On Message, Off Humanity

How about we put another PR sacred cow on the butcher block? Key message repetition and bridging.

For years, the Gospel according to PR has been to counsel clients to develop key messages and bring every answer back to those key messages.

So, let’s say you determine through highly scientific methods (i.e. a few dozen interminable meetings with insider apologists) that your key message is “our widgets make customers’ lives better.” Brilliant!

Now, your friendly neighborhood PRster advises, make sure you always, always, always bridge back to that key message, even when being asked about other things, such as the weather, your tie, or that pesky report showing that your widgets are maiming people. And then you get videotaped and shamed until you do it like a trained seal. For this you pay several thousand dollars.

So, for example, when I Googled “staying on message” today, I got this sage advice from one of our brethren: “Staying on message is simply a matter of “grabbing the wheel” of an interview and steering it across the bridge. You “bridge” the interview from the question you don’t want to answer to the answer you want to give.” Some people less sophisticated in the mystical ways of PR refer to this as “deceit.”

So, remember dear old Mike Dukakis repeating “good jobs at good wages” 27 times in interviews about foreign policy. That actually was not Turret’s Syndrome. He was “on-message!”

For a long time, this avoid-and-bridge technique has been an article of faith in politics. If they ask about the cash hidden in the freezer, just keep going back to better schools for the children. As you’ll see from congressional approval ratings, this is working extremely well, so corporate barons adapted the technique.

Look, I support having key messages and bridging back to them. It is true, airtime and column inches are extremely limited commodities, so you must be planful and strategic about budgeting your words. I get that. Repeating a message does clearly communicate your message priority and increases the odds that your key message will survive the edit.

That’s a fine theory to guide us. But let’s get real. In practice, a lot of people out there are doing themselves more harm than good by applying this approach too robotically.

I probably shouldn’t give out this highly proprietary qualitative research, but here is a key insight I gained from straying outside my swanky PR suite and applying sophisticated anthropological observational methods on real humans in their natural environment.

Get this, it seems real humans in real conversations typically answer each other’s questions, and don’t instead repeat irrelevant phrases like a malfunctioning android. Therefore, I raise the question whether our counsel that clients avoid and repeat until the audience sinks into the fetal position is compatible with species norms.

When PR people see someone repeating messages on MSNBC , they invariably say “that’s awesome, they’re staying on-message.” Meanwhile, according to my anthropological research, most non-PR people are thinking, “that unfeeling robot is so guilty that he refuses to even answer the question.”

Again, before I get banned from all future PRSA merrymaking, please understand that I’m not arguing that we abandon our precious key messages and bridging. We can keep our binky, okay?

I’m just arguing that we temper our training. I’m arguing that we prepare clients to deliver key messages AND answer the inevitable tough questions directly, not deliver messages INSTEAD OF answering questions directly. I’m arguing that we advise clients to bridge to key messages whenever it’s natural, not whenever it’s possible. I’m arguing that we take more care to make sure our client’s humanity and honesty is spotlighted in the interview, not camouflaged with cookie cutter communications.

Now, you ask, have I personally ever over-trained a client so they inadvertently came off like a Model B-9 Environmental-Control Robot? Well, that’s an interesting question, dear reader, but the real issue here is that our widgets make our customers’ lives better!

— Joe Loveland

4 thoughts on “On Message, Off Humanity

  1. The Answer Man says:

    What you seem to be talking about is classic spin – ignore the question, and spew the key message.

    The best counsel is to answer the unpleasant question with the utmost brevity, then jump into the key messages and repeat them ad nauseum.

    My solution is a refinement of that.

    In most media coverage, the reporter’s preamble and question never appear to the audience, so it make sense to hammer home with the key messages.

    Last, I would add that how much you say is inversely proportional to what you want to appear in the media.

  2. Amen, brother.

    Maybe I’m just lucky enough to have the right kinds of clients who are smart and not being hacked at by anyone with a limb to hack with, but I’ve never done more media training than “Joe Blow covers this beat for these people. He’s written about this and that, so make sure to focus on this angle more than this angle.” I of course provide the specifics for “this,” “that” and “these.”

    And you know what? They do just fine. They’re not trying to bullshit anybody. It’s better to say something that’s less than perfect rather than to stick out like a sore thumb as someone who uttered some meaningless, “cleansed by legal” garbage that’s so worthless it can’t even be burned for fuel.

    They answer the question and move on. More good can be done by not wasting time on bridging and training to bridge.

    Or maybe I’m just lucky.

  3. MJ says:

    I fail to understand why some counselors subject their clients to journalistic misadventure and error through open-ended interivews.

    No print interview should last more than 10 minutes. (on background is different)

    Far better to do email exchange w/reporters so that every utterance is carefully measured and unavoidably correct in its interpretation.

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