The spokesperson gives your organization human form. One area of control that must be exerted by the organization's public information officer is to insist that its spokespersons be trained because we know that few are born. No one should represent the entire organization unless he or she has invested time and energy in developing the skills of an effective spokesperson. It is not about the color of a tie or scarf one wears on television, but the ability to effectively connect with the audience, either through the media or in person. The importance of being well prepared as a spokesperson can be seen in the example of a town meeting about a possible link between cancer incidence and a major corporation's activities.

Spokespersons must be trained and familiar with the basic principles of crisis and emergency risk communication. They should play a role in developing messages so they can "own" them and deliver them well.

Role of Spokesperson In An Emergencyvideo:  Sandman on "Communication expert vs. emergency communication expert"26, video:  Sandman on "Criteria for choosing a spokesperson"25

It is the task of the spokesperson to do the following.

  • Take your organization from an "it" to a "we".
  • Build trust and credibility for the organization.
  • Remove the psychological barriers within the audience.
  • Gain support for the public health response.
  • Ultimately, reduce the incidence of illness, injury, and death by getting it right.

Recommendations For Spokespersons

Spokespersons should remember the following.

  • Do not over reassure.
  • Acknowledge uncertainty.
  • Express that a process is in place to learn more.
  • Give anticipatory guidance.
  • Be regretful, not defensive.
  • Acknowledge people's fears.
  • Acknowledge the shared misery.
  • Express wishes, "I wish we knew more."
  • Stop trying to allay panic (Panic is much less common than we imagine).video:  Sandman on "Showing compassion by showing you are afraid too"18

At some point, be willing to address the "what if" questions. These are questions that every person is thinking about and for which they want expert answers. If the "what if" could happen and people need to be emotionally prepared for it, it is reasonable to answer this type of question. If you do not answer the "what if" questions, someone with much less at stake regarding the outcome of the response will answer these questions for you. If you are not prepared to answer the "what if" questions, you lose credibility and the opportunity to frame the "what if" questions with reason and valid  Covello on "Preparing ahead of time"24

Ask more of people by giving them things to do. Perhaps the most important role of the spokesperson is to ask people to bear the risk with you. You can then ask the best of them, to bear the risk during the emergency, and work toward solutions.

The preceding recommendations come largely from the work of Dr. Peter Sandman. Dr. Sandman's article on Dilemmas in Emergency Risk Communication discusses six dilemmas of particular relevance to spokespeople: candor versus secrecy; speculation versus refusal to speculate; tentativeness versus confidence; being alarming versus being reassuring; being human versus being professional; and being apologetic versus being defensive."

General recommendations for spokespersons in all settings:

  • Know your organization's policies about the release of information.
  • Stay within the scope of your responsibilities. Unless you are authorized to speak for the entire organization or a higher headquarters, do not do  Golan on "Stay in your niche"17
  • Do not answer questions that are not within the scope of your organizational responsibility.
  • Tell the truth. Be as up-front as possible.
  • Follow up on issues.
  • Use visuals when possible.
  • Illustrate a point through examples, stories, and analogies. video:  Sandman on "Telling stories as a way to be personal"19 Ensure that they help you make your point and do not minimize or exaggerate your message. Test the stories on a small group first.

When Emotions And Accusations Run High In An Emergency Public Meeting video:  Covello on "Pros and cons of public meetings as a delivery method"20

The following table lists actions that a Spokesperson should take in dealing with emotional or accusative individuals at an Emergency Public  Covello on "Effective public meetings"21, video:  Covello on "Importance of maintaining control during public meetings"22

  • Do not show inappropriate hostility. You can be angry at the organisms or natural disasters that cause illness and death but do not show outrage or become indignant toward your detractors.

  • Ask for ground rules. To avoid the appearance of biases, ask a neutral third party to express ground rules.

  • Hire a facilitator or moderator. An organization is usually better off to hire a facilitator/moderator for the meeting from the beginning. (NOTE: this person should be neutral.)

  • Acknowledge the anger up front. Acknowledge any expressions of anger up front and explain what you hope to accomplish. Refer back to your objectives if the communication deteriorates.

  • Do not react with temper. Do not lose your temper when confronted with accusations.

  • Practice self-management. Remind yourself of your greater purpose. Display confidence and concentration. Visualize a verbal attack and mentally rehearse a temperate response. Do not be caught off guard. Anticipate the attack and practice not feeding the anger.

