AFKI Corporate: Who Are The Best Spokespeople During A Crisis?
‘AFKI Corporate’ column brings readers a range of business insights, trends, news and tips exclusively for corporations and people conducting business in the African Market. Each week this column will provide readers with international business strategies, tips, tools and insights customized for the continent. will also feature exclusive Q&A’s with influencers, business leaders and entrepreneurs from across Africa, and the African Diaspora.
Last week I discussed the different stages of a media crisis in light of the current international news coverage of a variety of crisis in the last several weeks. The response strategy by the Malaysian government and their handling of the still missing flight M370 and the Nigerian government and their handling of the still missing kidnapped schoolgirls has highlighted the need for solid crisis communications strategies and planning at all levels.
The media has always been the vehicle that fans the flames of a crisis, and as detailed last week there are four distinct phases. Phase1 The News Breaks, Phase II The victims, the perpetrators and the response, Phase III The Blame Game and Phase IV The Ending or another beginning.
As mentioned, in today’s world of social media Phase I to Phase II now takes a matter of minutes and an immediate response is needed so African organizations need to be prepared, trained and ready to respond. Being prepared and having a crisis communications strategy in place is crucial for all African organizations regardless of their sector, size or industry private, non-profit and governmental.
Specifically, being prepared for Phase II is imperative as this is the most crucial stage of a crisis from a reputational perspective. This is when favorable or negative perceptions will be formed depending on the reputation of the perpetrator to date combined with their response to the current situation.
African organizations should have in place a crisis communications plan that includes potential spokespeople. There are varying discussions about who should speak for an organization when they are in crisis. Below are three of the common choices African organizations should consider as the crisis unfolds.
The Head of Communications/PR Person as spokesperson
The public relations or communications executive is often the best choice as representative at the very initial public response to a crisis. This is especially the case when responding to the media as soon as the news first breaks. A good PR/communications executive already knows the corporate messaging points (primarily because they created them) as well as having the knowledge and skills in dealing with media enquiries.
The PR/communications executive does not have to be the only voice throughout a crisis, but they must be a key person in the crisis management team and should lead the team or be the primary point of contact if a crisis communications consultant or agency is selected.
The first crisis response should set both the tone and foundation of your crisis communications plans especially when few facts are available. This will allow the PR/communications executive to provide known and available facts, acknowledge the crisis situation, and provide the media with some information that can be quoted and used as part of their initial media coverage.
The CEO as spokesperson
Contrary to common belief, the CEO should not be the first person to respond to a crisis, and equally they should not be the only person to provide public statements on behalf of the organization. Any communications plan that positions the CEO or head of the organization as the lone voice will end up being ineffective and lackluster in the long run.
In a severe crisis that includes fatalities, injuries or wide scale and dangerous pollution of the environment, the CEO should be positioned as the face of the organization’s compassion. The CEO should also be presented as a spokesperson several hours into a crisis. This is as much for practical reason so effective and strategic statements can be created and additional facts gathered.
If a CEO is not adequately prepared and makes communications mistakes and misspeaks early in the crisis, they can lose credibility and undermine the reputation of the organization. If another executive misspeaks, the CEO can clarify in later statements and be presented as the voice of knowledge, transparency and authenticity.
Group of executives as spokespeople
My professional counsel as an international PR executive is that several executives in an organization should be media trained as potential spokespeople. As mentioned previously, in a crisis the PR executive should speak, initially respond to the crisis. Within a few hours up until a maximum of 24 hours, an organization’s leading experts relating to the crisis should be prepared and presented as the organization spokespeople.
The selection process for the spokesperson should be strategic, the organizations most knowledgeable executives with the best expertise and ideally previously media training should be chosen.
It must be noted that not all of an organization’s top executives will automatically make good public speakers. It is far better to present an executive who is confident and comfortable speaking to the media than one who has better credentials but presents poorly. Prior media training will quickly identify an organizations best spokespeople, providing yet another reason to plan for a crisis ahead of one occurring.
Africa organizations should take heed to have a crisis communications plan in place and where necessary consult crisis consultants or agencies to ensure they are fully prepared for the unexpected.
Claudine Moore (@ClaudineMoore) is the founder of C Moore Media (@CMooreMedia) headquartered in New York City with a robust African division. Claudine is also a columnist with top media outlets including CNN and specializes in African topics and news. Claudine spends a significant amount of her time traveling across Africa for both business and pleasure.