An ongoing challenge for communications professionals is getting executives and other spokespersons who interact with media to understand the proper tone and content for effective and credible media coverage. Any practitioner can tell a story of an executive who insisted on making grandiose claims with little substance behind them, coming off like an aggressive salesperson rather than a credible source. This likely caused the journalist to dismiss the interview and leave the company on the cutting room floor when the story went to press. However, the opposite approach can be just as bad.

While it may be rarer than hyperbole, widespread understatement can be just as big a problem for effective communication. Whether it’s a personal bias against boasting, concerns over how the company will be perceived by competitors and peers, or a genuine lack of confidence, reluctance to address positive facts and do a little bit of (reasonable) chest-thumping to “sell” the journalist can really hurt a communications program.

Academia is one sector where this approach is quite common due to the collaborative nature of the work and the deep ties across institutions. I’ve actually had a client tell a journalist at a major news outlet that they should really be speaking with a professor at a different university who was a more knowledgeable expert! Thankfully, it doesn’t often go that far in the business world.

All the same, communications professionals need to effectively counsel clients and spokespeople that it is okay to “lean forward” and, yes, even be a little boastful on issues when the facts support you. There are a number of reasons why this is important:

  1. Convincing the Journalist Reporters pick up a lot of context clues during interviews. If your spokesperson does not sound like they believe in the issue or have a strong opinion, the reporter may perceive maybe, it’s not a big deal, and that any story would be uninteresting and not worth their time.
  1. Convincing the Reader  More important than the journalist is the audience you really want to reach. What will make them sit up and take notice? What will elicit a reaction? Showing some emotion is especially important around issue advocacy where you want not just to be seen as an expert, but want the reader to take action.
  1. Being the Authority In most articles it is  pretty clear who among the people quoted is the real expert; the one who sets the tone and has the most compelling perspective. They are usually the first (and last) quote, and get the most ink in the story. They will also be the one that readers remember.

Certainly a spokesperson in sales mode will always be a challenge, but all spokespeople need a little sales in them to be a successful communicator. If your spokesperson shies away from positive facts, is to anxious about sharing their opinion on the topic at hand some serious intervention is called for, or you run the risk of an anemic program that won’t have the desired impact.

-Tom Faust

Photo via  Flickr account Chris & Karen Highland