Why Message Development is important

From time to time on this blog we talk about the importance of driving communication through organisational behaviour, and how this can be of great help to crisis managers because it gives you a solid base from which to start managing the fallout of a crisis. This is possibly even more integral to strategic issues management, i.e. where we work with a client to turn a potential issue into an area where they can establish a competitive advantage.

However, a recent conversation with a design agency highlighted that the infamous “key message” is something that, while still a fundamental part of any communication strategy, is also increasingly likely to be overlooked.

What brought this home was hearing said design agency recycle a quote we often use ourselves: “If you want someone to think you’re funny, don’t tell them you’re funny. Tell them a joke.”

The issue we need to clear up is as follows. I agree one hundred percent that your behaviour needs to demonstrate the message you’re trying to convey (i.e. display congruence). But that’s kind of the point – you need to work out what your message is first.

The “what” of “what you say” really is more important than how you say it, because it actually is what you’re saying. What you say should be what you want your audience to understand. If you don’t (can’t?) define what that is, how will your audience ever know what it is that you want them to do? Here’s a great presentation by Dr Vincent Covello from the Centre For Risk Communication in the US that explains in great depth a number of tools we regularly use for developing crisis messages. The fact they’re needed at all should say something about their importance.

This is particularly important for issues and crisis managers because invariably we want our audiences to do something, usually within a very short time frame. If it’s a product recall crisis then we want people to return affected products (in the first instance we often want them to stop eating those products). If it’s a gas leak and we want people to evacuate then we need to tell them that – driving up and down their street in a fire truck will not, on its own, convince residents that they need to get out of the area.

Similarly for a consumer PR campaign – if we want an audience to do something (e.g. share this blog with a friend), we actually need to tell our audience that’s what we want them to do (seriously, please share our blog with friends and colleagues).

The point is, until you know what you want your audience to do (your objective), then you can’t know what you need to tell them to get them to do it (your key message). And until you can define your message, you can’t work out how you’re going to deliver it (your strategy) with any real effectiveness. After all, if you don’t want people to think you’re funny, why on Earth would you tell them a joke?

Hence – message development. It’s not sexy, it’s rarely fun and frankly it’s one of the hardest parts of communication planning because every single person in your organisation will have a different view of what it should be. But communication is a process-oriented discipline, and so this is absolutely in the must-have basket.

Think of it from your customer’s perspective. If you as an organisation can’t clearly and simply define what you do, and articulate what you want your customer to do, how will the customer ever know what they’re meant to do (i.e. buy some stuff)? The principle is the same for any audience you care to think of.

This is why we spend proper, quality time developing our clients’ messages at Hill & Knowlton. That’s not to say every campaign, project or issue requires a dedicated messaging workshop – in fact, most don’t. But if you can’t write your key message on the back of your business card inside of 30 seconds, you probably need to spend some time working on it.

In the first place, it ensures everyone involved in your project is talking about the same thing in the same way – which is essential for building any kind of consistency or momentum. And in doing this, it focuses communication efforts on the thing that’s really important – meeting your objectives. Not until your message is right should you be worrying about big events and column inches.

Getting this right can be a real challenge, but the investment pays for itself in spades because good message development saves you time and money for months (sometimes years) to come.

If it’s done well.

Strong messages will stick around for the long term and can be incorporated into any relevant campaign activity – regardless of medium or channel. They should form the basis for every single piece of communication you deliver for that campaign or crisis or organisation, and they should be reinforced by corporate behaviour that is congruent with what the message actually says.

Only then will people think you’re really funny.

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2 Comments
08

Dec
2009

uberVU - social comments

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23

Feb
2010

shipping

Hello! Your post (Collective Conversation » Media Insights and Crisis Expertise » Blog Archive » Why Message Development is important) does so well that I would like to translate it into French, publish on my french blog and link to you. You have something against it? Regards

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