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.

The true extent of information overload

For anyone in the communications game the biggest issue right now is message cut-through, due to the sheer volume of information being flung at the average human being every day.

We talk about information overload, but occasionally you come across evidence of the trend that just stops you in your tracks and provides insight into just how big a challenge it has become.

A book worth reading, especially if you love business trends, is Big Data by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier.  It is all a bit mind blowing to be honest.

Consider, for example, the fact that Facebook gets 10 million new photos uploaded every hour.  (Yep, that’s hour not day or week).  Or that users of You Tube upload over an hour of video every second.

The figures that leapt out of the page for me quote the work of Martin Hilbert from the University of Southern California's Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism. Hilbert has been trying to put an actual figure on the amount of information that now exists in the world.  Obviously the figure is galloping ahead constantly but going back in digital history to 2007 he has worked out there were 300 exabytes of stored data.  An exabyte is equal to one billion gigabytes or the rough equivalent of a billion full length feature films. In 2012 the total amount of stored information worldwide was four times bigger at 1200 exabytes.

Reading figures like this makes me almost want to go and crawl into a corner.  Surely, one little communicator like me can't compete?  But that's when I remind myself that communications is just the means to an end and as always the focus needs to stay on what really matters. What PR practitioners and marketers should be doing everyday is focusing on making genuine connections and building relationships.  The rest is just noise.

Nothing stops the mail

I heard on the news today that Australia Post now earns more income from parcels related to online retail sales than to standard mail.

That’s no great surprise – the very fact that you are reading this online is evidence of that! 

But while we have seen the steady decline of non-digital correspondence, I would caution people who think that the letter, personally addressed in a stamped envelope has had its day as an effective communication medium.

In fact, I think there is something incredibly powerful now about receiving a letter that’s been personally addressed, hand-crafted, perhaps even handwritten.

One of my great regrets in life is having poor handwriting.  I envy people who can write in a script that is crisp to the eye and easy to read compared to my bird-scratchings.

I feel this most at times when I want to convey deeply personal messages to family or friends, perhaps after a bereavement or to mark some happier time like a special birthday or engagement.

My best efforts are usually typed and occasionally I even feel the need to apologise by simply explaining that the thoughts are genuinely felt but conveyed via computer simply to ensure readability.

Whether typed or hand written, the main advantage of the good old snail mail letter is its ability to convey a personal message and to illustrate effort in not being content with photocopied feelings.

If a picture paints a thousand words, so does a crafted, personal note.  It cuts-through the noise of a world so crammed full of messages that we are struggling for meaning. 

Yours sincerely,



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. 

Why timing is everything in communications

More powerful than armies, an idea whose time has come.  I think it was Victor Hugo who said that – although Margaret Thatcher famously used it in the last campaign speech before her rise to power in 1979. 

The thing is – it is so true – and it is a critical learning for anyone wanting to deliver effective communications.  Advertisers have known it for years – getting to the target audience at the right time in the right place. 

Talk to me about food when I’m hungry and I’m far more likely to eat what you have on the plate.

Unfortunately the same rules aren’t always applied to corporate communication within companies and organisations.  I understand the need for corporate plans and strategic timetables but just dumping a bunch of information doesn’t amount to a pile of beans if the receivers of that information aren’t ready to listen and, even more importantly, absorb.

It all comes down to that golden rule of communication: Putting yourself in the mindset of the people to whom you are trying to communicate. You might need to prepare the audience for what is coming – explaining the context of what you are doing and why before you hit them with your key message.

This is especially important where your communication is meant to drive a particular action or response from the audience and even more so in a world where we suffer message pollution on a grand scale. 

You think global warming is a problem, try global message overload!  In fact, I would wager that is one of the reasons why the whole story around climate change has failed to hit the mark.  In a world where people are worried about finding a job or paying off debt, it’s hard to think about what might happen in fifty or a hundred years time.

So next time you hear someone say: We have to communicate, consider the mental state of the audience and whether the time is right.  It’s a little like the farmer who plants his seed before it rains.  A little patience can yield a much more effective result.