Independent Thinking Blog

The Problem With Staying on Message

In media training 101, you’re taught to stay on message.

The idea is, no matter the question, you give the answer you want your audience to hear. I had my only media training when I worked for a labor union, so the questions we played with all involved a looming strike. As a labor leader, you don’t want to talk about striking — you want to talk about negotiating, and being fair, and doing all you can to keep your workforce on the job. So no matter how many times reporters asked you about striking, you talked about hoping to reach a deal on a new contract.

This approach used to work brilliantly.

Newspapers -- Stay on Message

Flash back to the pre-digital age when the media landscape was primarily daily papers, nightly news shows, and weekly magazines. You could deploy a soundbite strategy and ignore the disconnect between question and answer. Eventually, reporters would just take the quote offered and run with it. I mean, how many times was someone going to ask the same question and expect a different answer?

Today, we say we live in a soundbite world. But we no longer control the soundbites.

You can’t be a robot anymore.

It’s hard to be a message bot when the entire world can watch a media scrum or a press briefing. I cringed recently when a chemical company executive started a press briefing (on live TV) talking about how he wanted to make sure everyone got the company’s messaging right. (Yup, he said that.) Which gets me to my point: I’ve been talking here about staying on message — but it’s not really about messaging. It’s about trust.

You need to build trust.

A Question of Trust

Every year, Edelman issues a trust barometer (the 2018 version should be out in January). And every iteration shows that trust in institutions is low. Or, as the 2017 Trust Barometer revealed, there’s “a world of distrust” out there. We’ve been fed so many messages that we just want someone to speak plainly. And, ideally, honestly too. The advice I followed as a condo board president is the advice I give organizations all the time: tell people as much as you can, as often as you can. If you’re genuinely transparent, then they’ll trust you when you explain why you can’t tell them something.

For example, I couldn’t talk about why an employee was fired (confidentiality rules). But I told my fellow co-owners why I couldn’t tell them, and I also reminded them that I’d been open about everything else going on in the building. Sure, there was some anger and some grumbling. But those people ultimately accepted what I was telling them because they trusted me. They still trust me today.

Contrast that with the chemical company executive. At the time of his “messaging” press conference, stores of chemicals at several manufacturing plants were exploding — and local residents and first responders wanted to know what chemical compounds were spewing into their atmosphere. But newer regulations didn’t require the company to give them granular details, and they weren’t talking. All the messaging in the world wasn’t going to solve this problem.

Here’s how to stay on message.

Stop talking in messages.

Sure, you need to have messages. You need messaging strategies, talking points, crisis plans, response protocols, and all kinds of documents that help guide you and your organization in proactively communicating with various audiences. But none of these documents (hopefully) mandate that you talk in talking points. Put another way: would you rather talk to Comcast customer service or Zappos customer service? Both have guidelines, but only one lets its employees be themselves. (Go ahead, call into both. You’ll see.)

Is your business set up to talk in messages or talk to people?

Newspapers by G. Crescoli (Unsplash); question by Emily Morter (Unsplash).

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