How to Be a Better Brand Spokesperson Than Mark Zuckerberg

Recently, during a live stream of Facebook’s weekly internal Q&A meeting, Mark Zuckerberg shared, “I do such a bad job at interviews.” When the CEO of a company with a market cap of over $500 billion admits that he does a poor job at press interviews, it makes you wonder: What makes for a good brand spokesperson?

Recently, during a live stream of Facebook’s weekly internal Q&A meeting, Mark Zuckerberg shared, “I do such a bad job at interviews.” When the CEO of a company with a market cap of over $500 billion admits that he does a poor job at press interviews, it makes you wonder: What makes for a good interview?

For starters, the quality of an interview should be judged from both the perspective of the interview subject (and their company) as well as the reporter (and their publication). I’ve worked with dozens of spokespeople over the years and have facilitated good, bad and, quite frankly, ugly interviews.

The likelihood of a good interview increases greatly if you identify spokespeople with certain innate qualities. Good interviews are also the result of proper preparation and training.

4 Requirements of Good Brand Spokespeople

Whether a company is big or small, there should be an arsenal of spokespeople to cover a variety of topics that will boost the corporate reputation. The best place to begin selecting your spokespeople is with these four requirements: interest, availability, knowledge, and title.

Interest

If a spokesperson isn’t interested in participating in interviews or doesn’t see the value, then guess what? They won’t be good at them. Public relations teams should educate their spokespeople on PR goals and share examples and results, especially over time, to maintain interest.

Availability

In the digital and social media age, the news cycle is rapid. If a spokesperson can’t respond within minutes or hours, they will miss out on opportunities.

Don’t assume travel means a spokesperson isn’t available. I’ve worked with colleagues who are road warriors, but make the time for interviews from airports, hotels, and cars. I’ve even done chat and email interviews with spokespeople who are in-flight.

Knowledge

An interview is an opportunity to share knowledge specific to a story topic. If a spokesperson doesn’t know what they’re talking about, they make themselves and their company look bad. A brand spokesperson should be a subject matter expert and, in partnership with the PR team, the interviewee should do additional research ahead of time.

Title

Not all brand spokespeople are created equal in the eyes of the press. Certain roles and titles garner more media interest than others. More often than not, reporters prefer the opportunity to speak to a CEO or other member of the C-suite. It’s very difficult to get a reporter excited about speaking to a sales leader.

Going From Good to Great

Now that you’ve got someone who is a willing participant and knows what they’re talking about, there are a number of other factors that will make for an engaging and valuable interview, for both the company and the publication.

Unique and Timely POV

Contrarian and provocative points of view make for more interesting stories and help reporters provide a balance of ideas. A brand interviewee should be able to speak to relevant and timely matters, and provide perspective on what’s to come.

Sincerity

A good brand spokesperson, much like a good politician, is likeable, genuine, and sincere. When Mark Zuckerberg sat down with CNN in March 2018, following Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, he was robotic and dodged a lot of the issues, as noted by the BBC.

Clarity

Interviews can last a few minutes or hours. However, that doesn’t mean a brand spokesperson should ramble. It’s important to be clear and concise. The best spokespeople repeat their key points and pause periodically to allow reporters to ask follow-up questions. Training and preparation provide an opportunity to pinpoint key messages and practice concise delivery.

Good Judgment

Even with extensive preparation and a public relations representative facilitating an interview, there’s onus on the brand spokesperson to exercise good judgment when asked a tough question, or in general. Elon Musk’s erratic behavior in interviews and with the media makes him a liability, not an asset, when it comes to interviews.

Open to Feedback

There’s always room for improvement, when it comes to interviews. Feedback, during the pre-interview prep work and post-interview, is critically important for a successful partnership between the brand spokesperson and the PR team.

Empathy

Journalism has transformed in the last two decades. Many publications have shifted to digital platforms, while numerous publications have folded. Reporter deadlines are tight and workdays are long. Spokespeople who can empathize with the position a reporter is in will be better interview subjects.

