Disasters, by nature, don’t happen every day. If you’re in the business of public information, then learning how to speak to the media during a disaster was probably not on your curriculum list when you went to spokesperson training since it’s not a skill you may continually use.   But when it counts, developing the qualities of a spokesperson during disaster becomes a vital part to saving lives and returning your community to normal, even if that normal becomes new. People hear and react to information differently during a disaster and knowing that ahead of time should prompt us to learn different ways to communicate when crises happen. 

A spokesperson is essential in helping your organization relate to communities in crises. There are a plethora of qualities that great spokespersons have that span the spectrum of awesome communication, but after train derailment has sent a toxic plume of chemicals flowing into the neighboring community, the rules of effective communication change. After the crisis, communication skills are tested and the best of communicators often fold to the pressure of trying to get it “perfect.” The fact of the matter is there are no “perfect” communicators, only effective ones and this is no more evident when speaking to the media and your community throughout the phases of a disaster. It may sound contradictory to common sense, but people are actually more likely to positively respond to an imperfect spokesperson during a disaster. Empathy plays a key role in delivering crisis messaging as it shows that the communicator emotionally connects to their audience which elicits trust. In a disaster, gaining trust is the key motivator to persuade communities to act upon the recommendations of the responding agency.

The Role of the Spokesperson During a Disaster

A good spokesperson embodies an organization’s identity, personifies its response efforts, and serves as the overall human connection to the public. While all spokespeople have unique qualities, there are some techniques that every spokesperson can use to effectively reach people in an emergency. At the end of the day, a spokesperson’s job is not only to distribute information to the masses, but to take your organization from an it to a we. Great spokespersons do this by building organizational trust and credibility in the organization they represent, and by gaining support for the agency’s response efforts. But in a disaster, the stakes are higher and there is limited time to gain the audience’s trust, especially since anxieties have more than likely gone nuclear during the crisis. One of the great qualities of any spokesperson during a disaster is their ability to remove psychological barriers—including fear and anxiety—in affected communities. Ultimately, if a spokesperson is successfully able to communicate important public health messages, areas affected by a disaster will face fewer incidents of illness, injury, and death.

10 Qualities of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster

With so much at stake, how does a spokesperson communicate effectively during a disaster? More specifically, what are the best qualities of a great spokesperson during that disaster? Using the principles of crisis and risk communications, a spokesperson can increase the likelihood that people will listen to your organization’s messages, trust your advice, and act on your recommendations when calamity strikes. To understand better the tools you have at your disposal, here are 10 qualities of a great spokesperson during a disaster:

"A good spokesperson embodies an organization's identity, personifies its response efforts, and serves as the overall human connection to the public."

Quality #10 of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster: They’re Self-Aware

There is an old saying asking us to “know thyself.” It’s a lost art in today’s society, but if you want to exhibit a strong, internal quality of a great spokesperson during a disaster, then it’s essential that you understand your strengths and weaknesses to be an effective speaker. Know what your best qualities are and how you can use these to enhance your presentation skills. You should also know your weak points and look for ways to minimize them. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is difficult on an average day, but acknowledging them during times of disaster is downright difficult as your agency navigates how they’ll respond to the disaster…and how you emotionally do the same for your own psyche. Great speakers are always looking for ways to improve and make their messaging more engaging, but trying to get it right during an emergency is a bad time to start practicing. Better to understand yourself before the social collapse.

Quality #9 of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster: They’re Confident

When it comes to trusting your leaders during an emergency, confidence reigns as one of the most important characteristics of a spokesperson. Coming across as timid or nervous during the delivery of your message will make connecting with your audience more complicated, which is the exact opposite of what you need while the zombie hordes are beating down the doors of town hall.  A certain amount of nervousness may be inevitable, so you need to develop strategies to deal with these feelings. The best way to do that is with practice — if you know the material and spend time working on your disaster message, it will be easier to show up confidently. You can also show confidence through your body language. Maintain eye contact with your audience, move around the stage, and use hand gestures to demonstrate your points. If you are being interviewed by the media, then maintain the confidence that you are in charge of the flow of the interview, not the reporter.

Quality #8 of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster: They Can Read the Room

People who are excellent public speakers are good at reading the room and picking up on the audience's nonverbal cues. Learning how to read the room takes time because you have to get out of your head first, which is especially true during a disaster. Stay focused on the audience and the goal of your message, whether that be in person or if you’re being interviewed for the media. Reading the reporter(s) is especially important since they are trained to find the answers they’re looking for during an interview. Over time, you’ll learn how to read your audience and understand how they’re receiving the information. However, this is challenging if you don’t research who you’re speaking to or understand their expectations. (Relate to Communicate: Empathy in Crisis Messaging) As in marketing segmentation, you should be able to group your audience according to demographics, psychographics, and other socio-cultural factors. One of the qualities of a great spokesperson during a disaster is to consider what you desire your audience to do, know, or feel. Understanding your audience’s pain points and motivators is contingent upon your ability to empathize with them (more on that soon), so it’s a good idea to survey your audience to gain insights before you address them or the media and anticipate what questions your audience may have.

Quality #7 of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster: They’re Adaptable

No matter how well you prepare for a speech, there’s always the potential that something could go wrong. This goes beyond a technical glitch during a message. I’m talking about being adaptable during a disaster as things continually change during the chaos. Large-scale disasters bring large-scale changes as the scenario develops. Staying on top of the information is essential, which means adaptability is key to exhibiting one of the qualities of a great spokesperson during a disaster. As an emergency spokesperson, it’s essential to be adaptable and expect the unexpected. This attitude will allow you to stay calm, focus on the audience, and decide what you’re going to do next.  

Quality #6 of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster: They’re Concise

Effective communicators know how to get their points across in a succinct way. They know how to speak clearly and avoid confusing their audience. This makes it easier for the audience to absorb and take action on the information you’re sharing. One way to be more concise is to break your messaging into smaller chunks of information. Avoid the urge to over-explain yourself and restate your points using different words. A common temptation for spokespersons representing first responder agencies is to use agency-specific jargon or methods of speaking. Don’t. It might be how you best organize your information, but your audience hears it as being non-empathetic. A general rule of marketing is that the customer doesn’t want to burn brain cells trying to interpret the sales message. The same holds even more true during times of emergency. Be honest, frank, and open with information and explain what your organization is doing to get information if it isn’t available. While it goes without saying, meeting the needs of the public and the media to demonstrate availability and transparency is front and center and is one of the qualities of a great spokesperson during a disaster.

"A good spokesperson embodies an organization's identity, personifies its response efforts, and serves as the overall human connection to the public."

Quality #5 of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster: They’re Accountable

Accountability seems in short supply today, but it is a cornerstone of developing trust during a disaster. The right spokesperson can help make their organization a trusted resource for reliable information during an emergency. Using crisis and risk communication principles can help a spokesperson do this well. It’s essential to keep promises and evaluating progress to help your organization improve its communication during a crisis so that your audience isn’t left in the dark. As the spokesperson, holding yourself accountable and doing so publicly will be a breath of fresh air for many who don’t trust the media and governmental leaders.

Quality #4 of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster: They’re Relatable

Some of the best spokespeople are those that remind us of ourselves. Authenticity is what allows your audience to connect with you during your speech. If your communication comes across as inauthentic or aloof, it will be harder for the audience to trust you which is a cornerstone of emergency communication . Focus on being yourself and approach your audience with honesty and vulnerability. A great spokesperson puts their audience first and creates a rapport with the audience. Understanding your audience helps you develop an emotional connection through relatable messages and language that is familiar to them. This is important since you need your audience to listen to your recommendations throughout all phases of the disaster.

Quality #3 of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster: They Have Credibility

A good spokesperson will gain the trust of the public, making them a credible source. Whether they’re a scholar, an elected official, or a professional who testifies to the benefits of emergency recommendations, people respond to figures who are an authority. As established credible sources, we trust their opinion and insight. So what lends to the credibility of a great spokesperson during a disaster? Education and experience can help establish credibility, but a spokesperson should still tailor messaging to make complex information more easily understood. Disaster psychologists suggest creating our messages that do not reach over a sixth grade level. 

This might sound crass, but remember that we receive and act upon information differently during a disaster. If we can reach our audience in times of crisis with ways that help them understand better, then our credibility has more clout and the audience’s ability to respond to our recommendations increases. Education and leadership titles count toward credibility, but remember that they are only the foot that gets us in the door of our audience’s hearts. After that, we have to show up ready to perform.

Quality #2 of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster: They’re Empathetic and Caring

The best communicators exhibit a balance between empathy and authority. Warmth and strength should be front and center of how we communicate as leaders and is an appropriate tonal combination in both what we say and how we say it. Empathy in crisis messaging is even more critical during a disaster in which information is gold. Great spokespersons lead their audiences to a level of educated preparedness. Get it wrong, and your audience will quickly lose trust which only exacerbates panic and fear. Practicing empathy in a crisis messaging such as this will help build an emotional connection that demonstrates our ability to share the pain with our fellow neighbors. Again, we show that we understand our audience’s fears and misgivings because we share the same fears and misgivings. Put yourself in your listener's shoes and think about what the kindest way to say what needs to be said. Take responsibility for your communication and be as interested in listening as you are in speaking. Too often, we communicators run the risk of speaking and not listening. Listening to the people experiencing an emergency will often reveal exactly what information they need, and this can help a spokesperson better deliver messages, ranking empathy on top of the list of qualities that make a great spokesperson during a disaster.

Quality #1 of a Great Spokesperson During a Disaster: They are the human embodiment of the organization

Of all of the qualities that make a spokesperson great during a disaster, becoming the human form of the organization they represent is at the top of the list. Spokespersons aren’t doing the television interview for themselves or their ego…at least they shouldn’t be. During a crisis, the responding agency should put their best foot forward when addressing their community, and selecting the right spokesperson is the tip of the spear. The spokesperson is the first person that the community sees and if they exhibit the previous qualities that a great spokesperson has during a disaster, then that individual is who they’ll attach any good – or bad – perception they have of the responding agency. In a disaster, people respond better to someone, rather than some thing, they can see and interact with.

The 4-11

Spokespersons are trained, because we know that few are born. Their success in reaching their audience is in their ability to effectively connect with the audience, either through the media or in person. Empathy is key as the spokesperson brings the organization to life and embodies the organization to give it its human identity. Developing the qualities that a great spokesperson exercises in a disaster is not a natural process because disasters are not everyday occurrences. We speak, listen, and act upon information differently in a disaster and knowing that in advance is the first step to becoming a the person for the job when crisis strikes.

About the Author

Mark Linderman is the owner of Disaster Initiatives, an online company that provides communication leaders with the tools needed to address their communities and the media throughout a crisis, and teaches the communicator to approach crisis communication from the listener’s perspective. He is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and nineteen-year veteran of Public Health. He instructs Crisis & Risk Communication within the field of disaster preparedness for seven universities, including Indiana University’s Fairbanks School of Public Health. Mark is considered a Subject Matter Expert in the field of disaster-based communication and is a widely received public speaker and advocate for disaster preparedness. 

Mark Linderman,

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