Manufacturing Magnetic Messages: Telling Your Story to the Press and Public

December 1, 2014

[ikon images/corbis]
[ikon images/corbis]

This article is based on Ed’s recent position paper, “Eleven Elements to Mold a Magnetic Message: How to Tell Your Story to the Press, Policymakers, and the Public,” which is available for download at www.barkscomm.com.

We’ve all seen it: the CEO who trips over his own words during a live televised interview, or the executive who doesn’t get to the point while delivering a speech.

How do smart people go astray in such situations? The problem can often be chalked up to messy messaging. Think about the executives you’ve counseled over the years. Odds are, some of them thought that they could wing it in a speech or media interview — a bad career move for them and for you, since their performance in public reflects on your role as their adviser.

The PR pro who comes up with a one-size-fits-all system for developing messages will, no doubt, be in line for some PR awards. But that’s not real-world thinking. What are the issues that you and your organization need to consider as you seek to build and broadcast a magnetic message?

Some of these elements may apply to issues that you face today, while others may apply to future issues. Either way, the goal is to give your communications team, executives and expert consultants the messaging tools that they need.

Assemble the components

One of your first moves is to identify your target audience. It may shift from issue to issue, so be sure to give each of your messages a distinct treatment.

Plenty of organizations, even large ones, make the mistake of sidestepping formal message-development efforts. Size matters little. During 17 years as a communications-training consultant, I’ve worked with small organizations that have developed magnetic messages and with Fortune 500 companies (and sometimes their PR agencies) that tried to rely on random, jargon-laden bullet points.

Build the right teams

To improve your messaging efforts, get the right people in the room. Your teams are likely to differ for each issue you face. Your CEO and chief communications officer should routinely participate. Others, such as vice presidents, issue experts, lawyers, communications staff and consultants, will rotate in and out, depending on the issue at hand.

Insist that those who need to be involved should take part, and kick everyone else out. Avoid inviting toadies who fear speaking the truth to power; you benefit from a frank discussion that occasionally rattles the china.

Give your executives some backbone

Even the best message will fail if its delivery is lacking. To drive your message home, hold practice sessions with your spokespeople. No one is exempt. Everyone who faces the media or delivers presentations on your organization’s behalf — from a frontline manager to your CEO — needs structured practice, both formal and informal.

Formally, hold communications-training workshops to rehearse your message. Stage mock media interviews or presentations to train your executives to communicate your message. In some cases, internal staff can supervise these sessions, but when dealing with serious situations, it’s often advisable to work with a dedicated communications-training consultant. Informally, take advantage of unscheduled opportunities for practice. Call your spokespeople on the phone and hit them with a few minutes of snap Q-and-A. Encourage them to spend time between meetings fine-tuning a story or quotable quote that bolsters your message.

Respond when the CEO tunes out

Veteran PR pros know that their executives at one time or another will tune out their voice. It has little to do with you. (At least, let’s hope so.) It’s just human nature. Recapture their attention by bringing in different voices that echo your own voice.

When I worked in the association world, we devised an internal media-training program for our officers and other important members to help them grasp our messages and sharpen their communications. Despite positive reviews of our own efforts, we regularly called in experienced media-training consultants who helped improve our leaders’ performance.

Achieve your goals

Companies rarely get a second chance to establish a good reputation, so get your messaging right the first time. Your rivals might stumble with awkward presentations and laughable media interviews, but don’t let that be you.

By creating a magnetic message, getting the right people in the room during its birth, working with an expert consultant and organizing a series of communications-training workshops, you can earn victory in the court of public opinion.

It’s worth the work — assuming that you want your company to achieve its long-range business goals and public-policy ambitions.

Ed Barks
Ed Barks is president of Barks Communications, author of “The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations” and a member of the National Press Club’s Board of Governors. Visit www.barkscomm.com to learn more.

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