To help my spokespeople understand the reporters they speak with, I’ve not only focused on general media training (i.e. message development, interview tactics) but have also shared “a day in the life” of a reporter.

Ready for Prime Time

Rarely, will you find a brand spokesperson who has all of the skills and characteristics outlined above. However, with the right partnership between PR and spokespeople, companies can be well-represented in press interviews and can forge relationships that will help tell their story and improve their reputation.

Why a Brand Not Responding Is Sometimes the Best Response

I recently engaged in a thoughtful Twitter debate (no, this is not an oxymoron) with industry peers over my belief that non-response can be a valuable PR and reputation management strategy. Silence may not be well-received by everyone; especially reporters, who expect that PR representatives will be responsive and helpful.

I’ve written about the importance of transparency — by brands, when it comes to owning up to their mistakes; and by companies, as they consider privacy and security. And I do believe that transparency, openness, and honesty are the best policies, most of the time. But there’s still a place for what I call “strategic silence.”

I recently engaged in a thoughtful Twitter debate (no, this is not an oxymoron) with industry peers over my belief that non-response can be a valuable PR and reputation management strategy. Silence may not be well-received by everyone; especially reporters, who expect that PR representatives will be responsive and helpful. However, a public relations response requires weighing the needs of your business, leaders, clients, and other stakeholders.

Choosing not to respond comes with the understanding that you are leaving the media to interpret and speculate. You also run the risk of damaging your relationship with a reporter and publication.

Somewhere between non-response and response lies “no comment.” Formally telling a reporter that you can’t comment acknowledges the inquiry, but also protects your interests. There are instances, which I will highlight shortly, when saying “no comment” is better than not providing a comment.

Still, there are circumstances where not responding is the best response.

Times to Be Tight-Lipped

Legal & Regulatory

Legal matters are an obvious example of situations where the needs of the business outweigh media relations goals. When I led communications at a company that was impacted by a data breach, we could not speak on the record to anyone about the incident and investigation, beyond a very brief public statement. I received hundreds of calls — some from reporters I had deep relationships with for years. The value of these relationships didn’t trump the legal and regulatory risks of commenting.

Sheer Volume

Even if I were able to comment on the breach, I simply wouldn’t have been able to respond to the sheer volume of inquiries I received, including some from publications I had never heard of. When a company draws the attention of hundreds of reporters in a short timeframe, PR teams must prioritize publications. Unfortunately, many reporters end up with the silent treatment.

Transactions

Publicly traded companies, subject to Reg FD, face legal ramifications if they prematurely disclose material information. So they must operate in an environment of extreme caution when it comes to public relations activity. Furthermore, for public as well as privately-held companies, transactions such as mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures cannot be discussed until the appropriate time. Speaking to reporters, on or off the record, when a company is facing a deal is risky, not to mention potentially illegal.

Personnel Matters

Leadership departures and reorganizations, especially at large companies, draw rumors and speculation, which can lead to media attention. Speaking to the media about executive exits sets a dangerous precedent. When leaders are leaving on good terms, you may think it’s beneficial to discuss the circumstances. However, when you’re faced with a #MeToo scandal, you will not want to have set a precedent of discussing departures. To protect corporate reputation, I’ve always advised my clients and executives to maintain a standard policy of not commenting on personnel matters, beyond simply confirming a departure.

Final Thoughts

Be comfortable with your response strategy and your limitations. You can be committed to transparency and have clearly defined exceptions. Make sure leaders are on board with your strategy of silence.

Build out a publication and/or reporter prioritization that clearly outlines your most important media relationships. If your top priorities would benefit from a brief explanation as to why you’re unable to discuss a matter or would appreciate a more formal “no comment” response, try to engage with them accordingly.

Lastly, assess over time if your response, or lack of response, strategy is working or not. See what other companies, especially ones that you respect and aspire to be like, are doing when they’re facing challenging circumstances.

