To Spoke Or Not To Spoke, That Is The Question

Critical Takeaways

  • Individuals or families caught up in a crisis should engage a spokesperson to help them manage the media as this is something they are ill-equipped to do themselves.
  • This course of action has some pros and to consider while making the decision and I address these here.
  • The benefits of professional support – insulation from the press and reserving the individual as a high-value spokesperson – all outweigh the downsides but this is still an engagement that needs careful consideration.

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To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

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Recently, there have been several high-profile events concerning individuals who have found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.  Sometimes this is wholly justified as their behavior has been questionable but others have simply found themselves the victims of a fickle public, having done very little wrong. I want to look at how people in this position can prepare themselves because these individuals or families are usually completely unprepared for what is happening. However, that’s something for a separate post because here I want to focus on an element that’s critical in these situations: using a spokesperson.

This communications expert will be one of many advisors the individual or family will need but they have the critical role of managing and shaping public opinion. This will be key to surviving a crisis but an individual or family using a spokesperson can seem unnecessary, inappropriate even, to some.  Often, I hear people say that this is out of place for an individual. Others feel it makes the person seem as though they have something to hide and this will increase the perception that they are guilty. Although I disagree with these concerns, using a crisis consultant is still something that requires forethought and consideration so I wanted to expand on the pros and cons of using a spokesperson a little more.

Before I go on, I want to stress that I’m not condoning any illegal or questionable behavior and I’m definitely not trying to help people mask their misdeeds. People who have broken trust or harmed others should answer to the courts or to the public. But there are also those who find that the reaction to what they have done is wholly disproportionate and they deserve a chance to be heard.  Even those in court deserve fair representation.

So I firmly believe that any individual or family caught in this kind of situation should engage a crisis communications professional as soon as the story breaks (if not before). The alternatives are 1) to say nothing at all or, 2) to try to do everything yourself.  

Either course will end badly.  

Although there is a time for ‘no comment’ and to stay off of social media, the family or individual will have to engage with the press and public eventually. Without a professional to guide and assist them, they are likely to find themselves out of their depth, no matter how comfortable they are in front of the media in other situations.  This ‘DIY’ approach is likely to make things significantly worse. Just as someone in this situation shouldn’t conduct all their legal work themselves, this is also not the time to become a crisis communications professional.

So if at all possible, I suggest that anyone in this situation gets professional support.

However, there are still pros and cons to engaging an external spokesperson. This is a decision and choice that requires forethought, so while I strongly advise this course of action, there are a few things to keep in mind.

The Benefits

Expertise and experience

A good communications consultant has much more experience of these situations than the individual or even the lawyers and other advisors.  This is their area of expertise so they have a good understanding of how things may develop, how to get the family’s story out and how to work towards rebuilding the reputation of those involved.

In addition to this strategic understanding, they will also have the tactical tools required to put the communications plan into action.  This mix of both skill sets – strategic thinking and tactical ability – along with their professional confidence means that the individual can operate as a one-person communications shop which is what is required in this situation.

Insulation

Having someone to act as the focal point for both outgoing and incoming media engagement will give the family much-needed distance from the public narrative.  They should certainly be aware of what is going on but some distance will prevent them from becoming distracted by the conversation when they might be tempted to become involved directly. This also allows them the mental relief required in a situation that is likely to be highly stressful.  In addition to avoiding shell shock, this gives them more time to attend to the legal aspects of the case and to speak to close friends and family to address their concerns.

Keeping your powder dry

Having someone else lead with the media also allows the family to save their public appearances for the times when these will have the most impact.  This is similar to how we advise companies in crisis not to use their CEO as their day-to-day spokesperson. This allows companies to use the CEO for a big, critical announcement or appearance when they have a much greater impact.

Similarly, families and individuals should save their public appearances for the times that matter most: a statement at the end of the case, a public apology or maybe a high-profile media interview.  These are times when the individual will be more effective than a spokesperson and the scarcity of their previous appearances will strengthen their message.  This is where the spokesperson acts as media advisor to properly prepare the individual for their appearance.

Potential Pitfalls

However, in addition to the significant benefits of engaging a spokesperson, there are some things to keep in mind. None of these, in my opinion, outweigh the benefits but these must be considered nonetheless.

You can appear defensive

There is nothing inherently wrong about using a media advisor but this can raise questions if it becomes public knowledge.  Depending on the situation, families may wish to use an advisor but keep them in the background. That removes the opportunity to maintain some distance but it still allows the family to take advantage of the consultant’s expertise without the impression that they are trying to hide behind someone else. A compromise here is to use a trusted friend, attorney or family member who is not part of the issue as a spokesperson, guided by the media advisor.  This is not ideal but still allows many of the benefits of their professional support while keeping the advisor in the background.

It appears to raise the temperature

Bringing in another advisor into the situation does add some complications simply because you now have more people involved.  However, adding an advisor also announces ‘yes, we are in a crisis and we have hired a communications counselor to help us through this‘. Even though it may be obvious that you’re in a crisis, hiring someone as a ‘crisis communications consultant’ can be read as an escalation or that the situation is more serious than people first thought.  

A similar thing can occur if you hire a high-profile attorney so this perceived ‘escalation’ is unavoidable but be prepared for the perception that things are escalating when they’re not. In fact, this is like calling 911 when you have a fire – you aren’t escalating anything, people just become more aware of it.

Your expert can become the story

In the same way that a high-profile attorney can become the story, a high-profile spokesperson can do the same. If you think about the show Scandal, the team begins by trying to solve the client’s issue but usually wind up becoming the story themselves. Any spokesperson who puts their own interests before the interests of their client will cause more harm than good so get references from people who have worked with potential crisis communications consultants before. Spend some time learning what their approach is before you bring them onboard and then meet with them to make sure that this is someone you can work with and trust.  Similar to your attorney, this person is a critical part of the response and you should spend time getting the right person into the role. And think twice before you hire Olivia Pope.

Spoke, but spoke wisely

At Kith, we like to start with the Hippocratic oath: do no harm. Our role is to work with clients to provide them the advice, tools, resources and support they need to get them through a difficult time.  We can serve as spokesperson and, if the situation demands, we will certainly jump into that role.  But we see ourselves as strategic counselors first, advising the individual or key family members of the best way to tell their story and the best time to do so.  Any good crisis communicator should be able to do the same.

I firmly believe that this is the best approach: trying to act as your own communications shop will almost always end badly.  Harking back to Hamlet, doing nothing or going it alone may seem more noble, but, in the end, it will only lead to more suffering. Better to ‘take arms against the sea of troubles’, equipping and preparing yourself properly.  A large part of that will be getting the right spokesperson in place but before you do, take some time to think about these pros and cons before you make this critical hire.  It’s a make or break decision so choose wisely.