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message building

A Minute With The Media Coach: Message Building

As we continue our summer holiday mode, instead of bringing you our usual blog this week we bring you number four in our series ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’, where fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss message building. This is the one to show those senior executives suspicious about ‘being told what to say’.

 

Blue passport

The blue passport and the power of the tangible

The blue passport has been called an icon of British Identity. And we are going to hear a lot more about that icon in the coming weeks.

The blue passport: why all the fuss?

The blue passport was discontinued in 1988, although given the lifetime of passports there were probably a few around for 20 years after that. But this does mean roughly 20 million of the 65 million population of the UK have never seen a real UK blue passport. However, it is clearly viewed with affection by many amongst the older generations. As you are almost certainly aware, blue passports are due to be reintroduced – or an updated version will be introduced – in 2019 when Britain leaves the EU.

Blue passport

The controversy comes because the contract to print these new passports is about to be awarded to a Franco-Dutch company Gemalto. The specialist British printing firm De La Rue (an ironically French name) which, it seems, lost out in the tender process, has very unusually taken the view that this is a decision worth fighting and in public.

The legal case to have it printed in the UK and not in Europe is going to get a great deal of coverage. There are lots of reasons for this. One is clearly that the dispute neatly encapsulates the pro/anti EU argument in a simple way. But another key factor is that the blue passport itself is tangible. By which I mean you can picture it. And that is a key reason why this will run and run.

The power of the tangible

Tangibility helps people, all people, engage with this argument much more easily than with the arguments about other important elements of the Brexit process such as possible tariffs on financial services.

You can picture the passport in your mind in the way you can picture a pot of money, a bridge, or a car but you can’t picture a pension, infrastructure or the automotive industry. Being able to picture something makes it easier to grasp and easier to remember.

This is not the first time the controversies of the EU has been reduced to something we can picture. Myths about a threat to straight bananas, British sausages and a proposed ban on the word ‘yoghurt’ all became symbols of exasperation with the EU and in all cases it was a myth but the arguments live on. The BBC among others did an expose of this in 2007.

The take away: find something tangible

If you are communicating to external or other non-specialist audiences, including tangible items – examples you can picture – is a very simple way to make an argument more memorable or sticky.

Blue passportBlue passportIn a recent training my colleague Catherine Cross compared a description of a company that was doing the rounds on LinkedIn with a quote about engineering from former BP CEO Lord Browne. Both are attempting to explain a professional concept. But we think Lord Browne wins hands down because he gives examples that people can visualise and this is much more powerful than a lot of conceptual words.

Professional cerebral people are often deeply reluctant to add these tangible words to their prepared arguments because they think it makes them look stupid or they think it’s irrelevant and unnecessary. We think tangible elements are hugely valuable in any argument and should be shoe-horned in at any opportunity.

Create a picture in people’s minds and your argument is more likely to be remembered.

The Media Coach is constantly involved in helping companies and organisations create ‘sticky’ messages. If your organisation needs help with please do give us a call on 020 70992212.

For a previous blog on the key elements of prepared messages see our earlier blog: 8 tips for professional communicators. 

 

 

Blue passport photo used under Creative Comms licence.

 

messaging explained

Messaging explained: Robbie Gibb steps up to save PM

The big news last week in the world of political PR was that the BBC’s head of operations at Westminster, Robbie Gibb, was named as Theresa May’s new director of communications. Here is how The Guardian reported it:

messaging explained

BBC’s Robbie Gibb gets top job

While I am constantly irritated by large organisations and the government appointing senior journalists instead of professional PRs to do high-powered well-paid comms jobs, this seems to have been a rather more sensible choice than some. Gibb has worked for the Tories previously and as a BBC manager is in any case rather more than a hack.

[If you haven’t heard or read me grump about this before, one of my beefs is that PR is a profession and should be more respected. Whilst it overlaps with journalism it is a very different job. Some brilliant journalists make excellent PRs but most don’t. And in the meantime, it stops excellent PRs being promoted and actually skews the profession by creaming off the top jobs and giving them to ill-qualified media names.]

Anyway, that aside – the appointment of Gibb made a whole feature on Radio 4s Sunday lunchtime programme The World This Weekend – which by the way my Dad occasionally presented more than 20 years ago so I have an affection for it.

messaging explained

Francis Maude tribute to Gibb

The team did what we call in the trade a ‘package’ or a report on Robbie Gibb and interviewed his former boss in the Tory Party, Francis Maude. As a tribute to Gibb, Maude or Baron Maude of Horsham to give him his full title these days gave this soundbite.

Francis Maude World Economic Forum

Former Conservative frontbencher Francis Maude explains why Robbie Gibb was so useful

We were looking for a serious figure to be my Chief of Staff and effectively to be Press Secretary as well, and Robbie was brilliant and was willing to leave his job in the BBC to do that. What he was very good at was working with us to craft the messages.

