BP oil spill spokesperson

How to Choose the Right Spokesperson in a Crisis

As BP, Volkswagen, Samsung and countless other brands have shown us, PR crises can affect businesses in any industry. From environmental disasters to exploding smart phones, they come in all shapes and sizes.

Thankfully, few crises ever make the light of day, but when they do, it can spell disaster for a company’s reputation.

This is where the crisis spokesperson comes in.

What’s their role?

A crisis spokesperson does just that: speaks on behalf of an organisation in the white heat of a crisis. It can be a harrowing experience, but their words and demeanour can have a major effect on how the public views that company, both during and after the crisis. Therefore, it’s crucial to pick the right person for the job.

Crisis Comms: BP & Virgin

We’ve all seen the damage that can be done to a company’s reputation when a spokesperson falls flat on their face. Think about the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in which 11 people were killed, and countless species of wildlife destroyed. From the get-go, BP’s then chief executive, Tony Hayward, was in the media’s firing line. He initially played down the extent of the spill, claiming the environmental impact would be ‘very modest’, and went on to tell a group of reporters, ‘I’d like my life back’. The world was aghast at his complacency in the face of such an unmitigated disaster. President Obama’s chief of staff even weighed in on the subject, saying Hayward would never find a second career in PR.

On the other hand, Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin empire, is regarded as one of the best company spokespeople around. He uses his relaxed persona to promote Virgin’s brand values while demonstrating a significant degree of knowledge. He’s also quick off the mark when it comes to responding to crisis situations. His handling of the Virgin train crash in Cumbria in 2007, and the crash of Virgin’s Galactic’s SpaceShip Two in 2014 were textbook responses. He spoke with sympathy, honesty and authority, and took personal accountability for the disasters.

So what PR lessons can we glean from these two spokespeople?

Put your best person forward

When there’s a crisis, don’t pick a spokesperson just because they’re the CEO or the MD. While the presence of someone senior indicates you’re taking things seriously, simply selecting them by seniority can backfire, as Tony Hayward proved. He might’ve been fantastic at global operations and finance but that didn’t help him when it came to representing his company under the harsh glare of the media.

Who should you choose?

There’s no magic formula for picking a company crisis spokesperson, but there are three key considerations that can help you select the best person for the job:

Solid communications skills: Choose someone who’s passionate about your brand and is eloquent and quick thinking when answering awkward questions. Ideally, your spokesperson will be media trained.

The right personality: Select someone who will remain calm in hostile and emotional situations, while keeping their ego in check. A little compassion and humility go a long way.

Someone with thick skin: Every brand has its haters, even Virgin. The fact is you’ll never be able to please everyone. So it’s important your spokesperson has a thick skin and knows how to react to a backlash. The more intuitive they are, the more comfortable they’ll be when faced with criticism about the brand.

Test your spokesperson

While your crisis spokesperson might look good on paper, there’s only one way to determine whether they can talk the talk, and that’s to test them. Stage mock interviews and hit them with challenging questions. Are they able to react quickly to negative comments? Do they have a positive demeanour in confrontational situations? Do they know enough about your company to back up their points?

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