by Steve Bennett
We all know the old
"message in a bottle" motif from books, TV
shows, and movies: sailor survives shipwreck and
washes up on deserted island; stuffs message in
bottle; floats bottle out to sea; then waits for
someone to rescue him. His effort, of course, is
symbolic the odds of someone's finding his plea for
help, let alone locating the remote island, are
astronomically small. In literature and the cinema,
such low odds don't matter; in the world of corporate
communications, getting your messages delivered and
heard is the only thing that counts.
companies today follow the venerable "shipwrecked
sailor model" when they deal with the media. In
essence, they float a bottle filled with vague or
convoluted messages that have little chance of leading
journalists or editors anywhere. Some companies don't
prepare message points at all for media engagements
they just assume it suffices to tell their story and
see what, if anything, washes ashore. Often, little or
nothing worthwhile does.
Why do companies so
often miss the messaging boat? Based on my experience
as a corporate media trainer, I believe two types of
thinking are the major culprits:
1. That's Not My
Department's Message. A lack of consensus is one of
the biggest impediments to developing company-wide
messaging. "We don't have any messages yet,
because we can't agree on which ones are the 'right'
ones," is a common lament, especially in
organizations plagued by turf wars or the
show-stopping "Not Invented Here" syndrome.
A variation on this
theme is that separate divisions or departments may
have their own proprietary message points and act as
independent fiefs when dealing with journalists and
editors. At best, this leads to inconsistent
messaging; at worst, it results in confusion on the
part of the media.
2. Let's Give 'em
the Works. Many companies, especially those
engaged in complex technological pursuits, assume that
journalists and editors need — and want — to know
all there is to know about their products and
services, and that the message is … everything!
Spokespeople for these companies often overwhelm
interviewers with a "core dump," leaving it
up to the journalists to figure out what's important.
This often frustrates members of the media and
diminishes a company's chances of getting its most
important points into print.
How can you avoid
these messaging pitfalls? I strongly recommend that
you sit down with your colleagues and PR experts, call
a truce on turf wars, and hammer out the most
important ideas that you want to convey to the media.
As you brainstorm, keep in mind that good messaging
includes a few succinct points that can be delivered
as sound bites. Good messaging also:
positions your company within its market segment.
- Paints a cohesive
picture of your company's main strengths,
capabilities, and competitive advantages (without
sales hype, which the media tunes out).
- Captures your
unique value propositions (again, without sales
- Provides an
instant snapshot of what your company stands for
and where it's headed in the future.
As you learn the art
and science of messaging, your spokespeople will be
able to more effectively navigate their way through
oceans of media interviews. And they should find it
clear sailing ahead.
Steve Bennett is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based media trainer who specializes in helping spokespeople of technology and science companies deliver effective strategic messages to: the trade, business, and consumer media; analysts; stakeholders; and the public. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 617-492-0442.
Copyright © 1998-2005 Steve Bennett. Permission is granted to reprint this article in whole or in part, provided that you attribute the material to Steve Bennett, Media Mentor (email@example.com).