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’.



Another Misspeak: Strachan Reminds us that Stream of Consciousness is Dangerous in a Media Interview

Another misspeak this week has landed a respected former football manager in hot water.

Strachan’s Confused Misspeak

If you watch TV sport, you are probably aware that Gordon Strachan, a former Scotland and Celtic manager, has been dropped as a pundit on Sky Sports after drawing a comparison that has infuriated many. He has apologised but the story is still running after several days.


What actually happened? Well early in the Thursday night programme, The Debate, panellists had been discussing the problem of racism in football, prompted by Spurs and England defender Danny Rose, considered to be one of the most talented players of his generation. He said he couldn’t wait to see the back of football because of the racist abuse he suffers – and because of the lack of action taken against offenders.

Later in the same programme, the discussion turned to whether Adam Johnson, a footballer who has been released from prison after serving 3 years of a sentence for child sex offences, should be allowed to play again. He was found guilty of having sexual contact with a 15-year-old fan.

Strachan, who has said he would be happy to sign Johnson given that he had served his time, appeared to draw a comparison between the racist chants and the potential for abusive chants if Johnson appeared back on the pitch. He posed the question:

“If he (Johnson) goes on to the pitch and people start calling him names, have we got to do the same as it is to the racist situation?” Strachan said. “Is it all right to call him names now after doing his three years – have we got to allow that to happen?”

Misspeak trouble can come from nonsense

It’s a fairly non-sensical sentence and certainly not a thought out position. The nub of the argument is that many believe Johnson deserves abuse while (clearly) black players do not.

Whilst Strachan’s comments were ill-advised, and clearly not well thought out – the sentence barely makes sense – it is clear to me that it is extremely difficult to pick wise words all the time. It is extremely easy to say something stupid, or non-pc or just plain wrong in a longish conversation, in which you are being treated as an expert. We see it time and time again. It is not easy to be a professional pundit and in the age of Twitter, it is easy for anyone to misspeak in public or in the media, and kick up a hornet’s nest of fury.


Misspeaks: a Long List

So next time someone tells you that they do not have time to ‘work on their messages’ ahead of a media interview, and they do not need Media Training, remind them of this long list of people who misspoke in an unguarded moment. Some just had an uncomfortable few days, others lost their jobs or ended up in court.

If you can remember some I can’t, please do share.


message dicipline

Message Discipline and Resistance to Towing the Line

Message discipline is one of the key things we teach in Media Training. And it has been interesting this last weekend to see the issue of discipline in communications move right to the centre of the political debate.

Message discipline and collective responsibility

Following a long meeting at Chequers, Prime Minister Theresa May has re-imposed the principles of collective responsibility and persuaded (!) Cabinet members to stop arguing against each other in public over Brexit or leave the Cabinet. As we know, at the time of writing David Davis and Boris Johnson have both chosen to leave.

Message Discipline

Prime Minister Theresa May is attempting to re-impose collective responsibility on her Cabinet.

Collective responsibility is a democratic convention which means members of the Cabinet must publicly support all governmental decisions made in Cabinet meetings, even if they do not privately agree with them. This support includes voting with the government in the Commons and towing the line in media interviews.

There are clear parallels in business where executive boards operate a similar system.

However, it does, of course, lead to difficulty if there are individuals who have strongly held beliefs which they feel they are unable to express.

Having clear, written, agreed messages is another version of collective responsibility. If you have several senior leaders speaking to the media it is important that what they say on sensitive subjects is aligned: with each other and with the organisation.

However, imposing the sort of discipline required to make this work can be very tricky.

Here is a selection of the problems we come across and the possible solutions.

PR professionals are too junior to demand discipline

Telling people what they can and cannot say in public can be tricky if your job title or seniority band is lower than your spokesperson. This usually arises only if the spokesperson lacks experience. Experienced operators know that the PRs are their best friend and they take the advice unless there is a very strong reason not to. However, I have personally had situations where it has been helpful for the CEO to pop-in and lend his authority to a set of messages. It’s all about having someone higher up the food chain to make it clear this is the way things are done.

Spokespeople worry about their professional reputation

This is very common and I have written about it before. The fear is understandable. Senior, clever people do not want to be quoted in public as saying something that lacks credibility or sounds stupid. And they don’t want to sound as if they are parroting lines written by someone else. Typically this is resolved by negotiation over the message but can also require a robust explanation of why a message is necessary in the first place. As PR practitioners we must remember that the risks of random media comment are not as clear to others as they are to us. Sometimes we need to spell them out with examples of where it has gone horribly wrong for other people.

Media Training is very helpful here because, by role-playing interviews and then discussing them, it often becomes clear that there is a way for corporate messages to be used but still sound and feel credible. The fear of using messages is dispelled by a bit of practise and playback.

Message Discipline

Media Training can provide the opportunity for spokespeople to get comfortable with messages.

Messages are too bland

This is another really common objection. If the chosen messages are too obviously based around marketing or just too corporate, spokespeople will quite rightly baulk at using them. It is initially not obvious to everyone that marketing messages and media messages — whilst having some relation to each other — are not the same thing. There is a whole science behind this but at its simplest marketing messages are about creating interest while media messages are much more about a compelling, often multi-faceted, argument.

One of the most successful marketing slogans of my lifetime comes from the mobile phone company Orange (now swallowed up into EE). Many people will remember the phrase ‘The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Orange’. But in the 1990s the CEO sounded stupid when he repeatedly used this phrase in media interviews with me and others. It was a good marketing message, not a good media message.

People find it difficult to use prepared messages

This is a funny one. I come across people who have never heard of ‘messaging’ before but who, given a modular script in the form of a message house, can use all the elements in a credible way, in their first role-play interview. But I also come across many other, equally smart people who find it extremely difficult to remember the prepared elements or to stitch them together in an interview, in a way that makes sense. It seems to me it’s all about the way each individual’s brain is wired. People think differently and process information differently. Whilst there is the odd person who is a natural, most need to be taught to use messages. But it doesn’t take long. It’s not rocket science. I have lost count of the number of clients who say to me ‘how come you can remember my messages better than I can?’. And the answer is: because it is a formula. I spend my life crafting and using messages for my clients. I have learnt how to learn messages!

(If you are wondering what I mean by messaging I have written about this here and here.)

If we can help install message discipline into your spokespeople — in the nicest possible way, of course —please do give us a call on 020 7099 2212.


Image of Theresa May from Wikimedia Commons