Ah, what a great vacation that was. So relaxing. I can still hear the sounds of the waves crashing on the white, sandy beach, tropical birds singing their alluring songs in the lush forest behind me. I really meant to update the blog from my cabana, but the resort was having problems with their wireless intern– ah, who am I kidding? The muses just weren’t watching my back. I try to keep updates here interesting, and have to wait for inspiration instead of just picking a random topic out of a hat.
So I was listening to the always-entertaining Mobcast last week, and the guys got to talking about “staying on message” and I went through a series of emotions — first, excitement about the onslaught of inspiration. Then I grew very, very angry, remembering meetings about messaging and training game developers how to stay on message for hours and hours before trade shows and media tours. Then I laughed because my dog was trying to hump my other dog. Then I grew sleepy. And so the weekend passed, and I’m finally getting around to writing this post.
I don’t remember which of the handsome Mobcasters said it, but he cited an example of a PR rep being visibly upset during an interview in which some sports guy or developer just wouldn’t use the exact phrasing the PR team had decided on prior to the press event. Whether you see it or not, this happens all the time — PR reps around the world are probably about to blow a gasket at this very moment because their finely crafted corporate messages are being shredded by staff who — how dare they — just don’t get how important it is to executives.
Allow me to explain briefly for those unfamiliar with the concept of messaging: when a company is getting ready for any sort of press engagement — a product launch, trade show, media tour, press conference, investors meeting, etc. — the executives and the PR team — or the PR team alone — will sit down to come up with “key messages,” which will then be used to draft a guideline for responses to queries. These usually use very specific wording about a product’s features and why they’re important, the company’s stance on a controversial issue, corporate plans or any number of other topics. Straying from the exact wording often means not sticking to the message and is frowned upon.
Establishing key messages is an important part of any PR plan, and while it might seem like fiendish megacorporation territory, sticking to those key messages in most cases is also very important. Most importantly for those outside of the organization, it allows the product/company to maintain a consistent brand, so that consumers aren’t confused. I’ll invent a conveniently relevant scenario: imagine a movie studio promoting it’s latest film based on a Stephen King novel. In one interview the producer says the movie will be a suspenseful thriller. At a simultaneous press junket across the country an actor calls it a bone-chilling horror flick. If those people had both stuck to the message, the consumer who’s seen both interviews wouldn’t be confused. That’s a very simplified example, but I think you get the point.
When someone doesn’t stick to the message and an unapproved and often somewhat incorrect statement hits the enthusiast news scene, the PR team has to scramble to resolve the confusion. Maybe that person talked about a feature that hadn’t yet been announced — the always-awesome unintentional leak — and the execs need to start getting involved. Particularly in a publicly-traded company, the ramifications of someone straying from established messaging can be rather significant.
I’ve eschewed the virtues of messaging enough; it’s not all Skittles at the end of the tasty rainbow (what?). Most “corporate” companies — you know the ones, most commonly associated with fearlessly arrogant fancy-pants executives and utter inaccessibility — take “sticking to the message” to extremes. I’ve gone through email interviews written by game developers, for example, into which I’ve been urged by execs to insert more key messages to ensure the company’s brand is sufficiently represented. Whether we actually answered the question or not was, ultimately, irrelevant, as long as most of our company’s core philosophies, competencies and product features were presented at every single opportunity.
I think that if you have a good relationship with a journalist, you should feel comfortable straying from the company line once in a while, though (almost) never on major company issues that could cause harm. If those off-the-record comments make it to print, you’re screwed. In a trusting relationship, though, the journalist will appreciate the difference between something that is fair to print — a more subjective version of the message or a freely shared inside scoop — and a bit of knowledge that could cost someone their job.
Messaging won’t go away. I’m sorry, journalists, but if you’re in an interview with one of my clients, I hope they’re sticking to the message. They can have opinions, you guys can talk all day long about some unrelated topic… but as soon as you start asking questions about business practices, why our product is better than the competition or whatever, I want them to say what they’re supposed to say. If they stray from messaging and it’s wrong, I’ll speak up right there — I may ask you not to print something because it’s a feature we haven’t talked about. If you still print it, you’re a jerk. But then I have to deal with that. And I’ll probably be upset because some guy just couldn’t stick to the message.