  • Exhibit active listening. Active listening ( treatment/activel.htm) is exemplified by the ability to express the other person's point of view. Concentrate on what the person is saying instead of thinking about what you will say next when it is your turn to respond.

  • Do not say, "I know exactly how you feel." Refrain from using expressions such as, "I know exactly how you feel," since the audience is not likely to believe that you do. Instead, acknowledge the feeling.

  • Avoid interrupting, but set limits. If a hostile speaker dominates, appeal to him or her that you want to address the concerns of others in the room.

  • Do not overreact to emotional words. Remember, you are the professional. Others have a totally different investment in what is happening. Words you interpret in one way may mean something else to others. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

  • Use open body language. Sit or stand with your arms relaxed by your sides. Do not cross your arms or put your hands on your hips. Make eye contact when possible.

  • Modulate your voice. Use a slightly lower tone and volume of voice than the angry individual.

  • Do not take personal abuse. A certain amount of anger and negative emotion directed at you is understandable. If it becomes personal, however, you have a right to express the inappropriateness of that behavior and ask the person to join with you in getting back to the issues. You are your organization. You are not alone. You are not the true focus of the attack. If you know that the audience will be hostile, bring along a neutral third party who can step in and defuse the  Reynolds on "Don't take it personally"16

  • State the problem, then the recommendation. When explaining your position, state the problem before your answer. For example, rather than saying, "Exposed persons should take Cipro for 60 days," say, "To eliminate the risk of respiratory anthrax, CDC recommends that exposed persons take Cipro for 60 days."

  • Commit to a response. Write down people's comments, issues, inquiries, and get back to them.

  • Do not promise what you can not deliver. Explain the limitations of the situation and express that you are doing everything you can to keep the response on track.

  • Look forward, not back. Acknowledge past mistakes: "I wish we had met with you sooner to hear your concerns." Then talk about where you want to go in resolving problems rather than where you have been.

  • Do not search for the single answer. One size may not fit all. Consider many possible solutions and do not view a negotiation as an either/or proposition.

Remember the credibility of the spokesperson is important, too. Spokespeople allow the public to put a face to the act of investigating and resolving a crisis or big event. How a spokesperson handles public and media inquiry, in addition to what he or she says, helps establish credibility for an organization, and contributes to the public's transition from the crisis stage to resolution and recovery. An organization should choose carefully the individual(s) who will be charged with the role of spokesperson based not only on the individual's familiarity with the subject matter, but also on his or her ability to talk about it in a way that communicates confidence and is understandable. He or she should not be a new face. A good example of this is Brentwood anthrax incident. This example shows the importance of frequent public appearances by spokesperson to help establish credibility for your organization.

A good resource for checking the effectiveness of your message preparation, content, and delivery is the Crisis Communication Spokesperson Checklist.

Pitfalls For Spokespersons During An Emergency

The following are points that a spokesperson should remember.

  • Remember that jargon obfuscates communication and implies arrogance. If you have to use a technical term or acronym, define it. If you can define it, do you need to use it? Jargon and euphemisms are security blankets. Try to give yours up.
  • Use humor cautiously. Humor is a minefield. Soft, self-deprecating humor may be disarming for a hostile audience, but be careful.
  • Refute negative allegations without repeating them. Donít own the negative by repeating the accusation.
  • Use positive or neutral terms whenever possible.
  • Donít assume you have made your point. Ask whether you have made yourself clear.
  • Money will become an issue. During the early stage of an emergency, donít lead with messages about money.
  • Avoid one-liners, cliches, and off-the-cuff comments at all costs. Any statement that trivializes the experience of the people involved by saying something such as "there are no guarantees in life" kills your credibility.
  • Discuss what you know, not what you think.
  • Do not express personal opinions.
  • Do not show off. This is not the time to display an impressive vocabulary.

There are many Do's and Don'ts for spokespersons. The Emergency Public Information Pocket Guide, which is based largely on the work of Dr. Vincent T. Covello, has a quick reference list of Spokesperson Do's and Don'ts.

What spokespersons should know when communicating through the media

The media are important during the first hours or days of an emergency. The media are the fastest and, in some cases, the only way to talk to the public during an emergency. Media professionals do accept their community responsibilities; however, your job is not their job. Respect the differences and look for mutual goals.

