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Can anyone talk to the media during a crisis?

With proper training and preparation, most people can talk to media in the midst of a crisis. Without proper training and preparation, almost no one should.

Being a credible spokesperson during a crisis has less to do with how comfortable someone is talking to the public or media than it does with how much that person is prepared. If you think you need a good “spin master” out there, let me dispel that notion right away.

During a crisis, people don’t want to hear from a slick talker. They want to hear from someone who’s genuine, earnest and in command. They want someone they trust. They want someone who tells the truth, who doesn’t speculate and who can explain what the company or organization is doing to address the situation.

In a crisis, I’ll gladly choose someone who’s well-prepared and doesn’t have much public speaking experience over someone who’s ill-prepared but generally well-spoken and comfortable speaking publicly to crowds or media.

Why? The latter often can be a recipe for disaster. Because they feel confident, they also tend to speculate and try to answer questions out of their area of expertise or knowledge. And, they typically want to try to create a rosier narrative than the facts support.

This person can prove fruitful for journalists. Experienced reporters can lead these overconfident types astray from the story they intend to tell.

So how should a spokesperson prepare to handle the media as well as the concerns and, sometimes, outrage of other stakeholders?

Here are a few tips:

First, know your message and your story. Structure it in the way a good newspaper article is written. Begin with a bold headline that captures the essence of what you want to convey. Follow it with a few short “proof points” supporting your headline or main assertion. Repeat those main points often. Then get into the details. If you lay out the details first, without providing the context or story narrative, you’re trusting the people you’re talking to will connect the dots. Most times, they won’t.

Next, practice telling your story – out loud. It’s not enough to read the written version of your story. You need to be able to give it your voice. The only way to do that is to practice it out loud – in your car, in your office, in the shower. You need to connect your brain to your tongue, and there’s no shortcut for doing that.

Think of the toughest questions you might get, develop answers to them and then rehearse them. Don’t ignore questions you hope people don’t ask. That’s a surefire recipe for disaster. You don’t want to put yourself in a public situation, being asked a tough question you haven’t anticipated or developed a response to beforehand.

Get some formal training. People who routinely handle crisis situations can help you prepare, refine your messaging and build skills to stay on message and handle tough questions. Not only that, they can help you think through the behind-the-scenes actions you should take to further help you manage a crisis.

And finally, remember to stay human. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. How you present yourself – your demeanor, your expression, your attitude, your genuine concern – will do as much to instill trust in your company as what you say. It’s usually not the crisis that determines the outcome; it’s the way you and your organization handle it that matters most.

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Kevin Donahue

Senior Vice President, Managing Director – Reputation Management Group

Kevin Donahue leads the crisis and reputation management practice at Falls Communications and has helped hundreds of companies prepare for and manage high stakes issues.