What To Say When You’re Not the Right Spokesperson
I recently received an email from Nicole, a reader who works for a local Chamber of Commerce. Her boss was on the radio expecting to face questions about one topic – but the host had a different idea. She writes:
“We had a recent experience where our Chamber president was asked to participate in a live radio interview about our economic development program. Instead, he was asked numerous questions about a proposed rate hike by our city-owned utility – an issue which we are not the appropriate spokesperson for. Ultimately, our president did a good job not speaking on behalf of the utility and there was no fallout – but it was an uncomfortable situation that was particularly difficult since it was happening live. I was just curious as to how you would handle that type of situation?”
It sounds like your president handled it perfectly, Nicole. But to elaborate on your question a bit more, spokespersons generally have three options when a reporter asks a question that falls outside of their realm of expertise.
Option One: Answer The Question
The most straightforward option is to answer the question, even if it’s outside of the spokesperson’s expertise. This approach is fraught with danger, since the spokesperson is now on the record speaking on behalf of a different agency. Even if the spokesperson handles the question well, what good will it do if the headline of the interview becomes about that other topic? It means that your main messages – the three things you most wanted the public to know about you – got completely lost in the shuffle.
Option Two: Answer The Question, But Within Your Own Context
You might occasionally choose to answer questions about unrelated topics, but only within the specific context of how that topic affects you or your work. This approach allows you to “stay in your lane” while offering the audience (and reporter) something of value. For example, your president might have said:
“I can’t comment on the rate increase broadly, but let me tell you what our members have said. They’ve said that increases in energy costs will lead to either laying people off or freezing hiring. We all understand that energy prices have to go up on occasion, but local businesses have told me they believe this is a bad time to do it.”
This option isn’t fraught with as much danger as the first one, and it may occasionally be the right approach. But it also increases your odds that the quote the audience remembers from your interview will be about a utility increase – which may or may not be the headline you wanted.
Option Three: Deflect and Refuse The Question
This one is pretty straightforward – you can just tell the reporter:
“You know, that’s really a question that’s more appropriate for the utility company to answer. I haven’t had the opportunity to study their full proposal yet, and would be uncomfortable commenting on the rate increase. What I can discuss today is rising costs for local businesses in general, and how it’s affecting their hiring practices. Those rising costs may include energy prices, but they also include tax increases, increasing fuel costs, and many other items businesses need to purchase to succeed…”
This option is often the safest, but the audience may hold your president’s refusal to answer basic questions against him. Therefore, options two or three are your best bets, depending on the question and its relevance to your work.
Thanks for writing, Nicole, and good luck with your work!
Do you have a question you’d like to see answered on the blog? Please send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!
This is an interesting situation and one that I encounter quite frequently. I work for a very large government department that handles a lot of very high-profile (read: newsworthy) topics. Because of our high volume of interview/media requests (over 3000/year), most interviews do tend to be given by people at lower levels, who tend to have specific expertise. The way we deal with this will depend on the media outlet and format (obviously a live TV interview is not the same as a background interview for print!), but generally, we coach our spokes to speak to their expertise and if something pops up that’s outside of their expertise, we have them ask the journalist to follow-up with media relations, who will either find the information for the journalist or arrange an interview with someone else. We try to mitigate this in advance by getting a good idea of the scope of the interview beforehand (to ensure the most appropriate spokesperson), and making sure the journalist is aware of the expertise of the spokesperson.
Generally, if we are granting a live interview on a more controversial/hot-button topic, we would use a higher level spokesperson who is prepared to speak on more general terms on behalf of the organization, but as I said, with the volume of requests received, it’s a question of triage and judgment that happens at a number of levels.
Thank you for adding your own experiences to the blog. Handling more than 3,000 interviews per year has to be a major challenge – if you handle 2,995 but blow five high-profile ones, people will only remember those five!
You make a great point about saying “I’m not the right spokesperson for this interview – please contact media relations to help you find the right person.” In the case of this blog post, I didn’t add that since the spokesperson was the president of his Chamber – but other spokespersons lower down on the hierarchy chart should certainly add that as a fourth option. Good add!
Thanks for reading and commenting,