Beyond key messages in media relations

I am a strong believer is the use of key messages to guide people preparing for media interviews.

But to really convince a media audience, especially on live radio or television, you need to be able to quote some meaty examples.

This morning, for instance, I drove into work listening to a Government minister being interviewed on the radio. The minister was explaining why she wouldn't sign an agreement with the Commonwealth to adopt a nationwide funding model to deliver services in her portfolio.

She was doing well keeping to the key messages: reiterating the principles of the state-based system centred around choice and local decision making.  But it didn't convince me simply because there were no examples of the impact on real human beings.  If she had cited some examples, I might have been convinced.  Tell me about Carol who lives in East Perth and currently has 100% control over whether the Government payments she receives are directed towards her health care needs as opposed to education.  Then explain that under the Commonwealth system, Carol – who is 75 - would have no choice and the money she actually wants for health would be split 50/50 with education – meaning she'd lose the ability to genuinely manage her own affairs.  Not to mention that, at 75, health is much more of a priority than getting a degree!

All of a sudden, after listening to these examples, I am convinced.  The Minister has gone beyond a reiteration of key messages and brought the issue to life in a way I can understand. I have empathy for Carol, I have empathy for the Minister – I understand the reason behind her decision.

I hear this a lot in media interviews and it teaches a valuable lesson: Key messages are great but often they are not enough.  Citing case studies and actual examples can make your media interviews so much more effective and help you win your case in the court of public opinion.

Bad news days – why some stories make the front page

It usually begins with an early morning phone call and an exasperated voice on the end of the line saying something like: Have you seen the front page?  Or, did you seen the news last night?

The voice belongs to an anxious client who has suddenly found their company has made the news, sometimes for all the wrong reasons.  The deeper question is really – why are we suddenly considered the leading item on today's news agenda?

What makes news is often pretty obvious…and sometimes an utter mystery.  So allow me to let you in on a secret: Determining what makes the news and what doesn’t is not always an exact science. Often it comes down to luck – or more precisely, bad luck. In TV news they call it the line-up.  In very simple terms, this is just the order in which the stories will run.  Most commercial TV news bulletins consist of 10 minutes in the first break, 5 minutes in the second, 7 minutes of sport, a couple of minutes of weather plus time for the all important commercials to help pay the bills.  

In commercial news and current affairs the lead item is determined primarily by viewer interest and yes, bad news tends to sell much better than the good. Some days though, to be frank, there just isn't that much around.  In my 10 years as a senior news producer I used to joke to colleagues that slow news days must have meant a pretty good day for the world because not much bad stuff was happening. Those days are the most dangerous for companies sitting on a potential news item . All of a sudden, what was likely to be squeezed into the second break becomes the lead story – or the front page. This is also why sneaky government PR folk often store up their dirty laundry media releases or announcements to pop out under the cover of the biggest news story of the week, month or year (depends on how dirty).  Unfortunately the opposite principle applies here: Poor news days mean that even the most inoccuous yarn that might be struggling to get a run on any other day is suddenly in 72 point headlines on page 1 or the subject of a two minute piece at the top of the TV news.

Of course, there are ways to navigate through this potential minefield – and I suppose that's why people like me have a job.  But don't let any PR or so called media guru tell you there is a perfect solution.  There's not.  One of the wonderful (and dreadful) things about the news agenda is that nobody really knows what is going to happen next. So next time your company finds itself at the centre of some unwanted attention courtesy of a prominent story on a slow news day, don't beat up yourself (or your PR people)…news happens.

The long or short of it

I am not a big rules guy when it comes to successful communications.  You know those people who will present you with the magic formula.  Every message needs to be delivered in less than three sentences.  Or the opposite – staged delivery where you trickle feed the audience over a much longer period of time.

Who is right here?  The truth is…it depends.  There are occasions when people need, even demand, detail.  When a company needs to take a new direction, for example, that is going to result in significant disruption to people’s jobs, a three paragraph email is simply not good enough.  You need to tell me why you are doing this and how the final decision was made.  What’s likely to happen next and how will that affect me?

On the other hand, there is a risk in going too far the other way.  Sometimes I need you to get to the point quickly.  For example, if you are announcing a highly anticipated result.  This is where the selection of the communication medium can also be important.  For example, the 15 minute video that sets the stage might be great for delivering detail in an engaging way, but when it comes to specific results, it can frustrate the audience who will, if they can, fast forward through your critical scene-setting.  On the other hand, a short, snappy email can ensure the key information and critical context are delivered much more effectively.

I am a great believer in what I call “glance communications” and newspapers are the best example.  We all know the way most people read print media is to scan for the bits that interest them – and so headlines and sub-headings are crucial.

As with just about everything in communications, it comes down to getting inside the heads of your intended audience.  What is likely to be their mind set and mood when they come to view, read or listen to your message?  It’s not about what you want to say – it’s about what they are prepared to hear. Long or short?  It’s their choice. 

Is the customer always right?

What’s the most common threat used in Australia?

I’m going to take a stab and guess the following: I’m going to the media!  Picture this: A call centre somewhere in Australia right now.  An angry customer, an exasperated employee and a letter to the local news outlet that’s lobbed like a hand grenade. 

The average Chief of Staff at most metro TV stations gets about half a dozen calls a week – sometimes a day – from a customer seeking revenge for a bad deal.

What happens next is telling.  Having sat in the Chief of Staff desk at a few newsrooms over the years I can tell you that most of the complaints get ignored.  Occasionally, though, the combination of a bank that’s just reported a massive profit and a single mother with three kids who are about to be made homeless is just too much to resist.  

For me the critical question raised by incidents like this is: How did this situation arise in the first place? Addressing this question is why successful companies need to have their customer service folk and their PR and Marketing professionals working hand in glove.  I should also include the customer insight folk in there as well.

These customer pain points are rich sources of learning.  What happened here? Why was the customer so unhappy?  Did they understand what their contract with the company entitled them to receive and were they clear on how much that would cost?  The customer is NOT always right – but you can learn from even the most unreasonable customers.  And, no, you won’t always be able to give the customers what they want – but if you just feel the fear, and don’t learn anything from these incidents, you are missing out on a big opportunity to grow your business and understand what it takes to attract new customers and keep the ones you’ve got.

Exploding a media myth

The myth about media relations is that by influencing journalists you can control the issue.

But targeting the media is a bit like treating the symptoms rather than the disease.

The key to issue management is building relationships with stakeholders.  This is even more the case in the world of Twitter and Facebook where opinions fly thick and fast and the media's influence, while still strong, has faded in the midst of the crowd.  Just take a look at what is occurring in the Middle East: While guns and bombs still dominate political debate,  well organised pressure groups are begin to show that- at least in some cases- the pen or mobile phone can be mightier than the sword. 

Here in suburban Australia it is the same.  Politicians and journalists are still powerful. On talkback radio and on the internet, however, an articulate pensioner from Balcatta can give the Canberra press gallery a run for their money any day.

If your issue management strategy is solely focussed on the media, you're fighting a losing battle.