Choosing a Company Spokesperson

Why, When and Why NOT: Using an on-camera spokesperson--a human being--has some distinct advantages in business videos and commercials. The effect on viewers is very different than an unidentified VO (Voice Over). Not necessarily better, but different. Who should be your spokesperson? Here's a few tips about using a company employee as a corporate spokesperson.

To clarify, the question before us is not whether to hire a professional vs. an amateur, but WHY and WHEN do you use someone FROM THE COMPANY as an on-camera representitive. And WHO will be best?

Allow me to begin with some warnings: First and foremost, Don't use a corporate employee just to save money! Some of my more budget-minded business clients have looked at an on-camera spokesperson as an unnecessary expense. The cost of a good on-camera professional or a talented narrator, including the casting effort, is worth every penny. Remember, the quality of the presentation reflects upon your company. If it's seen as amateurish it may be distracting from the message or even more destructively, make your whole company and product line look second rate. Here's a second caution: Don't use your employee spokesperson for extended narration--except for certain circumstances.

The value of using an actual employee of the company is their credibility, not their skill in reading or narration. That means your audience generally needs to see them speak on-camera: to look them in the eye as it were, so they can judge for themselves the spokesperson's honesty, sincerity and credibility.

The use of an employee spokesperson doesn't mean they have to be on-camera all the time or even a lot. In fact, the impact you are looking for can often be accomplished in a quick soundbite or a series of on-camera statements. There's no reason an on-camera spokesperson can't be mixed with a professional narrator who will carry the bulk of the message. Again, you're not using an employee-spokesperson to avoid paying a professional announcer.

The FIRST RULE is very practical and answers the question why: BECAUSE YOU NEED TO. That is, when you have an actual problem with product, consumer or media perception or other situation that needs to be addressed strongly and convincingly. In such circumstances, if you want the message to have more impact it should come from The Heart of the Company, not a PR firm. A human being can help humanize the business message. Choosing the right person who works at the company and who is a sympathetic, believable spokesperson will heighten that impact. Of course, this principle applies to more than just marketing, sales presentations or advertising. And it's not just a tactic to address negatives. It makes good business sense on many levels. However, there is a caution to be noted here: be careful of overexposure. It's why the president of the U.S. has a press secretary.

The SECOND RULE for using a company employee as spokesperson is, WHEN YOU CAN. When you have a great natural spokesperson--outgoing, knowledgeable, believable, sympathetic, good speaker, attractive, with obvious traits that can help get your message across--use them. Of course, these are the same qualities for which you hire a professional. And let's face it, a professional can fake sincerity and knowledge better than most business people can deliver the real thing.

Think of all the commercials you've seen with a well-known actor as the consistent spokesperson for one company, going all the way back to "I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV." My current favorite is the series of TV ads for a financial company with Sam Waterston as their spokesperson. Waterston is only the latest in a string of actors they've used as spokesmen. And every one of them has played the same role of District Attorney on NBC's "Law & Order." When the show changes actors the advertiser changes spokesmen. In both these cases the advertiser feels they are tapping into the trust and authority that rubs off on an actor so closely identified with his character on a hit TV Series. I'm not even talking about a true endorsement from a famous person, just using them as spokesperson.

The point is, a professional can often be a better spokesperson. And if you have the budget to buy a recognizable name you can get the added benefit of their public image working for you. Actors, sports figures and music stars are most common, although the Bob Dole spots for Pfizer on E.D. come to mind, as well as his cameo in a Brittany Spears-Pepsi spot.

So, activating the second rule is really quite dependant on the first rule. While there are a number of creative work-arounds, generally speaking if you don't have someone in-house who is a natural fit as spokesperson, don't force someone into the role.

HOW you present your spokesperson can affect their credibility as well. That's what I'll discuss in part 2.

--John W. Coleman