Posts Tagged ‘strategic issues management’

(Sorry) We’re just not that into you today

As if the concurrent enquiries into the Iraq war and financial crisis weren’t enough to keep the world’s media busy last week, we also watched as the Caribbean nation of Haiti was devastated by a massive earthquake.

This has been a massive humanitarian tragedy and our thoughts are with all those affected by the disaster.

Events and news cycles such as this one usually come as a shock purely because they’re unexpected. However, that shouldn’t be taken to mean “uncommon”. The nature of news media is to find the newest, most exciting stories to tell, so there will always be a bias towards covering the unexpected. Particularly in the case of major disasters where every story is a very real human interest story.

From a purely academic perspective the past week also serves as an important reminder for spokespeople (and marketers) that regardless of how important you are, or how interesting you think your story is on a normal day, sometimes…stuff happens.

Across the world last week, dozens of spokespeople who got out of bed early to front up for interviews will have arrived at studios, or sat waiting sleepily by the phone waiting for it to ring, only to have been stood down by broadcasters.

Stories that were “scheduled to run” were been pulled to make room for more pressing news.

This is one of the quirks of the game of media relations. If you want to participate in making or contributing to the news then you have to be prepared for things to not go your way – every time you saddle up. That includes not actually getting the opportunity to get on the horse. You don’t have to like it, you just have to accept it, and that goes for the rest of your campaign as well. It’s literally nothing personal.

That said, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the effects of a hijacked news cycle, some of which you may have heard from Catherine Cross in our media training. But be warned – most of them involve a bit of extra work:

  • Be available generally. The media doesn’t care about your day job, and from a journalist’s perspective if you’re not available then someone else probably will be. If you want that headline, you’ve got to make the time for it. If your job doesn’t allow you the time, maybe you need a different job. Or maybe someone else needs yours.
  • Take your medicine. If you’re an official spokesperson then sometimes you’re just going to have to be the face of a company that has to take some constructive criticism. Like being bumped from your interview, it’s nothing personal. It’s all part of managing your own relationships with the media.
  • Do more media. There’s no value in scarcity for the vast majority of spokespeople and playing hard to get is just annoying. Only the very top people in a company get to play the “I’m important” card, and it’s rarely appreciated by journalists who are covering your business. Far better to be the go-to person not just for your product, but your brand, and if you can swing it, your industry. That’s one of the things that leads to thought leadership, and it’s a powerful tool in strategic issues management (which we’ll deal with another time).
  • Don’t blame your communications team. It’s not their fault that earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes or terrorist attacks happen. Of course there’s also something to be said for campaign scheduling, i.e. know what’s going on before you try to pitch an interview in the first place.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in the one basket. A big scrapbook full of splashy media coverage makes everyone feel good, but realistically why do you want everything to appear at once anyway? You don’t have your life savings in one bank account (I hope), so take a balanced approach to your campaign planning as well. Think about how political campaigns, or grassroots movements work – they all start small and build to a crescendo. Ok, we’re not all launching iPhones, but for the right audience, tapping into the right media, the principle still applies.

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.