PR TECHNIQUE: Preparing second-tier executives for the spotlight

Though often a company's leading voice, a CEO isn't omnipresent. As such, other execs must be prepared to deliver the corporate message.

Though often a company's leading voice, a CEO isn't omnipresent. As such, other execs must be prepared to deliver the corporate message.

The CEO may be the top spokesperson in any company, but he or she can't be everywhere and know everything all the time. That's why people with less distinctive job titles should be ready to take the microphone. Training a stable of executives to deliver consistent messages may seem like an onerous task, but experts say it's worth the effort. PR pros list several reasons why companies should prepare second- and third-tier leaders for inevitable media interviews. Take geography. Atlanta-based HomeBanc Mortgage Corp. has branches throughout the Southeast, notes marketing VP Mark Scott. Local journalists don't always want to talk to the CEO. "Their readers aren't interested in what someone in Atlanta has to say," Scott says. "They want to talk to the highest-ranking exec in each city." CEOs don't have the time to respond to every request, and having them quoted too often risks overexposure. "I don't generally use the CEO unless it's for a Wall Street Journal interview or something like that," notes Steve Winston, PR director for Comforce, a staffing company. Vickee Adams, SVP/US director of Hill & Knowlton's media communications practice, notes some CEOs become more visible at quarterly earnings time, while companies may trot out junior execs mid-quarter. What's more, building a brand around one person can be fatal. "You can't and shouldn't ever hang the hat of an entire company on one individual. Take Martha Stewart," says Billee Howard, EVP of Weber Shandwick's corporate and executive positioning practice. Media training for lower-level executives should be part of a company's succession plans. "You are positioning executives who will have influence for decades to come," says Carol Ballock, MD for Burson-Marsteller's corporate financial practice. Interviews afford future C-suite occupants opportunities to gain recognition. Perhaps most importantly, having a cache of articulate, thoughtful spokespeople shows bench strength within an organization, experts agree. Preparing spokespeople to talk about a wide variety of subjects can be especially important for professional-service and consulting firms. A law firm WS represents has groomed numerous subject-matter experts. "We have about 20 different spokespeople highlighting all the different areas of expertise under the legal firm's umbrella," Howard says. PR professionals should consider several factors when selecting "laymen" within a company to train as spokespeople. "In general, you don't want to go below the director level," says Michael Bayer, MD of corporate communications for Financial Dynamics. Division directors and anyone with VP in their title may make good candidates. "Directors of product development or business development can be really effective spokespeople." Others agree tech directors or product managers may be best suited to handle interviews for trade or special-interest outlets. With those deeply involved in daily operations, however, media trainers must stress the importance of avoiding industry jargon, notes Comforce's Winston. John Baldoni, proprietor of Baldoni Consulting in Ann Arbor, MI, works with automotive companies and says engineers make great interviewees for enthusiast magazines. He takes them along to auto shows and finds them "very coachable." The biggest risk is engineers getting so wrapped up in warm conversations with journalists that they unnecessarily tell the whole story, including details about design problems that had to be fixed. Baldoni encourages them to focus on the positive and not delve into every mechanical challenge they had to overcome. Personality can count as much as a job title or expertise when selecting possible spokespeople. At HomeBanc, most field spokespeople rise up through the sales ranks and tend to be outgoing. "I don't want to train them so much that it sucks out their charisma," Scott says. "I've had reporters tell me before, 'I interviewed so and so and they were so media-trained, I could not use any of their quotes because it all sounded canned.'" Salespeople sometimes need a little extra training to learn what is and isn't news, Scott added. Some particularly driven employees may be tempted to use their media relations roles to raise their own profiles at the risk of the company's message. "We try to identify those people early on and either not let them do so many interviews or team them up with somebody," Bayer notes. The corporate communications department's job doesn't end with identifying and training internal spokespeople. Maintaining a stable of executive speakers may actually require more hands-on management than if the press office handled all the media calls itself. An effective, integrated communications program requires coordination so the right spokespeople are matched with the right reporters. Burson is one agency that conducts extensive media training for executives, and WS' Howard says including a variety of executives in planning and training sessions brings broader perspective to a company's messaging platforms. Ideally, all execs will be well-versed in a company's vision, with their individual specialties making up key parts of the larger pie. "The best integrated program has certain executives who own certain messages and target certain audiences," Ballock says. "With a program like that, there is no battling for the podium." Many corporate communications managers and agency personnel encourage or require executives to contact PR pros before interviews. "My preference has always been to be with my clients when they are interviewed," says Dale Erquiaga, VP of brand services for R&R Partners in Las Vegas. Others note that in a crisis, PR staff and top executives may not be able to get to remote sites before reporters start knocking on the doors. "Corporate communications needs to appreciate that they aren't always going to get the call first," notes Fran Stern, SVP for media training at Edelman. In such cases, store or plant managers need to be prepared to handle interviews on their own. The biggest challenge in coaching executives for speaking parts may be convincing them that media training is necessary. "It's not something you do in addition to your day job. It is your day job, it's integrated into that," says Ballack. "There's nothing like having it part of their performance criteria to make them realize it's part of the job." ----- Technique tips Do include executives down to the VP/director level in executive communications programs Do use media training and speaking opportunities to position executives who will be future company leaders Do turn to product-line directors and tech managers for specialized trade publication interviews Don't hang the company's brand on just one or two high-level spokespeople Don't assume that an individual is articulate simply on the basis that he or she has a high-ranking job title Don't return a media call without identifying the best spokesperson to respond

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