I mean, what we did at that time was we took the concept of stealth taxes, and one of my team coined the phrase stealth taxes, which passed into the language.

My classic rule of political communication is you need to spend quality time working out what are the few things you want to say, and then say them all the time and just at the moment when you feel physically sick hearing yourself say the words is the moment at which someone will say why haven’t you been saying this before…

…and I remember the moment a few months after Robbie had started working for me when a taxi driver said to one of our team – with all of these stealth taxes Labour are introducing I wonder the Tories aren’t making more of it – which illustrated the rule perfectly.

Messaging explained

Whilst, the link is available for a couple of weeks on BBC iPlayer (starting at 9.29) we have transcribed this one minute of radio because it brilliantly explains messaging. Messaging is one of those words that people have a rather woolly understanding of but for us, it has a very precise meaning. Our meaning is the same as Maude’s ‘classic rule of political communication’.

I particularly love that Maude identifies you need to spend ‘quality time’ working out the few things you want to say.

You can overdo repetition

On the point of repetition, we might differ slightly. We don’t think it is a good idea to annoy everyone with key phrases as Theresa May did in the election with ‘strong and stable’. If you need reminding here is a write up of one particularly underwhelming Maybot speech.

One does have to apply intelligence and judgement when using messages but the Maude principle is right. You need a few key phrases, with a solid argument behind them and then repeat them in different forums (rather than the same interview or speech) as often as possible.

And of course, if you need help identifying and crafting your messages you really might benefit from the support of an experienced ex-journalist. They are usually good at messaging but often not so good at many other parts of the PR job like strategy or dealing with internal sensitivities. Should you feel such a need you have the option of poaching someone from the BBC  on an inflated salary, understanding they might be ill-equipped to do the rest of the job – or you could employ one of the Media Coach team for just a few hours to facilitate a message building session.

Meanwhile, it will be very interesting to see how much difference Robbie Gibb makes to Mrs May. I suspect we will see the effect very quickly.

Key Messages are magic

Key Messages are magic: you almost certainly need some

Key messages are something that when I was a journalist I would have scoffed at. I remember the BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys saying that anyone who says you need three key messages to do a radio interview is talking rubbish. Now with more than 10 years media and presentation training experience, I am confident in saying he is utterly and completely wrong.

Key Messages are magic

A few hours with a trained journalist could save you days of frustrating email negotiation

Key Messages helped George

To illustrate let me introduce someone we will call George. George is an old friend of my family. I have known him since he was 12 and he is now in his late 20s. He is ferociously bright with a brain that is capable of holding huge amounts of detailed and diverse information. He has encyclopedic knowledge of geography, global politics and the railways of Europe (!). But when he went for his dream-job interview, he lost out. They gave him very specific feedback; he had bombarded them with too much information and too much detail and they had not fully followed his arguments. (My interpretation is they were not sure if they were dealing with a genius or a nutcase.)  So he came to spend an afternoon with me and we sorted out his messages: how he would describe his professional skills and how projects he had completed in other jobs were evidence of his knowledge and ability.

I see myself as a …

What I feel I would bring to this organisation is…

Etc…

We also worked out what he was going to say, if asked, about a ‘hole’ in his CV. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation but it was complicated.

And then we rehearsed.  Which is exactly what we do in Media Training.

Key Messages organise thoughts

It is understandable that John Humphrys would not see the necessity for this sort of preparation for either a job or a media interview.  After a lifetime as a journalist and broadcaster, Humphrys and his ilk need only to think about something to be able to articulate it as a simple argument. It is their professional skill. (Interestingly, journalists rarely recognise this as a skill. They assume everyone can do it despite daily evidence to the contrary.)

Let’s take another example. Imagine someone has spent the last five years managing clients and designing an ‘end to end process solution’ for automating the work of people who pick the items for your on-line order in a vast warehouse. What are the chances of that person being able to articulate the advantages of 3D barcodes or warehouse management software in simple language?

Absolutely zero.

This does not mean that particular professional is inadequate.  It just reminds us that experts often find it hard to articulate a helicopter view. Under questioning they often get lost in the detail and led down blind and unhelpful intellectual by-ways.

Key Messages are useful everywhere

I recently facilitated a meeting helping draw up the talking points for a new international strategy for tackling a specific set of problems in emerging economies. It sounds a long way from media and presentation training but actually is remarkably closely related.

This gutting of a detailed strategy document to identify a few easy-to-grasp core ideas is a task regularly faced in many different forms by all sorts of teams in business. But it can take weeks. Putting all stakeholders together with a former journalist will save hours if not days of frustrating email negotiation.

Back to George. I am delighted to report that George got the next job he applied for and is now being offered a promotion and a new role in another European country. Well done George. And another triumph for the magic of messaging.

If you know people who need help sorting out their messages give us a call.

 

Key Messages: online articles

There are plenty of online articles explaining the basics of key messaging. Here is a couple: