Posts Tagged ‘message development’

The £14bn question

A fantastic use of hype today by the Daily Mail, with their headline on page 8 which proclaimed “Cold snap to cost business £14bn”. What the article then went on to say was that in fact estimates have placed the actual cost to business at about £690m to date. The £14bn figure was simply a worst case scenario of what could happen if the snow and ice remains as is for the next three weeks. A perfect illustration of how a soundbyte can be (and usually is) twisted for maximum impact.

Regardless of the hype, the fact is that the extended cold weather is making life exceptionally difficult for many organisations and their comms staff at present.

The first to take a reputational hit were local councils, back in December, who were accused of having learnt nothing from the last bout of snow in February 2009. Unsurprisingly fed up of being accused of incompetence, councils went on the offensive and to some extent redeemed themselves by demonstrating that they had learnt their lesson and stockpiled extra reserves of grit.

What they couldn’t have predicted though, was the sheer longevity and intensity of the cold snap, and it’s telling that cracks have started to appear over the last day in their previously united, unified statements – witness the complaints by some council spokespersons about supply deliveries and preferential treatment that have started to appear.

Eurostar has also had a particularly bad time of it, suffering a first wave of negative publicity just before Christmas when their trains failed and then again today with a similar problem – cue the resultant “wrong type of snow” headlines.

And next in line to face problems could be manufacturers, with one newspaper reporting today that companies are being asked to voluntarily switch off production in order to preserve gas supplies for domestic households.

Finally, retailers have had to shut stores early, or in some cases altogether, as staff have been unable to reach work. This has been a problem in itself, but the real reputational damage has come from the disclosure that many of these staff won’t be paid – something Sainsbury’s Justin King was grilled on this morning.

As these examples show, the snow has presented difficult and varied challenges for comms teams this week, not least because the demand for snow stories has been phenomenal. Despite this though, the principals of successfully dealing with these scenarios remains the same, despite the exceptional circumstances:

1. Clear, concise messaging
2. Confident, well-trained spokespeople
3. Sound preparation and detailed planning before the event

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.

Presentation skills tip: cadence

US President Obama has given public speaking a much-needed shot of adrenaline, and one of his great technical strengths is the way he takes control of his cadence. Cadence isn’t just about how fast you speak, it’s also about where you place the emphasis on your words. Speaking with real power (the power to move hearts and change minds, not the power to be heard at the back of the room) owes a lot to cadence, so here’s a very short demonstration of how you can incorporate this into your next speech or presentation.

Here’s an example of some text from the Message Development page of our website:

Your message is no longer the media tagline your spokespeople are trained to deliver in a press interview. It is now the bedrock of your organisation’s communication and should be consistent regardless of the medium, whether that’s a daily newspaper, a TV news bulletin or a cocktail napkin at your next dinner.

Opening tip: Read it out loud, properly. Don’t just make a sound and move your lips and read it in your head. Actually read it out like you want someone else to hear it. (That’s actually a bonus tip – it’s amazing how many people never read a presentation script out loud before their first rehearsal!)

Step 1: Break it up a bit. There are only two sentences here, but by breaking it into four you introduce more natural points of emphasis.

Your message is no longer the media tagline your spokespeople are trained to deliver in a press interview.

It is now the bedrock of your organisation’s communication.

And (it) should be consistent regardless of the medium, whether that’s a daily newspaper, a TV news bulletin or a cocktail napkin at your next dinner.

Step 2: Change your words around. The start and end of sentences are natural points of emphasis. And some words have more emotional weight than others. So, if you’re going for a powerful opening statement, try opening with a powerful opening word. Let’s look at just the first sentence:

Your message is no longer the media tagline your spokespeople are trained to deliver in a press interview.

We can improve the opening simply by changing the order of our first five words, like this:

No longer is your message the media tagline your spokespeople are trained to deliver in a press interview.

It’s a simple change that on first reading makes the sentence less natural. But since you’re seeking attention, that’s kind of what you’re after!

Step 3: Give yourself some breathing space. As we noted earlier, the start and end of a sentence provide natural emphasis. So to enhance your emphasis, introduce more pauses in your speach. We did that already by breaking sentences up – now let’s look at how we can introduce better spacing within each of those. This also means that your speaker can breathe more often, so you can demand a stronger effort on some words for even more emphasis. Apologies in advance to the punctuation purists, but demonstrating this in text means we’re going to have to butcher a few things to get the point across.

NO LONGER………is your message the media TAGLINE………your spokespeople are trained to deliver in a press interview.

It is NOW………….the BEDROCK…………..of your organisation’s communication.

AND………….(it) should be CONSISTENT.

REGARDLESS of the medium………….whether that’s a daily NEWSPAPER…………..a TV NEWS bulletin……………or a cocktail napkin at your next DINNER.

Obviously doing this to your writing will make it far more difficult to read, but remember you’re doing this because it’s going to be presented. That’s why we won’t be updating this paragraph on our website. But, if you look at our Presentation Skills page, you’ll see that’s how we’ve opened.

Give this a try with the next presentation script you have to write. And let us know how you go with it – we’d love your feedback. Or if you’re struggling with a particular passage, get in touch and we’ll help you out.

And remember: read it out loud!