During the recent roll out of new products for the holidays, I observed various company spokespeople and executives on television and in print describing their new offerings. Who delivered the best answers and insights bemused me. If I had to assign a grade I would give most of them a C-to-D average. This is not a reflection on them personally but rather a sorry reflection on how the concept of “key messages” is sometimes mishandled.
In public relations and communications circles, key messages are the prepared statements that spokespeople and management utilize when issuing quotes, giving interviews or conducting press conferences to convey main points about a subject. Key messages are a useful PR tool but if they are not composed or delivered properly they can lock out your message from media coverage.
I think the problem with many key messages developed within large companies is that they are generally created by consensus. With kudos to my PR colleagues, most key messages start out with straightforward information. However, being good and conscientious partners, the PR team then disseminates the first draft of messages to brand managers, marketing strategists and sometimes even the corporate legal team, for input. What usually results is a mandated series of talking points that sound more like a legal brief or an over-hyped advertisement.
So what do you do? To be effective, key messages need to be clear of jargon, concise and informative. Either spoken or as written quotes, key messages should be delivered in a friendly, casual, conversational tone and devoid of corporate-speak. In the event of a crisis, the messages need to take on a more serious, authoritative tone. The spokesperson or company representative should instill the messages with their own personality and not try to recite the messages word-for-word but still communicate the main ideas.
A good communicator should convey their points with personality, knowledge, and most importantly enthusiasm. I have seen spokespeople and executives appear almost disinterested and burdened by their media moments. This is too bad because they have the opportunity to generate positive product awareness and beneficial personal exposure. They then complain that they didn’t get quoted. Sometimes I think Siri on my iPhone can do a better job. However, when a spokesperson or executive is prepared with clear key messages and an upbeat attitude they can be just as successful as the revered Steve Jobs or Richard Branson.
Always keep in mind the media will disregard talking points that are simply double-talk. Poorly prepared and delivered key messages also have the potential to damage the credibility of the speaker and/or the company. I once had a spokesperson describe something as “a whale of an event.” That quote received nationwide media pick-up because in plain terms it succinctly communicated the enormity of an upcoming occasion. The quote wasn’t littered with favorite corporate descriptive words, Wall Street chatter or MBA-speak.
So the next time you have the opportunity to speak with the media, prepare with simple key messages that you can deliver with transparency, conviction, and passion. You might be surprised by how key messages written in everyday English can open new doors to successful media coverage.
Like most people who enjoy dining out, when I go to a restaurant I like to read the menu descriptions in detail so I can make an informed selection. Sounds logical and reasonable, right? If I order filet mignon, and a grilled cheese sandwich arrives in its place, I am relatively certain I could tell that I received the wrong item. However, if a cut of tenderloin arrives, I’m not so sure I could discern between tenderloin and filet mignon.
Now, what does all of this have to do with public relations? The food analogy struck me over a business lunch a few weeks ago when a business associate of a small start-up company kept insisting that he didn’t need publicity for his company — he wanted PR.
He explained to me that he simply wanted some quick “good ink” in a few trade journals, The Wall Street Journal and an executive profile of himself in Forbes. What he described was publicity not public relations. This poor fellow was confused between tenderloin and filet mignon – both taste great, both look similar – but there is a difference. And so it goes with publicity and PR.
People readily understand advertising, promotional contests, give-aways, sales, etc., but the practice of public relations leaves most people scratching their heads with imaginary question marks swirling above.
The Public Relations Society of America defines PR as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Simply put, PR is all about building long-term, transparent, relationships via various media platforms and efforts with your given publics, consumers, constituencies, or audience. Public relations is a strategic process, not a temporary tactic.
On the other hand, publicity is a tactic used to attract attention to a momentary occurrence – an announcement, release, debut, etc., the general purpose is to generate positive awareness through various media platforms of a product, person or event. The word “publicity,” unfortunately, has become a catchall for public relations (not unlike how “Kleenex” has come to be used to describe any facial tissue, or “Xerox” for any copy). Additionally, publicity is generally associated with the entertainment industry or performing arts. Few Fortune 500 corporations have a “publicity” department, but most have a public relations area.
So, the next time you find yourself with a menu of marketing options firmly in hand, choose wisely between publicity and public relations. If you don’t, you may end-up with a grilled cheese sandwich.