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.
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.
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 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