Remember to go into any media interview with a purpose. Have a specific message to deliver. Also, make sure the reporter gets your name and title right, to avoid later confusion and lack of reliability.

The following lists actions that a spokesperson can take to avoid general media interview pitfalls.

  • Stick to your message. Do not let a reporter put words in your mouth; use the words of your previously developed message.

  • Reframe leading or loaded questions. If the question contains leading or loaded language, reframe it to eliminate the language and then answer the questions.

  • Do not react to new information that a reporter gives you. Do not assume the reporter has it right if he or she claims that someone has lodged an allegation. Do not react to new information that a reporter gives you. Instead, say, "I have not heard that" or "I would have to verify that before I could respond."

  • Don't answer a question a second time or add to your answer. If a reporter leaves a microphone in your face after you have answered the question, stop. Do not answer the question again or add on to your answer.

  • There is no such thing as "off the record." Background and deep background do not mean you would not be quoted. Do not say anything before, during, or at the conclusion of an interview that you are not prepared to see in print the next day.

  • Anticipate questions. List as many expected questions as possible and draft answers.

  • Make your point first. Have prepared message points. Try to say it in 30 seconds and in fewer than 90 words.

  • Do not fake it. If you do not know the answer, say so. If it is not in your area of expertise, say so. Commit to getting the answer.

  • Do not speak disparagingly of anyone. Never speak disparagingly of anyone, not even in jest.

  • Do not react to hypothetical questions. Do not buy in to hypothetical questions.

  • Record sensitive interviews. Be sure the reporter knows you are doing so.

  • Do not ask to review articles or interviews. To avoid a perception that you are trying to edit a message, or their reporting, do not ask reporters to allow you to review their articles or interviews.

  • Break down questions. Break down multiple-part, or complex, questions into manageable segments. Answer each part separately.

  • Do not raise unwanted issues. Do not raise issues you don't want to see in print or on the news.

  • Do not say "no comment" to a reporter's question. Never just say "no comment" to a reporter's question. Instead, state why you can not answer that question. Say that the matter is under investigation, that the organization has not yet made a decision, or simply that you are not the appropriate person to answer that question.

  • If you deal with sensational questions, answer as briefly as possible, then return to your key messages. If you have to deal with sensational or unrelated questions, answer in as few words as possible without repeating the sensational elements. Then return to your key messages. Here are a few recommended "bridges" back to what you want to say:

    • "What I think you are really asking is . . ."
    • "The overall issue is . . ."
    • "What is important to remember is . . ."
    • "It is our policy to not discuss this issue, but what I can tell you is . . ."
    • "What I am really here to discuss . . ."
    • "Your readers/viewers need to know . . ."

It is important to note that questions should only be ignored if they are truly off target. Be careful not to ignore valid or relevant questions, or questions many people are thinking about, because you want to talk about a different topic.

For more information on effective bridging techniques, see Dr. Vincent Covello's article,  Covello on "Bridging techniques"23

Good references for spokespeople who are working with the media are Ten Tips for Working with the Media, Working With the Media Checklist, and Media Strategy. Also, it may be helpful to print this Pocket Card information and carry it with you for dealing with spokesperson issues.


Video Clips:
video:  Reynolds on "Don't take it personally"16 Reynolds on "Don't take it personally"
video:  Golan on "Stay in your niche"17 Golan on "Stay in your niche"
video:  Sandman on "Showing compassion by showing you are afraid too"18 Sandman on "Showing compassion by showing you are afraid too"
video:  Sandman on "Telling stories as a way to be personal"19 Sandman on "Telling stories as a way to be personal"
video:  Covello on "Pros and cons of public meetings as a delivery method"20 Covello on "Pros and cons of public meetings as a delivery method"
video:  Covello on "Effective public meetings"21 Covello on "Effective public meetings"
video:  Covello on "Importance of maintaining control during public meetings"22 Covello on "Importance of maintaining control during public meetings"
video:  Covello on "Bridging techniques"23 Covello on "Bridging techniques"
video:  Covello on "Preparing ahead of time"24 Covello on "Preparing ahead of time"
video:  Sandman on "Criteria for choosing a spokesperson"25 Sandman on "Criteria for choosing a spokesperson"
video:  Sandman on "Communication expert vs. emergency communication expert"26 Sandman on "Communication expert vs. emergency communication expert"