You can’t unsay something, but you can decide to share more in the future.

Why Everyone Benefits When Marketing and Privacy Are Aligned

Privacy is one of the most pressing issues facing organizations today. And it’s not just affecting the companies that are making headlines over it, like Facebook, Google, Capital One, and Experian.

Privacy is one of the most pressing issues facing organizations today. And it’s not just affecting the companies that are making headlines over it, like Facebook, Google, Capital One, and Experian. The recent passage of privacy laws in the United States and abroad, and the resulting potential fines for mistakes, have been a wake-up call for many. Marketing teams always needed to consider privacy but; now, it’s imperative, and there are significantly higher stakes (ahem…billions of dollars).

Noga Rosenthal, Chief Privacy Officer and General Counsel at NCC Media, believes that far too often, marketing and privacy may be unknowingly working against each other or in silos. However, it is essential for these two departments to be closely aligned.

She points out:

“Every company is a data company, whether or not they realize it. You have CRM data and employee data. You’re collecting data off your website. Nearly everybody will be impacted by legislation like CCPA [California Consumer Privacy Act] and needs to be paying attention.”

What’s at Stake

The stakes are high, and the risks are greater when there’s a disconnect between the marketing and communications teams and the privacy and legal teams. There are two common vulnerabilities:

1. Corporate marketing and advertising aren’t taking into account privacy when promoting products and services.

  • Corporate advertising is creepy to customers.
  • Your company is using new and trendy technology vendors that haven’t been properly vetted by privacy teams.
  • You’re using terminology in your marketing, like “tracking” and “anonymous,” that will draw scrutiny from lawmakers.

2. Marketing and communications teams aren’t involved in security and privacy breach preparedness and response.

  • Marketing and communications haven’t contributed to the company’s incident response plan.
  • Marketing is looped in too late during a breach and is not given the resources needed to respond to stakeholders and meet disclosure requirements.

Companies that falter can be subject to hefty fines. They could alienate their customers. And they’ll likely find themselves in the middle of a PR nightmare.

The Benefits of Collaboration

“Marketing should have a seat at the table in all things data governance. It’s mission-critical,” says Peg Kuman, Chief Privacy Officer of V12.

Bringing privacy and marketing together benefits everyone. If you’ve ever tried to read a privacy policy, you know that privacy and legal speak needs to be more accessible and consumer-friendly. Disclosures and policies written by privacy teams would surely benefit from a marketing and communications lens.

If marketers are more in tune with privacy, your company can protect its brand reputation and avoid the painful privacy missteps in advertising that we’ve seen with Netflix, Spotify, Tinder, and countless others. For companies that face an incident, collaboration can ensure a proper response, such as how Twitter recently owned up to its privacy mistakes, used consumer-friendly language and succinctly apologized.

Also, with an overall heightened interest in privacy, companies can provide value to clients and their customers by proactively sharing relevant and easy-to-understand privacy updates. A client outreach strategy can only be effective by coupling the expertise and knowledge of the privacy team with the creativity, strategy, and reach of the marketing team.

According to Rosenthal:

“At times, it feels like marketing and privacy are at odds with each other. But as privacy becomes more important to consumers, and companies like Apple use it as a way to bring in customers and differentiate from competitors, there’s more of a need to lean on each other.”

Where to Begin

There are several ways to open the lines of communication and foster a stronger partnership between privacy and marketing teams.

Establish a Cross-Functional Team

Don’t wait for something bad to happen to get closely aligned. Proactively create a team consisting of privacy, legal, marketing, and communications focused on cross-functional initiatives. Meet regularly to discuss legislation, strategize, and surface ideas.

Use these meetings as a forum for education and awareness. Like Kuman and Rosenthal, most privacy leaders are involved in industry organizations and coalitions. Through their participation, they get vital information that can help their marketing teams.

