Key Messages – a working scenario

In our last blog, we talked about key messages being the guidelines, as opposed to the script, when responding to a media contact. In this blog, we’re going to show how to put this into practice.

A fairy tale

Let’s start with a simple exercise. Get five people to separately tell you the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” Everyone knows the narrative of the little girl who tangles with a big bad wolf, but you’ll find very quickly that detail and style, contributing to the story, will change from person to person. Each person has the opportunity to tell the story in their own words – their own way without deviating from the story itself. Now take those five people and have them tell the same story to a group of kindergarten students – then to an audience at the Chamber of Commerce. Will the style change? You bet. But will the story itself change? It shouldn’t.

Language is like clay

The point of the fairy tale exercise is to show while the facts that you will gather when you need to communicate something won’t change, the language will continually evolve from situation to situation, audience to audience. It’s like clay, able to be reshaped into new forms as needed. Seldom will you become mired in finding that exact word that will satisfy everyone; but you will need to be cognizant that your facts and figures are correct and you must be constantly vigilante that the words, images, and ideas you plan to communicate to a particular audience are appropriate. A one-size-fits-all approach can be as much a gaffe as saying something offensive or inaccurate.

A hypothetical situation

Let’s use a hypothetical situation to see how this approach would work.

Rebecca is the business manager of a building company called Sweet Homes; part of her job is to respond to any media inquiries.

One morning, she receives a call from a person identifying themselves as the producer for “Consumer Watch” on the local Television News. The news producer requests to speak with someone from the company regarding complaints they were hearing from people who’ve brought homes that were constructed by Sweet Homes. Some of the homes had leaky roofs, suggesting the material on the roofs was of poor quality.

Rebecca gets all the information the producer has so far and tells them she will look into the matter and get back to them. She then gathers more detail from the construction unit in her company and from customer service.

She learns from construction that there was a report of a leaking roof in one of the homes following a rainstorm, and that while the material was appropriate, the roof wasn’t properly sealed. A subcontractor acknowledged a junior crew had worked on the roof and is going to fix it immediately. As well, a team has been deployed to go check on all other homes Sweet Homes had built in the subdivision to make sure the sealing was done correctly. Rebecca learns from customer service that so far since the storm they had only received one complaint about leaking roofs. She also confirms customer service has been in touch with the one affected homeowner.

She already knows the groups of stakeholders of Sweet Homes – sub-contractors, developers, home buyers, real estate investors and suppliers. She knows home buyers and homeowners will be most interested in this information. Through research, she also knows the “Consumer Watch” program often does stories where it’s assumed subdivision contractors are poor planners that build poorly-made houses.

Rebecca decides to develop two varied approaches to what she has found out. The first will address the potential story angle “Consumer Watch” will take by emphasizing that the customer service process worked in helping find a solution quickly for the homeowner while at the same time the company is taking precautions to ensure roofing quality was consistent all the way through for all the other homes. The second approach is for customers, emphasizing customer service is there to help homeowners who have problems find immediate solutions before a small problem becomes a big one.

The information remains the same but it is obvious different ideas need to be emphasized as different narratives. Rebecca ensures her company’s spokesperson has all the right information, with the means to provide varied responses as the situation warrants (this is where Question & Answer documents become valuable when preparing for interviews).

Measure your message against real life

We recommend applying a real-life recent event in your organization and see how the elements of your narrative changes from medium to medium, audience to audience. In doing so, you’ll find how key messages are really guidelines to your story, not script everyone must follow. Sometimes, you will need to clean the slate and rework your messages as the situation evolves.

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