10 Keys for Successful Spokesmanship

Foto: Revista Washington COMPOL



Daniela S. Valencia
*Article published in 2021 in Washington COMPOL Magazine, Issue 54

Comprehending media language is mandatory to position and legitimize your narrative
as a public figure or institution, especially in a world where we live inundated with

Whether during an electoral campaign, governing, from opposition, or if you’re an
organized civil society seeking influence, effectively leveraging any media opportunity
to build your reputation requires training, rigor, and coherence with your overall
communication strategy. Here, I share ten keys that any spokesperson should consider
before facing a journalist’s microphone.

1- Prepare your key messages

Improvisation is prohibited. Alongside your communication team, you should define beforehand the messages you wish the reporter to pick up. These must be specific, keeping you within the limits of what you can and cannot say. It is advisable not to exceed three (you will elaborate on these during the interview). They should be supported by facts or figures, but also designed to include all rhetorical devices that allow simplicity, contrast, and emotionality, such as metaphors. In cases with multiple spokespersons, key messages serve as a guide to unify information. Remember: a wellframed figure or fact attracts microphones.

2- The journalist’s question script is not góspe!

In other words, if the journalist doesn’t ask the question you expected, leading directly to your key messages, steer the conversation yourself or use a transitional phrase to reach them, such as: “Before answering that question, I’d like to add that…,” “That’s an interesting point, but let me remind you that…,” or “Allow me to present your question from another perspective…” The latter is one of my favorites for easily steering towards
your framing.
Similarly, if the journalist makes a mistake such as getting your name, position, or the name of your organization wrong, politely point it out before giving your response. Also, be cautious with repeating the negative statements of reporters and avoid answering hypothetical questions.

3- Your treatment towards the journalist can make you gain or lose ground

Do not treat a journalist from a smaller media outlet as if they were less important; you never know where they might end up tomorrow or the impact their story might have (especially in the internet age). Address them by their name and do not request the story before its publication; instead, show willingness to provide additional information that supplements your interview and aligns with your framework: reports, press releases,

4- The only thing you always control is your behavior

As you progress in your career or during crisis moments, you will undoubtedly face challenging interviews with “trap” questions aiming for a controversial statement that grabs sensational headlines. Hence, it is crucial to anticipate these scenarios with your team and train for different possible situations. For instance, simultaneous street interviews with various media outlets or, as they are popularly known in Mexico, “chacaleos,” can be a stressful test if not practiced in advance.
Remember, your key messages and transitional phrases to revert to them are you lifesavers. Your tone of voice and non-verbal language must reinforce your key messages, not hinder their credibility.

5- Exercise caution with personal opinion responses

The image of the spokesperson permeates the organization’s image; they are always associated. Even if you claim to make a statement “on a personal basis” outside an official event, if you represent a party, a civil organization, or act as a spokesperson for a company, what you say in front of a microphone will be linked to your organization, the project you are part of, and the image you have provided. This is a very important
commitment that doesn’t cease for a single day of the year.

6- “No comments” prompts many comments in return.

In the media, interpretation easily disguises itself as fact. Each case is unique and should be studied meticulously, but if you intend to avoid answering a topic because it aligns with your strategy, open a window: provide other relevant information that maintains an image of accessibility and, above all, transparency.

7- Identify the tone of your statement and use the appropriate verbs.

Seeking to convey strength, firmness, or confrontation?: We performed, delivered, surpassed, assisted, launched, invested, installed, collected, demanded… Seeking to moderate or reconcile? We are evaluating, considering, could launch, suggest, would expect.

8- Promote brand recognition: repeat it

Public attention is scarce; not everyone will see the complete interview. Also, in the case of recorded or written interviews, you will go through the editor’s scissors, so repeating your organization’s name, project, or campaign will help it to be remembered.

9- Avoid technical language or translate technical terms

The simpler, the clearer. Communicating with the press aims to connect with large audiences. Don’t sacrifice effectiveness by trying to appear erudite, as it can be counterproductive, distancing you and, therefore, undermining trust. A recent example of good and bad practices in this regard was witnessed during the Coronavirus pandemic when government officials faced the challenge of communicating the complexity of the situation. They had to balance reassuring the public about their administration’s capability to implement measures that ‘flattened the curve’ while also instigating a sense of alertness that led to behavioral changes among the population, such as staying at home or wearing masks. Ask yourself, which spokesperson do you remember best fulfilling this role?.

10- Neither gibberish nor lies: preparation and ethics

“Neither gibberish nor lies: preparation and ethics Mario Moreno “Cantinflas” was a Mexican comedic actor credited with the verb ‘cantinflear,’ defined by the Spanish Royal Academy (Real Academia Española, RAE) as ‘speaking or acting in a disjointed and incongruous manner without saying anything substantive.’ There was only one Cantinflas, so remember, you can’t talk about what you don’t know. Spokesmanship involves a continual commitment to research and preparation.”
And, most importantly, never lie in front of a microphone. It’s a democratic responsibility, especially in times of fake news, to maintain ethics in this regard. Remember, once negative news is published, it’s hard to forget. And, despite the frequent interaction with the media seeming challenging, as a public figure, you must understand that the relationship is unequal: you depend more on them than they do on you. As the saying goes, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ “

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