What’s the message?
Doesn’t really matter whether you’re in crisis communications, marketing or an in-house corporate communication office – you’ve heard this question before, and probably asked it too.
If your experience is like mine, there are no shortage of answers (from qualified sources and otherwise,) but it’s the next question that gets us hung up (if it’s even asked at all):
Is the message any good?
My answer to this question depends on whether the message contains what I consider the four key characteristics of an effective message. Effective messages are short, memorable, positive and relevant.
I can’t help but notice that we spend a lot of money researching things about which we already know the answer [Re: People who feel younger at heart live longer (CNN)]. Though I didn’t spend time doing a “review of the literature” in positing this theory, I can say with confidence that attention spans are shrinking. A message needs to be short if it has any hope of being absorbed. Short is also important if you’re talking about a soundbite on TV or radio. The average TV news segment is about a minute and a half, and by the time the editor squeezes in the narration, b-roll footage and the reporter’s face time (which will always somehow work out to be more than yours,) we’re looking at 10 to 15 seconds of your smarmy mug.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s family’” “We won’t rest until we’ve found the person responsible,” “We are committed to ensuring this spill is cleaned up and determined to make sure it never happens again.” These are clichés – and, while most people can remember or recognize a cliché (because, well, it’s a cliché), it doesn’t make them memorable. We’ve all heard the “thoughts and prayers” message a hundred times. We know it, but we’re hard pressed to remember any one time where it stood out as memorable.
In prepping a commander for a press briefing to update the media on the latest search efforts after a commercial airline disaster off the coast of Oxnard, Calif., I scratched out the following condolence message in his notes:
Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those aboard Alaska Airlines Flight 261 during this horrible time.
I then advised him to come up with something more personal. Personal is more memorable. The version he delivered during the briefing was:
I spend my waking hours thinking about the families and friends of those aboard flight 261 and it is with a heavy but hopeful heart that I and our crews continue to search.
I’ll let you decide which one is more memorable (hint: not the first one).
This is where the PR haters get rankled and claim this is proof-positive that PR people are in the business of spinning the ugly truth. Being positive in your messaging doesn’t equate to putting lipstick on a pig (so calm down). Being positive means bringing the right attitude, focus and energy to the message so that it resonates – positively – with the intended audience.
A common example I see is when organizations use messages to define their position by what it is not as opposed to simply stating their position as it is.
The following two messages both essentially say the same thing but one is negative and the other, positive. I’ll let you decide which would be more effective (hint: not the first one):
We don’t intend to be cavalier about the safety of this community’s drinking water and we don’t plan to drag our feet in making sure we clean things up.
The safety of this community’s drinking water is our top priority and will be the primary focus of all our efforts as we clean things up.
Ultimately we’re talking two kinds of relevancy. The first is obvious, yet somehow still missed, and that’s relevance to the situation or subject matter. This means severe weather safety messages, for example, are best delivered before a storm rather than during post-storm recovery. The other is relevance to the person receiving the message. The Coast Guard is responsible for enforcing commercial fishing regulations. Ultimately these regulations are in place to prevent the depletion of an important U.S. natural resource. This involves telling fishermen when they can fish, where they can fish and what they can fish for
Our message to the taxpayer about fisheries enforcement focused the environmental protection aspect or the need to preserve and sustain an important natural resource. But when speaking with commercial fishing industry we have to acknowledge that the environmental protection aspect of the work alone isn’t going to mean much compared to restricting their haul and, ultimately, their livelihood. When speaking with commercial fishermen our message focuses more on the economic importance of maintaining the fish stock in order to ensure they can continue to make a living, longterm, and possibly pass the family business to the next generation.
Have examples of good, bad or hilarious messaging? I’d love to hear ’em.