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Randy Savicky

[July 14, 2003]

Strategy + Communications Column:
Being – And Staying – “On Message”


As we discussed last time in the column on "Key Messages & Support Points," an important byproduct of the key message development process is that it can serve as a powerful facilitator to break down any real and perceived silos within an organization. Since these key messages are meant to look company-wide and be inclusive, they serve as a powerful mechanism to get everyone at an organization "pulling together" or "singing from the same songbook."

Brand building is both an internal and external communications initiative. The challenge, once a company's key messages have been established, is to ensure that the messages are heard and understood. The method for achieving this consistency of message delivery has come to be known as being "on message." In its simplest terms, this means simply being prepared to call upon these key messages in both written and oral communications to your organization's key audiences -- customers and prospects; business and sales partners; employees and stakeholders; government and regulatory bodies; and the media and analyst communities.

Being prepared sounds simple, but to get to that point when a company spokesperson -- whether an executive, manager or anyone called into fulfilling that role -- is truly comfortable talking about these key messages takes practice. It is the same type of practice that is so important before a sales call, significant presentation, interview or any other business situation in which the person must look and act his or her best, both for personal good and the good of the company.

The best way to ensure that a spokesperson is "on message" is to devote the time and effort for formal media training. In this process, an outside expert or team of experts is brought into the company for a half- or full-day session that provides both the theory and hands-on practice of speaking to the media. By extension, formal sales training sessions can also incorporate key message delivery as part of the sales process. (We will examine the media training process and its methodology more fully in the next column.)

First, let's take a look at how a company's key messages and their supporting points come to life in real-world situations. The first step in bringing these key messages to life is to truly buy into them and understand both the messages and the related support points. As stated earlier, while the organizational review process which ultimately led to the finalizing of the key messages was vitally important, each individual must now make the commitment to utilize the company's key messages in his or her personal communications.

Each individual must make them his or her "own," but if a key message of support point doesn't feel right, it must be brought back to the internal communications team so that it can be "fixed" to everyone's satisfaction. Unanimity is vital here.

From this preliminary comfort level, it is now important for each individual to make the key messages his or hers by personalizing the support points for each key message. Each can be expanded upon anecdotally -- by adding some aspect of his or her own industry, company or personal experience. This may be accomplished by, for example, using a customer reference or an industry fact and figure that may have come out of your company's own internal marketplace research to give further context and substance to the support point.

Let's now take a look at how this actually works in real (business) life. As you remember, we established our mythical company's determinant attributes (ranked in priority order -- #1 being most important) as:

  1. Technological innovator
  2. Strong after sales support
  3. Products are good value for price
  4. Strong partners
  5. Wide distribution network
  6. Wide range of products

We then built our first key message on the "technological innovator" attribute by adding the following descriptive phrases:

  • Many new product innovations over the 40 years we have been in business;
  • Invented portable fuel cell generator;
  • Sold first fuel cell to a public utility;
  • Invented solar fuel cell;
  • Twice introduced lightest on-road zinc fuel cell;
  • Worldwide investment in R&D at all facilities; and
  • Plan to introduce micro fuel cells -- electrochemical devices that create electricity from hydrogen gas or alcohol -- next year.

From that list, we then developed a single key corporate message for "technological innovator" that is based on concrete fact, yet expands that phrase, brings it to life and then supports the claim by adding more factual information (in italics):

  • We have a long history of technological innovation as an alternative energy company;
  • Our worldwide investments have produced a stream of new and innovative products;
  • We invented the first portable fuel cell generator;
  • We sold the first fuel cell to a public utility;
  • We invented the first solar fuel cell; and
  • We have twice introduced the lightest on-road zinc fuel cell.

For the highest-ranking company executives, it is important to be comfortable with this structure as well as to be able to personalize it. For example, in responding to the media about whether innovation is an important driver of the company, the executive may respond like this:

"Yes, technical innovation is our company's mission. We have a long history of technological innovation as an alternative energy company. In fact, our worldwide investments have produced a stream of new and innovative products since the company was founded in 1990. Let me give you an overview of just some of our key innovations: We invented the first solar fuel cell and portable fuel cell generator, sold the first fuel cell to a public utility and have twice introduced the lightest on-road zinc fuel cell. Our goal in the years ahead is to keep at the forefront of innovation; it's what our customers expect from us."

Notice how the key message was delivered verbatim, but was worked into the context of a short "mini-story" about the company's innovation mission. The support points (specific product references) were not recited, but combined into a single sentence. Further, the innovation key message (which can often be seen only from an historical perspective) was given currency as a key company mission and combined with a customer-centric focus ("it's what our customers expect from us").

Finally, the answer was short, clear and to the point, helping to ensure that the key audience (in this case the media) did not have to interpret the answer. The answer did not "wander around" until the spokesperson "found" a crystal clear thought -- it got to the point quickly and concisely. This type of short and interesting comment is what the media is interested in hearing. By making it easy for the media to understand what the spokesperson is saying, they have an easier time writing about the company from the perspective that is advantageous to the company.

Easier said than done? Not really! As I noted earlier, media training and practice are the keys to mastering the art of the interview. The result is that the interviewer (the listener) hears something interesting while the spokesperson simultaneously makes sure that his or her company is presented clearly and accurately -- more on that next time when we take a look at media training.

With his unique "both sides of the editor's desk" perspective, Randy Savicky's advice and counsel on public relations and marketing has profitably utilized by some of America's largest corporations and best-known brands. He has designed strategic plans, managed internal and external communications programs and obtained major news coverage for such Fortune 500 companies as IBM, Fujifilm, Motorola, Sony and UBS, early stage companies like Arbinet, Dialogic and Juno as well as startups like Barnesandnoble.com, New Paradigm Software, Tactical Solutions and Viaweb. As President of Strategy + Communications Worldwide Inc., he helps companies gain mindshare and win market share by improving their communications to their key audiences through the use of outside experts. He welcomes your comments and questions on how to put his ideas to work for you and can be reached at (516) 467-4122 or at randy@strategypluscommunications.com.

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