A spokesperson is a professional who represents an organization in the media. He or she is responsible for communication on corporate issues with external stakeholders such as journalists, customers, the public, investors, or community members. Typically, a spokesperson delivers a statement and answers questions at times of crisis or controversy—for example, in a press conference or in an interview with a journalist. Spokespersons also appear in corporate advertising, at investors meetings, or at community meetings. This entry further defines the role of a spokesperson and discusses the attributes and characteristics of spokespersons that may facilitate or hinder their ability to be persuasive.
A spokesperson serves as the voice of the organization, and as such, he or she embodies the organization. A spokesperson may give the organization a human face in the public eye and may induce perceptions of the organization as caring and human, rather than as a cold, distant corporate entity. This process of humanizing an organization is called anthropomorphism.
Spokespersons can make it easier for publics to relate to the organization, as people tend to feel more empathy for a spokesperson than for an impersonal corporate entity. Especially when organizations consistently use the same spokesperson over time, people may develop a relationship with the spokesperson as a trusted source of information. This is important as the effectiveness of communication heavily depends on the public’s attitude toward the communicator. Therefore, the effectiveness of corporate communication depends not only on carefully crafted messages but also on the person delivering the message. Spokespersons who are seen as credible, trustworthy experts can enhance the believability of corporate messages and influence people’s beliefs and opinions about corporate issues, their feelings toward the organization, and their behaviors, and in particular their loyalty to the organization. A good spokesperson instills trust, persuades the public of the organization’s merit, and improves the corporate reputation.
Many organizations delegate spokespersonship to members of the organization such as public relations officials, communication professionals, or leaders, such as the CEO or the chief communication officer. Occasionally, organizations choose to hire external spokespersons (e.g., communication consultants or celebrities) to deliver corporate messages. Ever since Aristotle’s time, people have been trying to understand what makes effective speakers.
In his book The Dynamics of Persuasion, Richard Perloff explored the factors underlying a source’s persuasiveness. He proposed that to persuade publics, a source needs credibility, attractiveness, and similarity.
Spokespersons are often hired when an organization’s credibility is threatened—for instance, during a crisis or controversy. Increasingly, organizations are faced with skeptical stakeholders who challenge the organization’s actions and decisions. At such times, communication is aimed at the restoration of public trust and corporate reputation. Spokesperson credibility positively influences the effectiveness of the communication effort. Credible spokespersons not only are more convincing but also gain more attention. Credibility refers to the audience’s attitude toward the source of a communication massage: in this case, the spokesperson. It is multidimensional and includes the spokesperson’s expertise and trustworthiness. First, expertise refers to the knowledge a spokesperson is perceived to possess about the organizational issue. A message from a spokesperson who is perceived to be an expert is persuasive because people believe that the content of the communication is accurate. Therefore, the public tends to adopt an expert spokesperson’s views and opinions. Second, a trustworthy spokesperson is perceived to be honest and sincere. People tend to accept a message by a trustworthy source without too much further elaboration. Because spokesperson credibility basically serves as a heuristic cue or shortcut, it particularly affects low-involved individuals. High-involved individuals may be more inclined to base their judgments on a more deliberate and careful processing of the message, regardless of the credibility of the source.
Particularly in advertising, spokespersons are often selected on the basis of their physical appearance. The rationale goes that attractive spokespersons in advertisements improve the attitude toward the ad, which improves the effectiveness of the message. This pathway is confirmed in some experiments. However, an attractive spokesperson does not automatically make a message persuasive in all cases. Some empirical support was found for the so-called match-up hypothesis, which states that some level of congruence is needed between the spokesperson’s image and the product’s image. In this context, it implies that attractiveness only increases the persuasiveness of beauty-related messages.
Besides credibility and attractiveness, persuasiveness is also affected by perceived similarity: People generally identify more strongly with spokespersons who are thought to be similar to themselves (e.g., in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, or belief system). As a consequence, similar spokespersons are perceived as more credible and more persuasive than dissimilar spokespersons. When corporate messages are targeted at specific audiences (in terms of age, gender, or ethnicity), a spokesperson can be selected who is in some ways similar to the target audience. At the same time, spokespersons can increase the perceived similarity by stressing how much they resemble a typical audience member. For instance, a spokesperson may accentuate that, just like many audience members, he or she is a community member, a product user, a parent, or a worried citizen. Furthermore, a spokesperson may emphasize the values that he or she shares with the public, such as security, value for money, or self-enhancement. By doing so, a spokesperson may increase the perceived similarity with the public and as a consequence enhance the persuasiveness of the message.
Spokespersons are often selected on the basis of characteristics such as their rank (e.g., CEOs) or their fame among the public (celebrities).
