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Craig Kerstiens

Spokesperson certification

One of my most fascinating work experiences was going through the spokesperson certification process at a large tech co. This isn’t some rubber stamp virtual training to not use profanity on stage type training. This is the training they would give to any executive before you were greenlit to talk to press. When I say press I mean Techcrunch, but also Bloomberg, or Jim Cramer, or any major big brand news outlet.

As a product manager over a specific product line I knew my product well. Put me in front of an unhappy customer and I could lay out our roadmap, listen to their questions, take product input, and get them to a happy place. But this wasn’t about my product (only). A person with the spokesperson stamp could be asked any question about an entirely other area fo the company. You had to know every recent product launch, all the key metrics, know where traps may lie, and you had to land the core company messages in addition to the ones you cared about. To study you received about 100 pages of a powerpoint presentation that had key releases from each product, key numbers, customer stories.

The certification itself was an interview. They flew in a former news reporter. You walked into a conference, the lights were off, except for a bright light focused on the seat you’d sit in with a camera rolling. It felt more like an intense interogation room than a big co tech conference room. To ensure light didn’t get in and no one stopped walking by the room they put up black paper to completely black out the room.

Oh, and the worst part of the process… I was told my our marketing person I could wear my hat… as I always do during the interview. (I was probably the only person not in a full suit they saw the entire day. And probably the only person that walked in with a ballcap on ever.) Well she said yes of course, turns out they couldn’t see my face under the lights, it was just a shadow so I had to take it off. From the outset I’d been tricked, but I digress.

The questions would start with a basic, tell me about yourself and your background. Can you tell whats new and exciting about product x. Then over time it would delve into the other product areas. I told some of the canned stories and some personal ones. I learned on the personal ones, it’s up to me but they coach their executives to not said spouses or childrens names, it can only get them in trouble. For each product line you were supposed to hit major 2 news and announcements, 2 customers, and 2 key stats (i.e. we crossed 1 billion mentions of my name).

But it wasn’t just softballs. There were traps. You were asked about an executive that recently left, and if the product line was okay or was it a sign of bad things to come during earnings. It’s fine though I reassured them they’ve made some great contributions to the company, and wanted to spend some time with their family and giving back to their local community. Of course internal speculation was they were cashed out and interested in running for public office.

As the camera turned off a few of the stories I’d told about customers and products the PR team wanted to dig deeper on. Remarking “That’s amazing, we power that I had no idea.” and “That’s awesome they’re able to do that at scale thanks to us.”

In the end I got a stamp of approval, I was cleared to talk to folks. The funny part was the comments from the PR team afterwards. They liked me, I seemed relatable, I nailed all the numbers. I wasn’t like any of their other spokespeople and they well weren’t quite sure what to do with that. I was used for some very particular media folks in the future that seemed to not want a cookie cutter. I’m good with this, hopefully it helped the company.

In the end it was fascinating experience. The ability to bridge, condense a lot of information (relatable story, customer brand validation, stats, and something quotable) into a single answer all from a question that was meant to be a trap for a juicy story has been easily one of the top work experiences I’ve encountered.