Do We Deceive When We Hire Spokespeople?

by admin on August 14, 2017


You have to understand your spokespeople and what they go through to get good media results.

If there were a “truth in advertising” clause in the hiring of public affairs officers, bureaucracies everywhere would be sued daily.

Few responsible for hiring spokespeople know what makes a good public affairs officer.

“Success With the Media”

I wrote, “Success With the Media, Everything You Need to Survive Reporters and Your Organization” (available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon at because I believe that organizations need to look inward to get better media results.

I use contents from the book for this article.

Some believe that we should not talk to reporters. I maintain that not talking leaves you without influence; you are committing yourself to a negative story. The trick is to know how to talk to the media.

This is the second in a series of articles on, “Hiring Spokespeople.” Please see Hiring Spokespeople#1 for the previous article.


Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of supervising award-winning media relations, radio and television; over fifty national and regional awards. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Post-Master’s Certificate of Advanced Study, Johns Hopkins University.


The care and feeding of public affairs officers involves attention to the more brutalizing aspects of the job. Some spokespeople become exhausted by their positions.

Many people outside the profession view spokespeople as good public speakers or excellent writers, while never acknowledging that their principal skills are in negotiations and investigations.

They are also excellent librarians, as they’re constantly seeking additional data and storing it appropriately. Good public affairs officers (like good reporters) have an insatiable curiosity about how things work.

Spokespeople are excellent speed-readers as well. They know how to take a mound of material and find the information they need in a minimum amount of time.

They are aggressive individuals with a good sense of self who are able to withstand the realities of working within cumbersome bureaucracies. The best public affairs professionals respect the role of the media and have an appreciation for the day-to-day realities of reporters.

Despite all of this, when we hire public affairs professionals, we never ask them about their skills beyond their abilities to respond to questions and to write proficiently. All of the above attributes are routinely ignored during the interview process; few responsible for hiring spokespeople understand what makes a truly good public affairs officer.

A crucial ingredient in understanding public affairs officers is that they are often hired under false pretenses. Subsequently, when they find themselves blasted by both the media and their own organization for not adequately responding to a situation, they are confused and somewhat and angered by the lack of candor of those around them.

They suddenly find themselves in need of skills and attributes that no one discussed with them previously.

“No one told me that I would have to be part magician and part psychic to do this job,” lamented spokespeople throughout the years.

“If no one gives me the information I ask for, if they feed me bull crap, or if the hierarchy views me suspiciously, then I do not feel responsible for the outcome,” many public affairs officers will exclaim.

“I am only as good as the information provided,” some will say.

When they are advised that the job requires the ability to obtain information quickly, and at the same time view their superior’s comments cautiously, many new spokespeople believe that such provisions are unreasonable.

They believe that it is the organization’s job to provide information and the proper context without requiring them to play the role of investigator or lead skeptic. If they do “challenge” the answers they get from management, then it’s possible that both could end up viewing the other with a degree of mistrust.

If a media interview goes badly because of the “quality” of information, then both sides may point fingers at the other for the result. This is but one of many examples of common misunderstandings between spokespersons and management.

What the Job Really Requires

If there were a “truth in advertising” clause in the hiring of public affairs officers, bureaucracies everywhere would be sued daily.

To ensure that future spokespeople are hired on a truthful basis, I offer the following checklists for media relations, marketing, organizational skills, and interpersonal skills that outline the “real” qualifications for the job.

Editor’s Note: Please see the previous article, Hiring Spokespeople-Tips for Media Relations for suggested skills for dealing with reporters.


The applicant needs to know/have:

  • The fundamentals of advertising.
  • How to market the organization.
  • How to write and distribute a proactive press release.
  • Strong writing skills. You must be able to write and edit with constant interruptions. You will gain additional points if you understand and demonstrate a writing style that is conducive to plain English and successful marketing.
  • When to “float” the release to the newspaper of record, thus giving them an exclusive.
  • The “interests” of local reporters and be able to pitch the story to those who are interested in the concept.
  • When your proactive story is worthy of national coverage. You must have the ability to successfully “pitch” the story to local, national, and trade publications.
  • The basics of creating, producing, and hosting radio and television shows and networks. You must know how to market and maintain these networks.
  • How to engage in at least one act of marketing each day.
  • The basics of sales. You are not allowed to be discouraged by rejection. You must be willing to try again.
  • How to implement a marketing campaign with specific messages and measurable goals with a limited budget.
  • How to create audio and video, specifically green screen video.
  • How to create story-based articles and fact sheets.
  • How to set up and operate a website. While technical proficiency is not necessary, you must know how to arrange your site to maximize its effectiveness.
  • How to populate your site with materials that are useful. You must be able to track usage and create new features based on this information.
  • How to market your website to the media through the placement of specific stories. Hopefully, you realize that a negative story that refers to your site may eventually have a positive payoff if your materials are attractive and useful.
  • How to operate and engage multiple social media platforms. You need to know the demographics of each platform and the best for your specific needs.
  • How to create a PowerPoint display.
  • How to use a camera, video recorder, audio recorders, and basic editing platforms.

