Communicating about complex scientific issues is difficult on a normal day, but add stress, and it can be downright overwhelming. Communication changes when concern is rampant and emotions are high. Building trust and credibility requires speed and accuracy, simplicity and empathy. And, when you’re talking about complex issues, it requires technical knowledge, too.

On a normal day, expertise is king. The Center for Risk Communication estimates that expertise accounts for 80-85 percent of trust determination during times of low concern, while all other factors account for less than 20 percent. Add stress, though, and the equation changes. Competence and expertise account for only 15-20 percent of trust determination, while honesty and openness; listening, caring and empathy; and other factors are most influential in determining trust.

So, does a technical organization just throw out the techies and go straight for the spokesperson or CEO?
Not necessarily. If a person with technical expertise can be adequately trained as a spokesperson in advance of a stressful situation, they could be the appropriate person to interface with the media during a crisis, or to deal with a sensitive issue. During the crisis, though, is not the time to train a technical expert to serve as the company’s key spokesperson.

There are a few essential elements a subject matter expert needs to have in order to be an effective spokesperson:

  1. A Healthy Respect for News Media Deadlines
    Whether all the answers are readily available or not, it is imperative that the news media be fed information as soon as it is available. Even if an organization is fortunate enough to have a dedicated communicator, it may be a full-time job “running interference” with the media and triaging questions. The subject matter expert must make himself or herself available to answer the questions that are coming from the public, and the fastest way to answer those questions are through the news media. Speed and accuracy are not mutually exclusive. This is an area where the technical spokesperson can be a valuable asset. They know the information and can provide it quickly.
  2. An Understanding of the Elements that Make News
    It is important for any spokesperson to understand the perspective from which a reporter is coming to cover a story. The spokesperson should be prepared for questions surrounding the elements of news – timeliness, proximity, prominence, human interest, consequence and conflict. Take for example, a veterinarian acting as the key spokesperson during an animal disease outbreak. He or she may be prepared for all of the questions about how to protect other animals and prevent transmission to humans but may not realize a national news network just broke a story about an animal rights group blaming modern veterinary medicine for the crisis. If a professional communicator is on hand to select the spokesperson, it is imperative that all angles have been covered and that the technical person is aware of all the news elements surrounding their “piece” of the story.
  3. A staff that can operate effectively with or without the person present
    Too often, organizations rely on people who are “in the trenches” to serve as spokespeople during high stress situations. During a crisis, it takes every technical expert available to complete the tasks at hand. Responding to the media – and therefore the public – becomes a lower priority. A good spokesperson must have adequate backup to be able to separate themselves from the work at hand to liaison with the public. If this cannot be accomplished easily, it would be advisable to select another spokesperson or hire an outside expert to interface with the media.
  4. Discipline about his or her choice of words and the ability to assimilate difficult technical information into short sound bites
    The midst of a cataclysmic event like an airplane crash is no time to delve into the finer points of turbine engine blade failure. Nor is a foodborne illness outbreak a time to delve into the finer points of microbiological possibilities for pathogenicity. People want to know the facts of the situation, they want to know you care, and they want assurances that their food is safe. If a technical person can explain the situation to you in a sentence or two and hit the “essence” of the situation, then it is likely that they will be able to do the same with a camera shoved in their face – provided they have had adequate training in advance. On the contrary, if it is typical for you to leave a conversation, with the technical person whom you are considering, “scratching your head,” please choose a different spokesperson.
  5. A low level of confidence about their expertise as a spokesperson
    It may seem counterintuitive to choose someone who is not a publicity magnet, but an ego can be a big obstacle to remove in the midst of a stressful situation. The best subject matter experts are confident in their abilities as a technical expert but question their abilities to go on the record. You have the ability to deconstruct their messages, reconstruct them and rebuild their confidence. With proper coaching, they will approach their interview with the appropriate level of assurance, but may be more careful in the interview situation. If you have confidence in the person’s ability to perform under pressure, don’t hesitate to use them. Just know that you must take the time to prepare them prior to any interview or interaction.

Crisis is the time to respond, not to react, so be sure to invest in spokesperson skill assessments and training during routine times. That way, regardless of your choice of a subject matter expert or a seasoned communicator, the choice will be as easy as dusting off your crisis communication plan.