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Choosing a good spokesperson – a COVID lesson in comms

By Kelly Marshall-Hill. Choosing a spokesperson that can convey your message to the media with clarity, credibility and impact is critical. And amid the fast-moving COVID pandemic, the UK rise in prominence of Jonathan Van-Tam is a case in point.

The Deputy Medical Officer is now known as JVT, with the Guardian naming him ‘the leading light of the government’s coronavirus briefings’.  Despite fronting a fraction of the 120-plus UK Government press conferences in his role as second in command to Professor Chris Whitty, Van-Tam has earned a significant amount of attention, and respect. 

In fact, across the virus peak of December 2020 and January 2021, Google searches for Van-Tam outnumbered those of Whitty by three to one.

As a Nottingham PR agency, we might be particularly fond of Prof Van-Tam; after all he is local to the region and a member of the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine. He earned the moniker ‘Van-Tam Jab Man’ from the Metro when he donned scrubs in January to give out jabs himself at a Nottingham clinic.  So, what is it about Van-Tam that has captured such interest, and what makes him a good spokesperson?

The ability to convey information in a compelling way

This is an essential quality, and Van-Tam has it in spades. His approach, which is unique to the experts who have stood on the UK government podium, is to use a range of analogies to explain medical data. The BBC even compiled a great round up of the most memorable ones, with trains, yoghurts, and penalties among them (“You haven’t won the cup yet, but what [the vaccine trial] does is, it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.”). 

Be an authority

Earning the respect of the audience is important, and Van-Tam’s credentials speak for themselves. After all, he’s been in his senior role for over three years. But ‘knowing your stuff’ and being able to convey that when under the microscope – and with the Prime Minister stood beside you – is a different challenge. While the Professor is an expert in his field of knowledge, it is still important to prepare for such events – knowing the facts, having your key messages to hand, and feeling confident enough to veer from the script and still deliver the most pertinent details.

Making it personal

People are engaged by people, and so drawing on personal experiences is a great way to get your message across. Van-Tan humanised the vaccine debate by telling viewers that he has told his 78-year-old mother, Elizabeth, to ‘be ready when called up’ to get hers. Anecdotes work in a similar way, and are great for engaging others, be it in a speech or when being grilled by the UK media.

Manage the situation effectively

Van-Tam is skilled at media handling, and he needs to be, in the face of over 100,000 COVID deaths and a responsibility to give advice that will help shape government policy. While media interrogations have sometimes been accusatory, Van-Tam always remains unflustered, with a calm and confident demeanour.

He is a natural at unpicking questions, boiling down issues and signposting us all to the most important takeaway.

At The Tonic Communications, we’ve supported clients in healthcare PR for many years – working within highly regulated industries on issues-led activity. Having a well-trained, competent, and confident spokesperson cannot be underestimated. When a crisis hits, you need to be in a position to put a human face to your brand – your customers will expect it. So, here’s a few of our top tips on how to succeed as a spokesperson:

Be your authentic self. Van-Tam made headlines in November when he fielded questions in a government briefing from self-isolation at home and used the word ‘over’ to demonstrate he had stopped speaking – much to the amusement of many a Twitter user. It shows that you don’t have to suppress idiosyncrasies and that bringing your own style and manner can endear you to your audience. 

Know your subject, inside out – and practice how to explain it succinctly to someone who is a complete newcomer to your industry, product or service. Media like facts and figures, examples, and evidence to demonstrate why what you’re saying matters. 

Use layman’s terms. You must leave jargon at the door. It won’t make you sound superior or intelligent. Interrogate the language you use when you speak about your topic with someone outside of your own area and ensure they can digest it. Organisations can often be echo chambers, where everyone uses the same acronyms. For the most part, this kind of language should not be used in media interviews.

Make yourself comfortable – but not too comfortable. Media interviews, job interviews, any kind of interview can be anxiety-inducing. There are lots of techniques to feel more at ease, such as wearing comfortable clothes, having up to five key messages front of mind, planning the logistics (who you’re talking to, how long is the slot going to be, it is a live interview, am I speaking alongside anyone else). But it’s just as important not to feel too comfortable. Don’t stray off topic or talk outside of your area of expertise and avoid anything ‘off the record’. With many interviews currently being held virtually due to COVID, Zoom chats may feel less daunting and allow your guard to slip, or for professional standards to slide – perhaps best demonstrated with the Jackie Weaver saga – don’t let that happen.

Consider training and refresh your knowledge frequently. If you have an experienced crisis communications PR agency, they may offer training and can help practice in real scenarios to see how you come across on camera and in interviews. You may never have realised that you gesticulate wildly, shuffle your knee when under pressure, or use the word ‘like’ repeatedly as a filler. And these are things that will detract from your message. Consulting a third party for guidance could be invaluable.

And finally – before any interview, check nose and teeth. For obvious reasons.

About the Author

Agency co-founders Kelly Marshall-Hill and GeorginaPhillips set up The Tonic Communications after working for more than 20 years apiece for leading UK and international agencies. Kelly is a trained journalist who worked at one of the UK’s largest universities, the globally-renowned Porter Novelli agency in Sydney – working with clients including PepsiCo, P&O Cruises and Visa – and then held two management roles with UK agencies before co-founding Tonic.

The Tonic Communications – a top 40 UK PR agency based in Nottingham– working with brands and businesses that are making the world a better place, through health and wellbeing solutions, responsible leisure and retail PR and sustainable transport and travel. 

Kelly Marshall-Hill. Tonic Communications