‘How do you…?’ Your questions answered about building better relationships with spokespeople

Many thought-provoking questions were posed during our webinar about building better relationships with your spokespeople.

Our brilliant guest Kirsty Waite, from The BCF Group, answered many of them and was able to bring a fresh perspective to some crucial issues with her business coaching experience.

We could not get to all of them during the hour chat – which you can watch again here – and some we felt would benefit from more detailed responses without time constraints.

So, we have tackled them in our media training blogs. Today we are looking at topics such as persuading reluctant spokespeople, helping interviewees overcome nerves and the tricky issue of spokespeople who think they don’t need briefings.

There were also several questions about feedback, and we will be answering those in a separate blog that will be published shortly. 


What do you think is the best way to overcome reluctance to do interviews, particularly from much more senior staff?

This is a question that will strike a chord with many.

Most of us who have worked in comms will be familiar with catching a journalist’s attention only to find that the best spokesperson to give the interview has got cold feet and will not return your calls.

How can we tackle this?

The starting point is to understand the reluctance through asking questions. Have they had a bad experience? Do they struggle with nerves? Are they unsure they know the subject well enough? Others may feel they are too busy or may not fully appreciate the value of good media coverage.

Let’s say the issue is around confidence.

Presuming they have had media training, you can take some small steps to build that confidence.

You could, for example, consider putting them forward for an interview on the intranet or staff magazine. If the intranet has a live text option, you could encourage employees to ask tricky questions to help them feel comfortable responding under pressure.

Many spokespeople tend to feel more comfortable with print interviews than those on radio or TV. While it is vital spokespeople are not complacent about this format, carrying out a few local press and trade media interviews can boost confidence.

Preparation is also vital. Let them know what you can provide to help make the interview a success and ask what they need from you to make them comfortable. Perhaps they want some refresher media training. Maybe a mock interview in the office. Some may prefer a detailed media briefing and others may feel happier with headline points.

Sometimes the reluctance could be caused by time pressures or by people not seeing the value of media coverage.

The best way to approach this is to show them both the value to the organisation and their career of accepting interview requests.

Highlight what rival companies are doing in the media and how it is helping to ensure its message and story are heard by a wider audience.

Also, outline how joining in the conversation with engaging, entertaining interviews, delivered with clarity and confidence, will ensure they are viewed as an expert and thought leader in their field.

It is also key reluctant spokespeople understand interviews are not about talking to a journalist - they are about speaking to customers.

Carrying out regular interviews will give your organisation a voice and, in the case of television interviews, a face.

A newspaper article, TV spot or radio interview can generate huge, entirely free publicity with your organisation’s views and opinions seen and heard by millions.

Another tip on this – and something you will have seen before in our media training blog – is encouraging spokespeople to put messages in their own words.

Sometimes spokespeople feel uncomfortable because messaging uses language they may not be comfortable using.

Empowering them to use their language, anecdotes and examples will increase their confidence and help bring messages to life.


How can you help spokespeople calm nerves?

Nerves can be a good thing in an interview.

But too much can be a hindrance.

We have to be realistic here and say that if someone is a nervous character, you are unlikely to completely cure them.

But there are some steps you can take to make them feel less anxious.

Creating certainty around logistics and the process can play a role. Make sure your spokesperson knows who they are talking to and where they need to be. If the interview is in a studio, make sure they get there early. If it is taking place remotely, ensure they have the video conferencing login details to hand.

Avoiding last-minute panics can be crucial in helping spokespeople stay calm.

Breathing techniques can also be beneficial. Encourage nervous spokespeople to take a few deep breaths in through their nose and out through their mouth while doing relaxation exercises like shoulder rolls just before the interview.

But what else can you do?

One factor that can make spokespeople feel more nervous is too much preparation.

You might think that the more you prepare, the less likely you are to be hit by nerves in the media interview.

But swotting up on huge briefing documents for hours on end can make spokespeople more nervous.

It can build the interview up too much in their minds and can cause them to become muddled and unable to recall crucial information when the pressure is on.

Speak to your spokespeople to find out what would work for them and what they would find most reassuring.

It is also vital spokespeople realise they are the expert. They will know more about the subject than the journalist, and they want to talk to them because of their expertise.

Adding human examples and anecdotes in early interview responses can also help spokespeople find their feet and establish some control.

Something else we stress during our media training courses is that mistakes happen. Even experienced and confident spokespeople make them. But it is unlikely a mistake in an interview will damage either the business or the spokesperson’s career.

