Who Says What You Say?

August 3, 2015

By: Paul Dusseault

Marshall McLuhan’s mantra, “The medium is the message” is never so on display as in the selection of a spokesperson in times of crisis. Nor is the Authenticity Gap – the delta between an organization’s behavior and the public’s expectation.

It’s not enough to “tell the truth” when subjected to a critical spotlight. The selection of the truth-teller is an essential factor in the corollary objective: “be believed.” In any major industrial calamity, certainly one that involves loss of life, the only plausible spokesperson is CEO. Not the chief environmental officer. Not the chief quality officer. Not the president of North American operations. The CEO must assume the role of incident spokesperson because the situation demands it. The public expectation is that someone must represent responsibility for systemic aspects of operations. CEOs do that.

In later times, when the same company is conveying to shareholders the costs of clean up, the CFO takes the reins. Again, rightly so. A hospital promoting a newly available medical procedure may put the lead doctor on the phone. A logistics company featuring a supply chain upgrade, or a manufacturer selling a new carbon fiber, may put the senior technologist out front. Such titles map well to public expectations for subject matter experts. Such spokespeople explain.

It is a sign of some desperation, therefore, to forward as spokesperson the organization’s attorney. Per public expectation, lawyers don’t take responsibility and they don’t explain. They argue. As soon as the general counsel is proffered as spokesperson, before a single word is spoken, the organization concedes points to critics. If the lawyer is doing the talking, the company, by inference, is fielding a “defense,” and therefore the critics must have hit the mark. Bill Cosby recently appointed his attorney as formal spokesperson. Walter Palmer, the infamous lion-killing dentist, should follow suit. (One exception may be in matters of public affairs where some regulatory matter would best be handled by an attorney, who, in that context, is the subject matter expert.)

Of course, companies forward communications officers often as a chief spokesperson on this or that, but such media strategies almost never are ideal. At best, PR staff stands proxy for the pertinent subject matter expert. At worst, they are the designated stonewall — the poor sots quoted as admitting the company will be offering nobody for interview. And that is, per McLuhan’s rule, a step down in public expectation even from offering the lawyer. That, per the medium, says “We don’t even have an argument.”

Paul Dusseault, APR, is an ARC certified crisis counselor, Senior Vice President and Senior Partner in FleishmanHillard’s Reputation Practice in Atlanta. You can reach him at paul.dusseault@fleishman.com.