Podium people

I’ve taken part in, and eavesdropped on, several wonderful discussions recently about whether Aussie PM Julia Gillard is a nasty person because she didn’t show much emotion about the Queensland floods in front of the cameras, and whether Queensland premier Anna Bligh’s tearful moment at a press conference cemented her position as Australia’s Communicator-in-Chief.

Particularly memorable was a discussion in the Twitter feed of Aussie journalism maven Julie Posetti. This swirled around the thesis that emotion was expected of a female political leader but not of a male. A short but enjoyable debate ensued about the relative rights and wrongs of this position.

I don’t know how it was for you but for me Anna Bligh cemented her position as a modern-day communication hero (heroine? heratrix?) the moment she took to that flood management media podium for the very first time. Days and days before the tears.

We know it when we see it and, like cats who know exactly which lap belongs to the kitty-hater, we’re drawn to it.

This week I’m going to find myself in the risky and ever-so-delicate position of advising a client that neither he nor his 2i/c are the ideal public faces of their organisation. Instead that honour, in my ever-so-slightly humble opinion, belongs to someone a little further down the corporate food-chain.

It’s really hard to put your finger on what makes a good spokesperson. But it’s the easiest thing in the world to identify. You just know it when you see it. Anna Bligh has it in spades. And it’s not a gender thing because so does Pike River CEO Peter Whittall. So did David Brown. And so does the preferred (and very male) person I’ll be suggesting at this week’s meeting.

It’s so important to use your most effective spokesperson rather than your most senior. That’s not to say that the top dogs don’t need to front to camera on a regular basis, by the way. Damn straight they do. It just means that they shouldn’t necessarily, or automatically, be the face of the organisation day in, day out, as the crisis unfolds.

So what do I mean by “most effective”? I’ll take a brief stab here but would love to hear your thoughts on this:

  • Readily available
  • Knowledgeable
  • Fitting/closely resembling the priority audience demographic
  • Reasonably senior, preferably having risen through the ranks of the organisation/industry
  • Respectable member of the impacted community
  • The right personal qualities

So what are these personal qualities? Again, here are just a few thoughts from the cheap seats – I’d love to have your input here as well:

  • Articulate
  • Warm
  • Compassionate
  • Humble
  • Emotionally intelligent / empathetic
  • Emotionally strong
  • Mentally agile
  • Astute / politically aware
  • Genuine
  • Patient
  • Engaging
  • Soft-spoken
  • Resilient

Now, what about those tears? Hmm – difficult. I think raw emotion has a real place in the stress of any human catastrophe. And tears are part of that – in most Western societies at least. Cry about that kind of stuff and your tears could well be the making of you. Cry crocodile tears, or about the pressures of business or politics, and they’ll break you. Boy or girl, I think it holds true either way.

I don’t think Anna Bligh is riding the wave of popular opinionbecause she cried. And I don’t think Julia Gillard got slammed because she didn’t. I just think that in their hours of need people respond better to authority if it’s tempered with genuine compassion and humanity.

No-one can teach a politician or an organisation’s spokesperson how to do that. But we know it when we see it and, like cats who know exactly which lap belongs to the kitty-hater, we’re drawn to it.

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