Do We Mislead When We Hire Spokespeople?

by admin on July 31, 2017 · 1 comment



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

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

A crucial ingredient in understanding public affairs officers is that they are often hired under false pretenses.

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 first in a series of articles on, “Hiring Spokespeople.”


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.

Media Relations

The applicant needs to:

  • Understand that your job is to win the war, not every battle. Think in terms of the long run.
  • Acknowledge that many people within the organization will never accept the concept of a long-term outlook for communications, but it must be your principal strategy.
  • See media relations as improving over a period of years. Rome was not built in a day.
  • Acknowledge that many individuals within your organization want immediate results. You must be willing to live and even thrive amid this contradiction.
  • Have the ability to speak to the media and convey the organization’s position honestly and accurately.
  • Build a reputation for fairness, accuracy, and accessibility with the media.
  • Create a reputation that is strong enough to deny an accusation and have that denial cause the news organization to cease interest in the story or to significantly lessen its effect.
  • Understand news operations and the realities of being a reporter. You will score additional points if you actually like (or at least respect) the media and reporters.
  • Be aware of what the media is saying and writing at all times. It does not matter that this task is impossible. Your peers and supervisors will expect you to know the content of every broadcast and every publication (including social media) in your market. At the very least, you are expected to find this information with the skimpiest of leads.
  • Understand that needless confrontations with the media are dysfunctional. An unnecessarily combative attitude is neither desired nor welcomed, regardless of the negative comments of those around you.
  • Be willing to fight for the legitimate needs of the news media. This includes advocating their cause even when the story is negative but reasonable.
  • Understand that fairness to the media is the best defense against them being unfair to the organization even though insiders will think that you are crazy for doing so.
  • Be willing to stay until the job is done. You will routinely be the last person to leave the office.
  • Be willing to meet every reasonable media deadline. Weekend and evening calls from the media are part of the job.
  • Know how to write and distribute a reactive press release.
  • Be on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year unless excused from duty. But understand that you are never fully excused from duty.
  • Understand that there are jerks in the media. This does not give you the right to engage in unproductive combat with them. You are expected to try your best to diffuse the hostility of reporters professionally.
  • Know as much about the organization as possible. You are to spend every available unassigned minute in the pursuit of knowledge.
  • Assume the reasonable risks that come with the job.
  • Engage the proper mix of technical experts and administrators to ensure that you have an understanding of a situation, but you are also expected to make independent decisions when warranted. There will be times when speed is necessary, and technocrats and administrators are unavailable. It’s your job to assess a situation and make the proper decision.
  • Understand that the media can be unscrupulous and unfair. You are not allowed to generalize these events in a way that paints all media as unscrupulous and unfair.
  • Understand that some of your peers will display contempt for the media, and that you cannot allow yourself to be influenced by their negativity. Treat every story and reporter according to his or her own merits.
  • Acknowledge that organizations lie to themselves about situations or breaking news.
  • Have the ability to be tactfully but brutally honest in your analysis of any news situation. You are expected to stop your administrators and peers from engaging in foolish behavior.
  • Stop your administrators from openly attacking the media, even when they think that they are right. Open attacks invite the harshest of responses and are guaranteed to hurt the organization. You are not Donald Trump. There is a world of difference between politics and your organization.
  • Be comfortable with off-the-record conversations. You must be at ease with providing reporters with the proper context.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in conducting radio or television interviews.
  • Be comfortable in a talk radio format. You must have the skills necessary to defuse an abrasive talk show host or guest.
  • Be at ease with and knowledgeable about working with national television and radio news crews. Realize that the “nationals” will not hesitate to burn bridges by openly attacking your organization.
  • Know how to conduct yourself in an emergency or during difficult times. You must have the ability to handle a large number of media. You must also have the ability to conduct press conferences under the most difficult of circumstances and create a press release in just minutes.

Next Up

Marketing and additional organizational skills needed to be a successful spokesperson.

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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