Australians expect Ministers and CEOs to shoot for the positives and downplay the negatives when presenting an issue. But do we trust authority figures and could ordinary people do a better job?
Who’s your spokesperson?
Most organisations choose a default setting when it comes to presenting an issue to the public. They choose the most powerful individual in their agency or company, then he or she steps forward to speak on everything for everyone. It’s fine if they succeed but if they don’t then everyone in the organisation tumbles over the metaphorical cliff.
It seems the practice of only letting the boss talk is ingrained in Australian public life. But pause for a moment. Where’s the evidence to show the boss is always the best spokesperson?
In recent years research shows the public least trusts the most senior people in large organisations to act as spokespeople.
For the past 14 years the US PR agency Edelman has produced a trust barometer showing the results of an annual global survey on the trust and credibility levels in large organisations and institutions. In 2014 Australia was one of the few countries to see a lift in trust levels but this year’s results on the credibility of spokespersons are revealing.
- Out of all the different types of people who could speak publicly on an issue, CEOs are the least credible. Only 39% of Australians trust the most senior executives in a company and it would be safe to say this probably applies to their equivalents in government.
- Academics, technical experts and even regular staff enjoy higher trust ratings than the boss.
- People are unconvinced government and business leaders will tell the truth and act with integrity. Edelman reports a whopping 60% of people do not trust government leaders at all, and 48% do not trust business leaders.
So would ordinary people be more effective when it comes to presenting an issue to the public?
From September to November I helped the community of the Cocos Islands raise awareness of an important Anzac Centenary event. 100 years ago the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney destroyed the German Navy raider, the SMS Emden in the Cocos Islands. This short but bloody battle was Australia’s first naval victory so the Islanders were keen to make Australians aware of this historic event.
Initially our media plans relied on two spokespersons to speak about the Sydney-Emden story. Both were authority figures: a former and very senior Federal Government executive and an historian. Our thinking was it would be easier to manage our media relations efforts by deploying two people who would stay on message.
But three weeks before the Centenary event and during the peak of our media pitching cycle both men suddenly became unavailable and we were left with no one for media interviews.
We were in a fix. You can have the best story in the world but if there is no one to personalise that story, you’re in trouble. We need helped fast.
That’s when we turned to the descendants of the crews of both ships and invited them into our media plan. This was risky. They were connected to this wonderful century-old wartime story not by organisational links but by personal bonds. Also they were scattered across Australia and because we had never met them, we had little idea of what they would stay and how they would react to reporters.
But it turns out we need not have worried because ordinary people can become extraordinary spokespersons and each relative brilliantly shared their family stories with the media. Granddaughters, grandsons, cousins and distant relatives willingly made themselves available to the media to talk with passion about the part their grandfathers, uncles and other relatives played in the battle.
The campaign achieved nearly 1400 items of media coverage. The interesting thing was that coverage not only focused on that somewhat forgotten battle at sea but much of it centred on the connections of ordinary people to that 100-year old story.
So between this Cocos experience and the Edelman research, I re-learned a communications lesson. Real people connected with your issue might be more effective spokespersons than powerful people in senior roles.