It is a common practice in public relations that the highest-ranked officer of the organization, such as the CEO, managing director, president, or chairman, regularly acts as a spokesperson in the media. When a high-ranked official represents the organization, this may signal that the issue has the highest priority in the organization and that the organization is doing everything in its power to deal with the issue. For instance, when AirAsia Flight 8501 with 155 passengers and seven crew members went missing in December 2014, AirAsia’s CEO Tony Fernandes personally addressed the media, throughout the crisis handling. At a press conference on December 30, 2014, two days after the plane went missing, he stated,
I am the leader of this company; I take responsibility. That is why I am here. I am not running away from my obligations even though we don’t know what’s wrong [in causing the crash]. The passengers were on my aircraft, and I have to take responsibility for that. (Watts & Rachman, 2014)
By stepping up as the company’s spokesperson at press conferences and on social media, Fernandes showed strong leadership and made it clear that the crisis had the highest priority in the company. Although its stock ratings plummeted after this devastating accident, AirAsia was generally praised for the handling of this crisis.
Although a high-ranked officer adds gravity to a corporate message, for a number of reasons such a spokesperson may not always be completely appropriate or desirable. First, the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that CEOs are trusted by only 43 percent of the public, which ranks them below “a regular employee,” “a person like yourself,” and “an academic or an expert” (trusted by 52, 62, and 67 percent of the public, respectively). Second, while a CEO may add gravity to a message, an organization may aim to contain the crisis as much as possible. By assigning a regional or local manager as the spokesperson, an organization can signal that the magnitude of the issue is small or medium. Finally, other employees, such as communication executives, may be better qualified to address the news media than a CEO is. For instance, logically, financial officers may be the best spokespersons when it comes to financial issues, while a corporate social responsibility director is most knowledgeable when it comes to corporate social responsibility issues.
In advertising, organizations often hire celebrity spokespersons such as athletes, actors, models, or television stars. In more than 20 percent of all advertisements, a celebrity promotes a brand. For years, Gillette has been using celebrity athletes, such as tennis player Roger Federer, for its advertising campaigns. An organization uses the celebrity’s fame and image to promote a corporate message. The rationale behind selecting a celebrity as a spokesperson in advertising is that, in people’s minds, positive attributes are transferred from the celebrity to the organization. Federer has been described as classy and reliable. By assigning spokespersonship to Federer, Gillette is hoping that these attributes are transferred to its brand. In addition, a celebrity increases the attention value of a corporate message.
The selection of celebrities for spokespersonship is not an easy task. Several requirements apply: First, the celebrity should be well-known among the target audience and should be instantly recognized. Second, the celebrity should have a spotless reputation. Ironically, corporate reputation may be harmed by celebrity spokespersons in case of misconduct. In the 1990s, O. J. Simpson was a prominent spokesperson for Hertz, a car rental company. The collaboration was terminated when reports of domestic abuse surfaced. With paparazzi hunting for scandals to smear celebrities 24/7, hiring a celebrity spokesperson remains somewhat risky. Third, the celebrity should be seen as having some authority with regard to the product. Obviously, a celebrity would have to be clean shaven in order to be a credible spokesperson for Gillette.
Conclusions and Final Remarks
For the sake of reliability and recognition, one could argue for the consistent use of a single spokesperson throughout different media and across time. However, specific issues, situations, and publics usually put very different demands on the selection of a spokesperson. A good spokesperson has to meet a large list of requirements: credibility, attractiveness, similarity with the target audience, rank in the organization, and fame. Such characteristics can increase the attention value and the effectiveness of a corporate message. However, perhaps even more important, spokespersons also need to be well informed, understand how news media work, have strong verbal skills, and be able to improvise. All these factors need to be taken into consideration in the selection and training of spokespersons.
Still, organizations may not always be able to completely control who speaks to the media, at what moment, and through what medium. For example, by commenting on current affairs on Twitter, at any given time, any employee may become an organizational spokesperson in the eyes of the public. Journalists often approach employees for a statement directly, without consulting the public relations department, or information from within organizations is leaked to the media. In such cases, a spokesperson is absent, and no source is revealed. Furthermore, carefully controlling who represents the organization in the media is sometimes not only unrealistic but also undesirable. After all, it sometimes takes away the flexibility to respond to developments in the dynamic environment in a timely, authentic, and adequate manner. Furthermore, public responses to spokespersons are not always predictable, but rather, they depend on the meanings that people create in response to the spokesperson. These meanings take shape in public discourses and are affected by numerous factors, such as communications by other actors in the issue arena (e.g., competitors, journalists, customers, or experts), attitudes toward the issue, and the organization’s history with regard to the issue.
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