Help A Reader: Should I Use One Spokesperson Or Many?

A reader dealing with some changes within her organization recently wrote in with the following concern:

“Up until now, when we received a media inquiry, designated staff members would decide who would be the ‘spokesperson’ based on the type of inquiry and availability of spokespersons. If it was a general or simple inquiry, we might be the best spokesperson. If it was a complex or technical inquiry, a subject matter expert might be a better choice. Of course, we would choose a trained, capable spokesperson and provide additional coaching if needed. All this would be done on a case-by-case basis.

Now, leadership wants there to be one spokesperson for the agency. There could be a backup if that person is unavailable, but the push is to designate [that person] as the agency spokesperson. Subject matter experts will no longer be able to do interviews…

We have a crisis and non-crisis mode. It seems our leadership wants this new model to be used in both instances. I have advised them that it would be difficult to respond to multiple media inquiries when you have only one spokesperson, whether you are in a crisis or it’s business as usual. Also, that one spokesperson may not be knowledgeable enough to respond to reporters who require more background or technical expertise. Their response? They feel it is more important for the public to know, when they see that designated spokesperson, they know he/she is speaking for this agency.”

Your management is right that having a single spokesperson can lead to an increase in brand recognition, and some companies that have or have had a single spokesperson (e.g. Steve Jobs, Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, chicken magnate Frank Purdue) benefitted from an immediate connection between spokesperson and brand. I understand the appeal of providing the public with a sense of continuity, a single person who gains credibility with an audience over time by becoming a more familiar (and hopefully trustworthy) face.

But the image I selected to illustrate this story (above) tells you what I think of this idea. In my experience, it’s unnecessarily risky, will frustrate reporters, and could lead to a more flat-footed response.

What happens when your organization, which placed so much of its public identification into the hands of one person, loses that employee? Much of that brand-building disappears with that person’s resignation (or firing). What happens if that spokesperson handles a situation badly and loses credibility with the public or press? Or has a personal scandal that embarrasses the agency?

Here are a couple more questions: What happens if the spokesperson goes on long-term medical or bereavement leave? Or is overwhelmed with media calls on several different topics during a particularly busy period?

Eggs in Basket iStockPhoto PPT

This sounds like a bad idea that places too many of the agency’s eggs in a single basket.

I know many people who are the lead spokesperson for their agencies. Most of them are good at their jobs, and many are very knowledgeable. But they’re not subject matter experts, and they happily defer to those who are (assuming, as you stated, that they’ve received media training). Trying to suddenly become a subject matter expert on a variety of topics every time a reporter calls is impractical and destined to fail.

Plus, there’s another important consideration: I can’t imagine that reporters will like this. For straightforward questions, a lead spokesperson is appropriate. But a reporter who needs subject matter expertise and is forced to speak to a spokesperson who plays the role of intermediary for every detailed follow-up question will quickly become resentful.

Two solutions might help, at least in part:

  1. Use this spokesperson as much as possible, but pair him or her with the proper subject matter expert in cases for which such expertise is necessary.
  2. Use this spokesperson as the primary face for on-camera briefings, but provide reporters with access to subject matter experts behind the scenes.

It’s entirely possible that your management knows something I don’t and/or that I’m missing something here, so I’d like to ask readers to weigh in. Do you agree with me that this is a bad idea, or is this reader’s management seeing something that I’m not?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.