This article was originally published in the March 2015 edition of Public Relations Tactics, a publication of the Public Relations Society of America. See the original published article by clicking here (subscription required).
On Thanksgiving evening, I watched shoppers hold their smartphones high above their heads as others jostled, pushed and complained. While someone was recording them, cashiers good-naturedly answered questions about their stress levels. They were also sympathetic with those shoppers who were frustrated that some early bargains were already sold out.
Once uploaded to YouTube, people might largely ignore that content, or it could easily appear on “Good Morning America” the next day. How plausible is that? A survey of professional journalists by Arketi Group found that 91 percent of journalists say they use the Web to search for news sources and story ideas, and 34 percent admit to spending their time online watching YouTube.
If the content is interesting enough, then someone will pick it up. In my experience, it first emerges in a community discussion on Reddit, where readers pick it apart from every conceivable angle. Then The Smoking Gun or BuzzFeed gets wind of it, helping it go viral. In hours, days or sometimes months, traditional journalists see it pop up in their news feeds, prompting another wave of attention.
In an era in which everybody spends their time gathering and disseminating information to their respective spheres of influence, everybody who those quasi-journalists come into contact with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.
While it is common for organizations to have policies prohibiting personnel from speaking with the media, how can they enforce these policies when every word could end up on Twitter, Facebook or someone’s blog? What guidance can they give someone who is snapping pictures or shooting video on company property, or a customer who is thrusting a smartphone in their face while asking questions?
Every employee can benefit from guidance and training in an organization’s messages and delivery techniques. The CEO probably knows more than others, but 100 or 1,000 employee voices have the potential for an even greater impact — positive and negative.
Sticking to command and control communications policies that attempt to funnel all communications to approved spokespeople is counterproductive. Consider the power of people throughout the organization welcoming the chance to tell a consistent story that taps into their passion. Then consider the risk of those same employees who are left to flounder in an environment in which they are under constant scrutiny.
Interacting with storytellers
This all became clear to me several years ago when I helped an oil and gas exploration company pursue shale plays throughout the United States. In Texas, people were enthusiastic about extracting oil and gas by fracturing — or fracking — the shale thousands of feet below the surface, but people in areas such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio were suspicious.
Out front of this effort were the “landmen,” the corps tasked with securing contracts with landowners. In a series of training sessions designed to help educate landowners, build trust and diffuse anger, we heard early warnings of how smartphones were changing everything. The landmen described landowners holding their smartphones up and recording their interactions — some were well informed and some were aggressively unfriendly.
What had been a messaging and education training session evolved into something that closely resembled a media training session. If everyone — including the community that we were seeking to influence — was a journalist with the ability to quickly reach a worldwide audience, then all of our frontline people should be trained to interact with those storytellers.
With practice, many of the same techniques that are effective in managing interactions with professional journalists can be equally effective with citizen journalists. Here are five tips for all employees to keep in mind:
• Prepare for the unexpected. Unlike most interactions with professional journalists, which are planned and scheduled, interactions with citizen journalists can come at any time. This means that organizations should keep the lines of communication open with people throughout the organization who interact with the public. If you are not providing them the information or context they need, then you are setting them up to look foolish, and you will look foolish too.
• Define what you want out of these interactions. It comes down to three questions: What do you want your community to know? What do you want them to believe? What do you want them to do as a result of the interaction? Left untrained, employees may not think that the person recording them with a smartphone presents an opportunity to build awareness or encourage positive feelings. Establish objectives and you will realize that it is infinitely easier to achieve positive outcomes.
• Practice three-dimensional storytelling. Typically, message guidance from organizations is long on claims and short on personality, which reinforces negative perceptions that many companies are self-centered. Change that by working with your community of spokespeople to make your messages personal. First, whittle down your messages to three or four ideas that are central to what your organization is all about. Next, come up with proof points — data that makes those messages bulletproof. Finally, challenge spokespeople to come up with anecdotes, experiences and observations that make the messages tangible, human and authentic.
• Think beyond messages. If a person is thrown into a tense situation, then it is only natural that their facial expression, posture and tone of voice will reveal feelings of anxiety and stress. Good luck with having people perceive your information positively in that situation, as negative non-verbal and voice cues will trump the meaning of what you’re saying. Through role play — preferably recorded and played back — your employees can see how they interact and can practice maintaining an optimistic overall disposition, even in chaotic situations.
• Use bridging techniques responsibly. With some practice, spokespeople throughout the organization can grasp the idea that they can manage interactions by bridging to the ideas they want to emphasize. The potential downside of this technique is that it can seem evasive and manipulative if people ignore the questions. We recommend spokespeople always acknowledge the question and briefly respond in 10 seconds or less, then bridge.
Most organizations have a few trained spokespeople ready to interact with the media. When journalists call, they can funnel the questions to the approved spokesperson. Few organizations disseminate these skills broadly so that every public-facing person knows how to handle challenging questions with the expectation that any interaction could be recorded for a worldwide audience.
This loosening of the command and control approach to the role of spokesperson is the next step in our profession’s evolution. Organizations that adapt and train frontline personnel will multiply the impact of their communications.
Which is louder: the voice of one spokesperson or the combined voices of all your employees?
Photo Credit: Sean McGrath