Board Talk: When is it the role of the chair to talk to the media?

Simon Hebditch and Isabel Walker agree that training and preparation are needed

Board Talk
Board Talk

Simon Hebditch: The issue is to what extent a charity chair should or shouldn't be involved in media relations, as opposed to the chief executive. A chief executive and a chair should talk about what their skills are and who should take the lead on which subject. I think out of that comes a decision on who's best placed to talk to the press about a certain issue. At the same time, I think chairs should be very careful not to step on chief executives' toes.

Isabel Walker: I broadly agree with that. In most organisations of a certain size, I think there will be a media policy that makes it clear who should talk to the press on which issue. If there was a division, I think the chief executive would talk to the press on management issues, whereas the chair might speak on reputational issues and those that affect the wider public the charity serves. But in a small charity, roles are pretty interchangeable and usually you need several people who are able to talk to the media.

SH: Clearly, organisations need to know what they're going to say about issues, whoever says it. One issue is that some of the press will say that, if the chair speaks on a subject and then someone else speaks on the same one, it signifies a split in the organisation.

Isabel WalkerIW: To be honest, I wouldn't have thought most of the media were savvy enough to read that kind of thing into whether it was the chief executive or the chair who spoke to them. Quite a lot of the time their comments would follow a press release, which would normally list the people in the organisation who talk to the media, so it might list the head of PR, the chief executive and the chair.

SH: I think organisations ought to be much more careful when there are specific controversies going on internally and the press have rung to say: "What's going on?" In that case, there needs to be a very clear discussion between the chief executive and the chair about how that's going to be resolved and who's going to speak on behalf of the organisation.

IW: I certainly think, for difficult situations requiring external communications, there needs to be some kind of media training. All the people who are going to speak to the press need to get together to understand exactly what they're going to say, what examples they're going to use to back up their arguments and, crucially, what they are not going to say. They need some practice interviewing - some people are good at speaking to the media and some people aren't, and that kind of thing can be sussed only when you get them together. One of the things people often get wrong is just answering the questions in an interview. The whole point of being interviewed by the media is that you have to get your agenda across.

Simon HebditchSH: I was told many years ago that you shouldn't try to get more than three straightforward points out in an interview, and you should be determined to get them out virtually regardless of what someone asks you.

IW: Exactly - there's the famous quote from Henry Kissinger, who used to go into the morning press conference and say: "Ladies and gentlemen of the media, does anyone have any questions for my answers?" Every question is a launching point for one of your messages and, if you don't get them out there quickly, powerfully and with no jargon, it's not a good interview.

SH: I agree entirely about the necessity of training, and on each occasion there needs to be a clear discussion about who's going to say what and why. You can begin to recognise when a journalist is trying to get you to answer a different sort of question, one you don't know the answer to, to show you up. You need to know where the pitfalls are.

IW: And that's where bridging comes in. It's a really powerful technique - if you get a question to which you don't know the answer, the worst thing you can do is say: "I don't know." The thing you need to be able to do is to say: "I'm not an expert on that aspect but what I can tell you is... " And it's not just questions you don't know the answer to - sometimes it's questions that you don't want to answer, so you constantly need to be bridging away from the difficult questions and back to the things you actually want to say.

Simon Hebditch is chair of the Small Charities Coalition

Isabel Walker is managing director of Clearsay Communications

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