The Public Relations Strategist

The Best Key Messages Come From the Heart: How Mayor Joe Riley Stays on Point and #CharlestonStrong

July 20, 2015

[curtis compton/zuma press/corbis]
[curtis compton/zuma press/corbis]

Even though I haven’t lived in Charleston, S.C., for about five years, I still consider it home. Part of the reason is because the people are stronger and more genuine than any I’ve ever met — and this certainly includes Mayor Joe Riley.

I had the privilege of both working closely with Mayor Riley on several of his campaigns — he’s one of the longest-serving mayors in the country, currently serving his 10th term since 1975 — and observing the native Charlestonian in action.

That said, watching him on national television in June as the shooting deaths at the “Mother" Emanuel AME Church unfolded reinforced why Riley is such an effective spokesperson. Why? Because he speaks from the heart. It’s that simple.

Granted, he’s politically savvy and incredibly smart. But in the heat of the moment, he knows that what matters is an immediate, authentic response — a human-to-human message that is relatable and poignant.

As PR professionals, our first thought when faced with a crisis situation is often to dive into key messaging to ensure that our spokespeople are saying the most important, resonant things to the public and stakeholders. But after watching Riley in action  again, I think that, sometimes, the best messages aren’t crafted; they’re believed and shared.

That doesn’t mean that Riley’s words aren’t purposeful: He’s been mayor long enough to know that a colorful, direct quote with emotionally charged words such as “hate” and “insane” will grab the media’s and public’s attention. However, he also deeply believes in what he’s saying, and there isn’t any replacement for that.

He also puts action behind his words. Riley walked the streets consoling families, sharing stories and even displaying moments of personal sadness, when he stepped aside to collect himself.

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