Commit to Privacy Principles

Privacy principles should align with the company’s mission, vision, and purpose. A great place to start is thinking about what trust and transparency mean for your industry and organization.

Once you’ve determined what privacy means for your organization, make sure it’s clear in everything you and your employees say and do. Better yet, put some marketing power behind those principles, so they become synonymous with your brand.

Prioritize Policies, Protocol, and Incident Response

Your privacy and marketing teams will need to jointly decide where to focus efforts across your various stakeholders including employees, clients, consumers, prospects, partners/vendors, the media, lawmakers, and investors.

There should be a clear protocol for how marketing and privacy work together, and all parties should understand the role that they play in protecting corporate reputation and respecting consumers.

If your organization doesn’t have a breach response strategy, privacy and marketing should champion the development of one, in conjunction with other parts of the organization, such as technology, information security, and client services. Simulation exercises are valuable ways to identify vulnerabilities and prepare without the intense pressure of an actual crisis.

Raise Awareness Through Education

Privacy is likely not top-of-mind for the majority of your marketing staff, but awareness is critical. Education increases awareness. Curriculum specific to marketing helps the full marketing organization understand their role in supporting the company’s privacy principles. Training can also address when it’s necessary to engage your privacy resources.

Kuman prefers the term “socialization” over training.

She adds:

“Companies should socialize the notion that privacy is how we protect our customer, employee, and business assets.”

Privacy Is Everyone’s Job

Regardless of where privacy laws are headed next in the United States and abroad, we all play a role in privacy protection and we’ll be more successful if we’re working closely together.

When Brands Apologize, Customers Often Listen and Forgive

Happy customers are loyal customers. But what happens when “surprise and delight” is actually “surprise and incite”? Social media has raised the stakes for brands. Customers, most often angry ones, have a forum to air their grievances.

Happy customers are loyal customers. But what happens when “surprise and delight” is actually “surprise and incite”?

Social media has raised the stakes for brands. Customers, most often angry ones, have a forum to air their grievances. I see it constantly on Twitter, and have admittedly participated myself, when air travel goes terribly wrong or quality falls short of expectations.

The good news is that it’s recoverable.

Brands that react swiftly, thoughtfully, and transparently are the ones who win. And by win, I mean they don’t necessarily lose customers as a result of their actions, inaction or missteps.

This week alone, two retailers were seemingly insensitive to their female customers and perceived as body-shaming the very people they want to empower.

Macy’s

Macy’s was called out in one tweet that received 48,000 likes and 6,000 comments for plates by a company called Pourtions that were highly controversial for their message. Intended to bring humor to the concept of portion control, the dinner plates feature a large ring that read “Mom Jeans,” a smaller ring that read “Favorite Jeans,” and an even smaller ring that read “Skinny Jeans.”

Macy’s responded by apologizing and vowing to remove the plates from their stores. Of course, not everyone in the Twittersphere agreed with this decision. But it does show a sense of responsibility for its products and consideration for its customers.

Forever 21

Forever 21 also came under fire this week for sending Atkins bars in online orders with plus size merchandise. They’re not just good at fast fashion, but they also showed they can deliver a fast reaction.

In response to press coverage of the “snafu,” Forever 21 said:

“From time to time, Forever 21 surprises our customers with free test products from third parties in their e-commerce orders. The freebie items in question were included in all online orders, across all sizes and categories, for a limited time, and have since been removed. This was an oversight on our part and we sincerely apologize for any offense this may have caused to our customers, as this was not our intention in any way.”

In this case, I think the word “test” is a critical one. If Forever 21 had done some market research and testing, perhaps it would have learned that a partnership with a brand like Atkins, that is depicted as a diet company, could be detrimental to its brand perception.

Conclusion

The merchandise you sell, the partners you align with, the sites where your ads run, the people you hire, the way you respond to criticism — all of these decisions impact your customers and shape your brand identity.

To err is human; to forgive, divine.