. It’s an occasion when it is necessary to demonstrate leadership at the highest level — which usually means it’s a significant strategic issue, a serious incident or a crisis situation of some sort, or
  2. I see it as an opportunity that will reflect well on the organization, meet strategic objectives, drive business and increase engagement. It may also serve as an opportunity for the organization’s senior leader to build his or her unique leadership brand and to position them as an authoritative, credible spokesperson.

Either way, as a CEO or senior exec consider any media availability an opportunity. Here are 10 tips to reduce the risk and leverage the opportunity to reinforce and establish yourself as a credible leader, build your personal leadership brand, and support business or organizational objectives:

1. Demonstrate leadership

It’s always in your interest to demonstrate leadership, but it’s particularly important if you are facing a challenging situation. Take responsibility; don’t hide out behind a corporate spokesperson. Stand up, demonstrate you’re in charge and accountable for all organizational actions.

2. Be principled

Be true to your principles, and let this come out in an interview. Principled decisions don’t always offer the easy road out of a challenging situation — but will serve you well in the end. In short, do the right thing and build your communications strategy around your principled position.  And then stick to it, stay the course. Do not waiver. Do not flip flop. Don’t let the tail wag the dog or be tempted to try and turn the tide by making decisions to simply satisfy your critics.

Along the same vein, it goes without saying that you must always be truthful in your interactions with the media.  Don’t stretch the truth, exaggerate or speculate.

3. Be authentic, yet disciplined

You want to stick to key messages without sounding like a parrot. Internalize your content so it comes out naturally in discussion. Demonstrate your unique personality and management style, but understand reporters have a job to do. This is not a conversation; it’s an interview. Deliver your messages with sincerity but know when to stop talking. Build authentic, professional relationships with reporters. Listen to their questions. Learn their names and use them. Always treat them professionally and with respect. Understand it’s their job to be probing.

4. Anticipate difficult questions

Don’t hide your head in the sand and rely on hope — hope that a reporter will not ask you that dreaded question. Instead, be prepared for that challenging question. Have a holding message ready in case you need it. Do this before you go into an interview situation. Reporters do their homework and may know the ins and outs of a situation more than you think they do. Sometimes they know an answer to a question before they pose it. Often, they are simply looking for you to verify information they already have. Think ahead. Be prepared.

5. Be brave

Be brave. Don’t shrink or fade. Don’t be a wilting flower in the face of a difficult situation. Stand up straight. Deliver your messages with sincerity, conviction and authority.

6. Don’t go it alone

CEOs and senior executives have the benefit of communications resources and expertise. Ensure a trusted communications professional is part of your bevy of trusted advisors. Don’t go it alone. Enlist their help before an interview. They can assist with preparing materials, presentations, key messages, Qs & As, and running you through mock interviews beforehand. Ask for their advice, listen to it and consider it when dealing with a strategic issue or challenging situation.

7. Keep it short and snappy

Don’t drone on or present your information in a lengthy academic-sounding run on sentence. Preface your messaging with a short — seven to 10 word — snappy positioning statement. This is your quotable, your sound bite. Follow with a few specifics, stats or examples that support and explain your position. Use clear, concise language. Use examples or analogies that people can relate to. At all costs, avoid sounding like a professor on a diatribe, or worse yet, dare I say, a policy guru. I have the deepest respect for those who wade into the deep thinking, complex world of policy, but for the purposes of a media interview keep it clear, keep it real.

8. Know the facts and tailor your messaging to your audience

Being an effective spokesperson is all about reputation and credibility. So, make sure you know your information inside out and backwards. Be a credible subject matter expert. If you are solid on your content, it puts you in a good position from the get-go. Reporters love true subject matter experts, especially those who have the ability to distill complex information into content that resonates with audiences. Be sure to tailor your messages to the specific audience. The level of detail you provide for an industry specific journal is going to be different than what you use for a quick 20 second hit for a fast moving high-level 24-hour news station.

9. Avoid negatives!

This one sets the pros apart from the amateurs. If a reporter asks you, “Is this a crisis situation?” Do not fall into the trap of repeating the negative messaging back by responding with, “No, this is not a crisis!” Or if they ask you, “Is public safety at risk here?” Do not respond back with “No public safety is not at risk.” If you use the same negative language as the reporter, that’s what will stick— and that will be your sound bite. Instead, respond with, “I can assure you that public safety is always our top priority.” There are a few well-known examples of leaders who failed to avoid this honey trap. Remember this one: “I am not a crook”? Or how about this one: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”? If you repeat a negative, even when denying an assertion, in the court of public opinion you are guilty, guilty, guilty, if only through association.

10. Practice makes perfect

While some leaders have a natural flare for managing the media and building authentic relationships with them, it can be more difficult for others. Take media training and practice the techniques you learn by seeking out low-risk, brand-building opportunities. As a leader you do not want your first experience with the media to be in a crisis situation.

Managing the media is a core skill for many senior executives and it can be a key contributor to building and growing your personal leadership brand. For those still climbing the corporate ladder, seek out opportunities to hone and perfect your skills and build your own unique CEO brand along the way. Those who successfully navigate and leverage their media profile can often use this experience to direct and positively influence their career trajectory, drive business, and contribute successfully to your organization’s strategic objectives.