When an adverse event rotates the spotlight of public attention to your business or that of a partner or client, does your response plan include a designated spokesperson? Does that person have a back-up? If either answer is no, then your crisis response plan has a hole in it.
Recovery from an unfavorable story following an incident, even if that story is passed by word-of-mouth or from some dark corner of the internet, is managed in the same way as external communications are planned and managed as part of incident response: by someone authorized to be the face and voice of the company.
The risks of an ineffective external communications effort are both immediate and long-lasting. Waiting too long to make a statement for whatever reason makes the company appear to be hiding something, that the situation has slipped out of control or the company lacks competency.
Own the issue
Any incident that draws public attention will look for a responsible party. Even if circumstances point to an external organization or third-party threat, your connection to the incident however tenuous, likely will come to the surface and the inquiries will arrive. Having a trained and qualified individual in the spokesperson role allows the response team to focus on the issue and not how to tell the story.
The three most important messages in the early stages of a response are aimed directly at the audience. First, acknowledge the crisis and the company’s role. Next, recognize the concerns of those affected. Third, state what actions are being taken in a few simple, declarative sentences.
By owning the issue up front, your message about steps toward resolution carries more weight.
A single voice
For incident response planning, the spokesperson role is external facing. It is responsive to inquiries from the media and key stakeholders and it initiates public statements. Social media falls within its purview but monitoring and posting may be delegated. In other words, everything the public sees or reads about your response should come through the spokesperson.
One step removed
Any response plan worth its 3-ring binder should be built around five primary steps:
- Detect and report
- Triage and analysis
- Contain and mitigate
- Document and prevent
Missing from most incident response plans and the templates from which they were created is a practical definition of the crucial role of designated spokesperson. Too often, it is just a box on the org chart.
Selected and trained
The spokesperson role carries full responsibility for what the company says about its response. That is a role not suited for the PR agency du jour, or worse an untrained admin or HR person. The role should be filled by a person with direct knowledge of the company’s business and better than average communications skills.
Selection and training of the spokesperson should be included in crisis response plan preparation. Also, IRP prep should include protocols for external message development and management approvals, and a priority ranking of media outlets for dissemination.
The designated spokesperson manages the flow of information and provides a single external voice while feeding back to the incident management team how the story is playing out in the news cycle and on social media.
It is important the spokesperson and their team also manage media and other queries arriving from the public. This helps confirm that incident response messages are getting through, flags unexpected developments, tracks sources, and prevents distractions from reaching the response team.
The spokesperson should be able to step back from the chaos swirling around a response effort to produce messages that are clear and consistent. Access to team chats, video calls and Slack channels is presumed but participation is not required.
While the media often dismisses formal statements from a “spox” as sound bite filler, the information conveyed ensures your side of the story is included and becomes part of the record. Having a designated spokesperson in place makes that happen.
This article was originally published on December 3, 2020 and republished on March 8, 2021.