Organizational Skills

The applicant must know or have:

  • Excellent administrative and employee supervision skills.
  • Exceptional public speaking skills.
  • The ability to arrange a press conference and be able to speak during these events.
  • Powerful negotiating skills.
  • Extraordinary investigative skills.
  • The ability to tell when a person is lying to himself or otherwise feeding you misinformation.
  • A history of emergency planning and the ability to create appropriate plans.
  • How to operate a smartphone and desktop and laptop computers.
  • The basics of Web browsers and the Internet as well as a working knowledge of most digital platforms.
  • The skills necessary to operate new equipment with minimal or no training.

Interpersonal Skills

The applicant must understand that:

  • No one will consistently feed information to you; that is an unrealistic expectation. You need to find what you need on your own.
  • There will be an array of fellow employees who think they know media relations. They will provide their advice in the strongest possible terms, and generally speaking, their input will be based on their dislike and fear of the media. You must have the ability to politely listen to their comments while having the fortitude to make your own decisions.
  • You’re not here to promote yourself. Your primary objective is to promote your leadership and your organization.
  • While you may be at the center of many policy-oriented decisions, you’re not a policymaker. You must have the ability to distinguish between the two roles.
  • This bureaucracy is like any other; it moves at the speed of a wounded, drunken snail. While the media is moving with speed and precision, your organization does not. You must learn sufficient skills to work around this natural barrier and to find information to meet the legitimate needs of the media.
  • Some people dislike and distrust the media, and some of those feelings will be transferred to you. There will be people who keep you at arm’s length and who will not give you the access or resources you need to do the job properly because you represent something that they mistrust. It’s part of your job not to take such a response personally. Understand that this is impossible but nevertheless, expect it.
  • There will be times that speed and accuracy are in the organization’s best interest. You will be required to insist that technocrats or executives stop what they are doing and focus on your need for information. You may not take their angry rebuttals personally.
  • There will be times when superiors will announce their intention to do something stupid. For example, an angry executive declares his intention to publicly chastise the newspaper of record for a negative article that he thinks is unfair. This is obvious insanity. Attacking the veracity of the media is guaranteed to provoke vigorous retaliatory attacks, and it is your job to ensure that your executives do not engage in such behavior. If you have to risk your employment in the process of stopping the attack, then so be it.
  • It is your job to convince executives to do things that they do not want to do.
  • It is your job to protect executives and fellow employees when they do not want to be protected.
  • You must develop a personal bond of trust with the chief operating officer, and you must have the ability to convince him or her to relinquish control over your job in a way that gives you the freedom and flexibility necessary to accomplish your goals. An inability to establish that trust might jeopardize your ability to continue your job.
  • You are expected to form a working relationship with all administrators. It does not have to be nearly as personal and trusting as the one you have with your CEO. It simply needs to be respectful and proficient.
  • Some individuals within the organization have different agendas from the CEO and will use media contacts to advance them. You and the CEO will not have knowledge of these contacts.
  • Many people within the organization will demand that you discover the names of employees who are talking to the media. This is foolish behavior, and a search will prompt attacks from the media. Those leaking are almost impossible to find or stop. If found, others will take their place. Every organization leaks information to the media.
  • You must have the ability to remain calm in any crisis situation.
  • Agency heads and technocrats will occasionally provide you with misinformation without realizing they are doing it. You must have the ability to know when they’re feeding you bad information, and you must have the necessary tact to point out these discrepancies and ask for clarification.
  • You must be willing to listen to endless complaints about the media and to hear “conversations” about every time they believe that unscrupulous reporters have burned them. You must also do this while at the same time conveying the observation that not all members of the media are scumbags.
  • You must dress appropriately for the job and pay for it out of your own pocket. You will always dress as if you are going to appear on television that day.
  • You will be asked if you own the digital equipment necessary to do your job and whether you are willing to use this equipment at work.
  • They will ask you that question with a straight face.

Next Up

Building Relationships-Marketing.

Success With the Media

For more information on good organizational and media relations, see “Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization,” available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon at  Your reviews are appreciated.

See my website at

Contact me at


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