Criteria for choosing a spokesperson

Peter M. Sandman, Ph.D.
Risk Communication Expert

There are about ten or fifteen criteria for choosing a good spokesperson. You start out knowing you're not going to be able to maximize all of those criteria's. You're going to have to make some compromises. One obviously important criterion, you should want someone who's a skillful communicator, who is good on his or her feet, who is friendly and outgoing. You also want someone, and this is quite different, who has communications training including risk communication training, which is a specialized field. There are lots of good communicators who are not good risk communicators and they won't be good when talking about an emergency and they're not the right person. A third criterion is you want someone who likes the job, who wants the job. If I had to rank order these I would probably put that one right at the top. Don't ever live with a spokesperson who is unhappy that they've been made a spokesperson. That unhappiness will show and will ruin the job. Subject matter expertise is the one that's most often ignored, that is what we tend to do is pick spokespeople who are good professional communicators and don't know very much about the particular emergency being communicated and I think that's a mistake. You want someone who's a good communicator but more importantly I think if you have to compromise you want someone who knows what he or she is talking about. So I would go for subject matter expertise. I would go for ability to explain subject matter simply, someone who's going to simplify this stuff. It's either going to be the spokesperson or it's going to be the media or it's going to be the listener and you're in a lot better shape if it's the spokesperson. So you need someone willing to make it simple. One that is highly controversial but I think is important is you need a spokesperson who has meaningful responsibility for the situation, who has reasonably high rank, who has stature within the organization, who can make promises and keep promises. In a emergency decisions are going to made quickly, people are going to be asked things by the media in real-time that they need to answer in real-time and you want someone who can come up with an answer that's compatible with the organizations policy and then make that answer stick. You don't want someone who is going to say, "What do I know I'm just a spokesperson, I'll check with the authorities and get back to you in a week".