The Role of the Spokesperson

Barbara S. Reynolds
Crisis Communication Expert
Office of Communication
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that the right spokesperson with the right information and the right moment may mean the difference between life or death for someone. The role of the official spokesperson during a crisis is critical and deserves respect and special training. Sometimes circumstances thrust a person into the role when they least expect it. If that happens to you, here are two things that will help you be a success no matter what.

When you must face the public or the microphones in a crisis remember that you are representing your organization and be the very embodiment of your organization. What does that mean?  Well, What are the best qualities of your organization? If your agency were a person, who would they be?  Act like that person.

For example, CDC has a culture that, when we’re at our best, is described as follows:  CDC has a history of going into harm’s way to help people. We humbly go where we are asked. We value our partners and won’t steal the show.” If that’s the way CDC sees itself, then a CDC spokesperson, reminded of this, would express a desire to help, show courage, and remember to acknowledge partners. The spokesperson would seem committed but not showy.

So, ask yourself, what are the values of my organization? Know those and you’ll know how to face the public during a crisis and be successful.

Another sure fired way to be a great spokesperson is to always remember who your audience is. One of the mistakes even good leaders sometimes make is to confuse the media in your mind as the audience. So, when the media begin to aggravate you with their questions you react defensively, or disdainfully, or angrily. In a crisis, remember you are talking to the people who are hurt, confused, anxious and possibly angry. Don’t let the intermediary between you and your public spoil the connection.

Before you sit down to do an interview or stand up to speak in the microphone, remind yourself, actually form a mental picture of who you’re speaking too, and the media’s behavior won’t cause you to act inappropriately. Picture your grandmother, your son or your sister and brother-in-law while they hold their baby. Humanize your audience because they are watching every move you make in front of that camera.

If you think you’re answering the media’s questions, you are wrong. You are answering the questions from the public. Forget that and you may frown or show anger or disbelief or impatience through your facial expressions. The public will think you don’t care, not that you’re tired and especially tired of the media questions.