media relations

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.

Don’t get trapped in the media bubble

When it comes to investing most of us believe the sage advice of good financial planners: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

And yet, when it comes to communications, I am still seeing many organisations doing exactly that. In particular, I am amazed by the fixation with media relations as the “be all and end of all” of their communication strategy.

Let me be clear: I am NOT saying media relations is unimportant – it is very important.  And, I am NOT, saying journalists and news outlets are no longer hugely influential – or that media relations is a waste of time. 

What I am saying is that the influence of journalists in shaping public opinion can be over-stated and the role and dominance of traditional media is being eroded. 

This means companies have to think very carefully about planning their communications – in particular thinking about building relationships, as opposed to running into the street and blurting information into the crowd.

I am also not advocating throwing all your eggs into the online media basket.  The digital world is crowded with a lot of dodgy claims and fleeting trends – this week’s new app (that you absolutely have to be part of) will quickly be overtaken by something else (probably being developed in some 14 year old’s bedroom right now!).

By all means look at Facebook and Twitter – but as part of a broader suite of communication channels that are relevant to the audience with whom you want to connect.

For me, the focus should be on thinking about how people want to be treated and acting with respect and integrity.   As a customer, stakeholder or voter, I want you to tell me the truth.  I want you to provide information that is balanced and helps me understand.  I want you to give me options.  I don’t want you to shout at me, or call me up when I am in the middle of dinner.  When you are wrong, admit it, tell me what you are doing to fix the problem and move on. 

There is a risk of communications people living in a media bubble – where they get fixated on a world inhabited by journalists, politicians and the veritable industry of stakeholder groups and wannabe advocates.  

Most of the people you need to influence are just getting on with their lives.  Forget the headlines, they’re far more worried about what they forgot to put in their kid’s lunchbox today than about criticism of your company or the latest scandal.   Way back in my news producing days, I remember getting home from work one night after a particularly big day on the newsfront.  I think the Berlin Wall had come down overnight.  I got home to my wife and one year old son.  Forget about the Berlin wall, my wife’s focus that night was (rightly) on two things– bed and bath for the child.  Perspective is a marvellous thing. At times communications professionals need a heavy dose. 

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.

A sense of urgency

Standby for an overwhelming stereotype: There are two types of people in this world – the slow, steady considered types who follow the mantra that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Then there’s the polar opposite. The stitch in time saves nine types – who go by gut feel and seize the opportunity just in time.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. There are times when it is right to step back, take a deep breath and think carefully before acting. But equally so, there are times when you need to act.