Excerpt: The Public Relations Handbook

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Excerpted from The Public Relations Handbook copyright © 2022 by Robert L. Dilenschneider. Reprinted with permission from Matt Holt Books, an imprint of BenBella Books, Inc. All rights reserved. 

AN excerpt about messages from chapter 5 Preparing the Communications Program: A New Way to Approach a Vital Task of The Public Relations Handbook by acclaimed business author Robert L Dilenschneider.

Messages

These are brief, straightforward declarative statements that support the client’s positioning. These messages should be integrated consistently into all future communications with key audiences. Statements that do not support a core message dilute or undermine the overall impact of the communications program.

How often must your audience hear a message before they absorb and act upon it? This is often referred to as a message’s “effective frequency.” In terms of an absolute number, there is much debate on what works best. In researching this point, I found a variety of “rules of thumb,” including the “Rule of 7,” the “14 Times Rule,” and one oft-cited study on effective frequency, attributed to Microsoft, that concluded a message needed to be heard by the listener between six and twenty times before it was acted upon. There were many more iterations, but they all shared one common theme: frequent repetition of a message is essential, and it works.

Another crucial factor in constructing an effective message is the quality of the message itself. What characterizes an effective message? Here, too, a Google search will unearth various answers. In my experience, an effective message shares four traits:

 ■ Short

Be respectful of your audience’s attention span. The rules of thumb just cited were written before the explosion of social media. A message needs to be short and written in plain, everyday language. If your message is about to run into a second sentence, think again. A longish message written to showcase your vocabulary skills has little hope of being readily absorbed by your audience. Attention spans have not only gotten shorter, but the volume of messages your audience is exposed to also has grown exponentially. Remember you are fighting for share of mind.

Memorable

Crafting a truly memorable message is always a challenge. Start by avoiding clichés. Just because you’ve heard something roll off a spokesperson’s tongue countless times does not make it memorable. In time, it becomes background noise to be tuned out and ignored. Think about how your client’s work or mission serves the greater good. Challenge your spokesperson to always deliver the message on a personal level. In our renewable energy example, you would prompt your spokesperson to express the client’s deep personal determination to promote, finance, and accelerate the transition to renewable energy. Audiences can sense genuine sincerity and determination. Urge your spokesperson to encourage the audience to empathize with your client’s mission. Empathy links your message to an emotion, which helps make it memorable. While it’s not possible or appropriate in every instance, consider if there are ways to trigger an emotional response or connection to the message you want to deliver.

Positive

There are always at least two ways to deliver any message—positive or negative. Given a choice, go with a positive message. This is not an exercise in spinning bad news. It is a way of stating what needs to be done in a positive way that brings focus, energy, and—importantly—the right attitude to the message.

Avoid the trap of telling your audience what you will not do. For example, “We will not ignore the tremendous damage fossil fuels do daily to our environment.” Compare that with, “We are determined to deliver renewable energy at a scale that is both clean and affordable.” In the first instance, we are taking something away from our audience. In the second example, we are providing a competitive clean-power alternative. Which message do you think stands a better chance of resonating with your audience?

Relevant

When was the last time you bothered to read, watch, or listen to a message that wasn’t relevant to your needs? Have you sat through a presentation where the presenter was telling you all about watchmaking, when all you wanted was the time of day? I suppose we all have.

There is only one question to ask about a potential message: Is it relevant to the audience I am trying to reach and will it be well received and acted upon?

Forgive the cynicism, but we all live in the world of “what’s in it for me?” When you ask your audience to take even a small step to help validate a client’s positioning, be prepared to persuade the audience that whatever you are asking them to do also benefits them. In brief, answer the “what’s in it for me” question for your audience even before it is asked.

In the next section, we will look at the audiences our alternative energy client needs to reach. But for now, let me leave you with some thoughts about what it takes to create a compelling and relevant message:  

  1. Speak the truth: The truth, as they say, always comes out in the end, so why not start with the truth? If you have any doubts that your message will hold up to public scrutiny over time, avoid that embarrassment. If you have the wrong message, find one that inspires your own confidence. If it does not inspire you, it won’t inspire your audience.
  1. Leverage multiple vehicles: With the explosion of social media, blogs, and the like, the opportunities for message repetition have multiplied. Will the same message fit all available outlets? Not likely. You will have to tailor the message to the medium, but you must preserve its underlying meaning and consistency.
  1. Stick to your talking points: Do not allow the message to get lost in the medium. Always remember the thought, idea, or action you are trying to elicit, and stay on point. You must be consistent in your positions. Be clear and concise. Don’t compromise on key points.
  1. Know your audience: Relevance is for the audience to judge, not the speaker. All messages must be compelling, timely, and relevant to their target audience. This does not mean you are pandering; your positions and opinions should not be compromised. Keep your focus on your audience and the messages they need to hear.
  1. Consider your critics: You will not always be surrounded by friends and supporters. It is safe—and wise—to assume that every message you deliver will find its way back into the hands of your worst critics, who will then use your message against you. Proceed accordingly.

About the Editor of The Public Relations Handbook:

Robert L. Dilenschneider formed The Dilenschneider Group in October, 1991. Headquartered in New York and Chicago, the Firm provides strategic advice and counsel to Fortune 500 companies and leading families and individuals around the world, with experience in fields ranging from mergers and acquisitions and crisis communications to marketing, government affairs and international media.

Prior to forming his own firm, Dilenschneider served as president and chief executive officer of Hill and Knowlton, Inc. from 1986 to 1991, tripling that Firm’s revenues to nearly $200 million and delivering more than $30 million in profit.  Dilenschneider was with that organization for nearly 25 years. Dilenschneider started in public relations in 1967 in New York, shortly after receiving an MA in journalism from Ohio State University, and a BA from the University of Notre Dame. For more information, please visit https://robertldilenschneider.com 

About the Author:

Art Gormley, a Principal with The Dilenschneider Group, joined the firm in 1992, shortly after it was founded. He oversees the firm’s financial relations practice and has worked with the Wall Street and international investment communities for more than twenty-five years. Mr. Gormley has counseled the chief executives, chief financial officers, and boards of directors of countless clients, including some of the world’s largest publicly held corporations. In addition, Mr. Gormley is a highly experienced crisis communicator who has guided clients in their dealings with financial restatements, shareholder litigation, activist investors, and management changes, as well as investigations involving the Securities and Exchange Commission, Internal Revenue Service, and the US Department of Justice, among other government agencies. For more information, please visit https://www.dilenschneider.com