And, ultimately, people develop by pushing themselves. As American author Jocko Willink said: “There is no growth in the comfort zone.”


Webinar rewind - Building better relationships with your spokespeople

Watch the full webinar again

How do you tackle people that think they know what they are talking about, but don’t, and who refuse a brief?

This is a tricky one.

The first step is to try to find out why they are so reluctant to have the briefing. Do they want to do their own research? Do they believe they don’t need to prepare?

Do they think the current briefing is too detailed and leaves them feeling confused? Is there something else they want from you instead? Is it simply a time issue?

Spokespeople are all different.

Be curious and try to build a greater understanding of the issue.

If they are not willing to receive a briefing, are they willing to listen to feedback? If not from the comms team, they might from the journalist.

See if you can get some feedback from the last reporter they spoke to and then talk to them about it. 

That feedback session could quickly turn into a briefing session without them realising.

If they are refusing briefings and, as the question suggests, not performing well, do you have other spokespeople who could talk on those subjects?

This will depend on the seniority of that spokesperson, but it is something to consider if the situation continues.


Comms folk are often asked to provide an interview briefing note but might not get access to the spokesperson to have a conversation. What are your golden rules for what to put in a briefing note?

Ideally, comms teams should have access to spokespeople ahead of interviews to help them prepare properly.

It is vital for inexperienced spokespeople.

For senior spokespeople you trust to communicate with confidence and clarity, you can just provide a briefing.

What it should include should be determined by your relationship with them. Do they want pages of information or one sheet of top lines?

Get to know your spokespeople better and then tailor your briefings to their requirements.

That said, there are some things briefing should include. And we have put these in a free template you can download and adapt to your spokesperson’s needs.

If you don’t get access to your spokespeople before interviews, make sure you see them afterwards and reflect on their performance. This is crucial for spokespeople developing and improving. Ideally, it should happen within 24 hours.   


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How would you deal with a spokesperson who needs to sound more human, relatable and warm in their interviews?

Many media spokespeople struggle to sound human.

The good news is it can be easily solved.

The first thing to do is make sure they banish the jargon. Nothing is more likely to alienate the audience. Encourage them to think about how they would tell the story to a friend or family member in a pub or café, rather than someone they work alongside.

Then encourage them to put messages in their own words and support them by telling stories and sharing anecdotes and examples. People love stories about other people. And the most powerful ones are those that are personal to the spokesperson.

They should also express feelings and show emotions and vulnerabilities. Telling the audience what keeps them up at night and what excites them will help make them relatable.  


How do you approach coaching on tone, for example, a CEO who needs to 'talk to the people' but has a tone that suggest privilege or who comes across as too clever for the interviewer?

Get them to concentrate on telling relatable stories – that will naturally make them relax and help them to build that all-important rapport with their audiences.

Encourage them to talk about their emotions, experiences and weaknesses. And urge them to bring in real life, with anecdotes about their family and friends.

Again, they need to keep things simple and avoid complex language and jargon.

Get them to practice speaking to more junior peers – walking the shop floor and building relationships. And be honest with them – tell them upfront about your fears. They’ll thank you for it if you manage the conversation with diplomacy and honesty.

And they should try to use metaphors to compare what they are talking about to everyday life.

Jonathan Van-Tam is one of the best media spokespeople around at the moment and his use of metaphors had helped him build a connection with the public. 


What can you say to executives who come across great in media training but when they present internally and externally suddenly try to become someone else? 

This question went on to say that the executives sound stilted and unnatural in media interviews and focus on how they speak.

Some of the coaching skills Kirsty discussed during the webinar are vital here.

Ask them questions about how they feel they performed in their most recent interview and how they felt it differed from the media training interviews.

Is there anything different they feel they need from you to feel better about talking to journalists in the real world?

It is important to consider they may not feel they are performing, so use your question to show them a mirror.

If the delegates had media or presentations training with us, there will be detailed written feedback about their performances. Encourage them to read that again and ask whether they feel they are doing the same things now.

Then let’s think about what else we can do to make them seem more natural and confident.

And again, much of it will come back to being able to build connections with the audience by sharing personal stories, anecdotes, experiences and vulnerabilities.

Are they including these in their media interviews? If not, why? Again, it comes back to curiosity and asking questions.


Don’t forget, you can watch the webinar again here. And stay posted for our blog on feedback and our answers to your questions on that subject.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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