Choosing a Spokesperson with The Right Stuff: Lessons from Wounded Warrior’s Crisis Response

The words every organization dreads – “You are being investigated by a major news organization.” Those words came to The Wounded Warrior Project earlier this year when CBS News rolled out allegations of questionable spending by the charity. CBS interviewed more than one hundred of the organization’s employees and claimed Wounded Warrior dedicated much less to the actual care of wounded vets than comparable charities – while spending huge sums of money on lavish meetings and extravagant parties. Outraged donors withdrew funding and called for a public audit, as well as the firing of the charity’s top executives. Two of the organization’s top leaders were fired this week, following an internal audit by independent advisors. In situations like this one, choosing the right spokesperson can mean the difference between recovering from a crisis – or making it worse. Wounded Warrior chose Board Chairman, Anthony Odierno, to be the face of its organization, and he bravely joined CBS This Morning to talk about the charity’s response. It turned out Odierno was the right spokesperson with the right stuff to help Wounded Warrior recover from this bruising battle. Your organization can learn some valuable lessons from Mr. Odierno.

1.  High Credibility Factor

Odierno’s credibility comes from a very deep and emotional place. He has been on the Wounded Warrior Board since 2009 and was elected as Board Chair in 2014. But, more than that, he is a wounded warrior. He was leading three Humvees through southwest Baghdad in August of 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his vehicle. The grenade killed one of his fellow soldiers and took off a piece of Odierno’s right arm and his entire left arm, so he knows what it is to walk a mile in the shoes the wounded warriors his organization serves. His knowledge, his belief in the organization’s work and his experience as a wounded warrior add up to a very high Credibility Factor.

2.  High Likability Factor

An executive seeking media coaching was given our name by multiple sources. He was very credible, but felt something was missing when he appeared on network news shows. As we reviewed news clips of him and another executive, I asked, “Which of you is most likable?” He said, “The other guy, but I’m not sure why!” We work with many spokespersons that score high on their Credibility Factor, but lower on what we call the Likability Factor. The Likability Factor has to do with skills and strategies related to Emotional Intelligence (EQ), the ability to recognize emotions to guide one’s thinking and behavior. On CBS This Morning, Odierno scored very high on likability. He was conversational and his nonverbal cues conveyed the right touch of humility and alignment with the seriousness of the situation. His tone, pace and cadence all matched the emotions of the charity’s stakeholders, who felt a sense of betrayal. His breathing, gestures and eye patterns all appropriately matched the emotions, as well. Journalists and audiences know at a subconscious level when someone believes in what they are saying at an emotional level, versus someone who simply delivers talking points. As a wounded warrior himself, Odierno was able to truly speak from the perspective of his charity’s most important stakeholder group — the wounded warriors.

3.  Great Listener

An effective spokesperson closely listens to the questions posed by the journalist. Odierno listened intently and then addressed each question – without trying to sugarcoat some of the things uncovered by the charity’s own internal audit. Some spokespersons make the mistake of half-listening and then anxiously jump in with their talking point before the journalist has finished speaking. This is called “fighting for air space” and it can make the spokesperson appear anxious and even combative. Odierno maintained a calm countenance as he listened intently to each question.

4.  Less Boxing

It is tempting to immediately correct points of disagreement during news media interviews. But, downloading an onslaught of counterpoints and self-serving messages can actually make you look too defensive and argumentative – even if your facts are right. In contrast, Odierno was very calm and first aligned with the argument that there was room for improvement at Wounded Warrior and discussed corrective actions that had been taken. Later, he strongly countered some of the CBS allegations, but his points were delivered in a very calm and decisive manner. How and when your spokesperson delivers messages is just as important as the content of their messages. Just because a spokesperson speaks – does not guarantee their messages will be heard. Odierno’s delivery and timing enabled the journalists and audience to better hear his messages.

Choosing the right spokesperson can mean the difference between recovering from a crisis – or making it worse. With the right coaching, your spokespersons can increase their Credibility and Likability Factors, which makes for a winning combination. Your spokespersons can also improve how they engage reporters and how audiences hear your messages — with stronger listening skills and better strategies for handling negative accusations. Beyond the skills and strategies, it is also smart to choose a variety of spokespersons that share a common life experience with key stakeholder groups that could be impacted by your risks and crises. Odierno scored high on all of these qualities and was the perfect spokesperson because he had walked the path of his charity’s key stakeholders – the wounded warriors and their families.