What makes a good media spokesperson? A lesson in COVID communications from JVT

Selecting a good media spokesperson that can convey your message with clarity and deliver impact is critical. And amid the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic, the regard for Nottingham’s Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam is a case in point.

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer, known affectionately as JVT, will step down from his role in March. He will then return back to his Nottingham roots, as Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Nottingham.

A fond farewell to ‘leading light’ of COVID communications

It will be a fond farewell for the man named by the Guardian as ‘the leading light of the government’s coronavirus briefings’.  While he only fronted a portion of the government press conferences as second in command to Professor Chris Whitty, Van-Tam has earned a significant amount of attention, and respect.

So much so, that from December 2020 to January 2021, when the UK was in the grip of the virus, Google searches for JVT outnumbered those of Chris Whitty three to one.

We confess, as a Nottingham PR agency, we are fond of Prof Van-Tam. But so are many others. Metro – which carried the headline ‘Van-Tam Jab Man’ when he scrubbed up to deliver vaccines himself at a Nottingham clinic – ran a whole feature of best moments of the big-hearted health leader.

But how has Van-Tam captured the hearts and minds of the British public? And what makes him a good spokesperson?

A JVT guide to being a good media spokesperson

  • Know how to handle a situation effectively

Prof Van-Tam is skilled at media handling. This is crucial in the face of over 150,000 deaths to date from the pandemic, and his responsibility to relay guidance that will shape policy. Van-Tam has remained calm and confident, even when faced with hostile media interrogations.

He is also a natural at unpicking questions. He is an expert at boiling down issues and signposting us all to the most important information – repeating key messages to drive his point home.

  • The personal touch

People are engaged by people, and drawing on your own relevant experiences is a good tool to deploy as a media spokesperson. Van-Tan humanised the jabs debate by explaining how he advised his 78-year-old mother, Elizabeth, to ‘be ready when called up’ to get hers. Anecdotes work in a similar way. They can be invaluable for engaging others. This is true in a speech or when under the media microscope.

  • The ability to convey information in a compelling way

Van-Tam has this quality in spades. His approach stands out among others who have taken to the Government podium. His secret seems to be using a range of analogies to explain medical data. The BBC even compiled a summary 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 authorative

Earning the respect of the audience is vital, and Van-Tam has the necessary credentials. However, ‘knowing your stuff’ and being able to convey that when in the spotlight  – and with the PM looking on – is a bigger challenge. While JVT is an expert in his field of knowledge, it is still important to prepare. Having a full handle on the facts, rehearsing key messages, and feeling confident that you can veer from the script and still deliver the most relevant details.

  • Be authentic

Van-Tam attracted column inches when he fielded questions from self-isolation and used the term ‘over’ to demonstrate he had stopped speaking – sparking many a social media meme. This demonstrates that you don’t have to suppress idiosyncrasies. Bringing your own style and manner can endear you to an audience.

Top tips for being a good media spokesperson

At The Tonic, we’ve worked in healthcare PR for over 20 years – within highly regulated industries on issues-led activity. A well-trained, competent, and confident spokesperson cannot be underestimated. Here’s our top tips on how to succeed as a spokesperson:

  • Leave jargon at the door

Interrogate the phrases you use when you speak about your topic so you can be sure it can be understood by the layman. Companies can be echo chambers, with employees relying on a specialist language, using the same acronyms. Generally, this kind of language should be avoided in media interviews.

  • Know your subject, inside out

…and practice how to explain it succinctly to someone who is ignorant to your industry, product or service. Media like facts and stats, examples, and evidence to demonstrate why people should care about what you’re saying.

  • Refresh your skills regularly

If you have an experienced crisis communications partner, they may offer training and can help run 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. These are factors that will detract from your message. Consulting a third party for guidance could be invaluable.

  • Relax…but beware of being too comfortable

There are lots of techniques to feel more at ease. After all, media interviews can induce anxiety. These include wearing comfortable clothes, having up to five key messages front of mind and being across the details. For example, who you’re talking to, how long is the slot going to be, it is live or pre-recorded, who else might you be speaking alongside.

But it’s just as important not to feel too safe. Be conscious not to stray off topic or talk outside of your area of expertise. Avoid anything ‘off the record’. With many interviews currently being held virtually, Zoom chats may feel less daunting and allow your guard to slip – don’t let that happen.

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