by Mike Bawden, partner, Bawden & Lareau Public Relations, LLC
Without fail, the complaint we hear most often from owners and managers of companies when we first sit down with them is that people “just don’t get it” when it comes to understanding what they’re brand has to offer or why they do what they do. It’s a complaint that encompasses almost every critical audience a brand touches: customers, the media, business partners and even employees.
It’s frustrating to a person who’s charged with the responsibility of making a brand or business successful. They spend nearly every waking moment thinking about how and why what they do is special – only to have it misunderstood, or worse yet, not even heard.
This failure to communicate can feel like a personal failing.
But it doesn’t need to. The failure most business owners and managers experience when it comes to driving their “unique selling proposition” into the hearts and minds of the people who matter most to their success is often tied to a lack of understanding of what it will take to make a crucial connection between the values of their brand to the needs, wants and concerns of their audience.
And in the rare instance when they do manage to make a connection, these same “brand advocates” often contradict themselves the next time they have an opportunity to be heard again.
In the world of public relations and branded storytelling, we refer to this problem as one of “message discipline” and it boils down to two things:
- Knowing your key messages and
- Knowing why those messages matter.
Creating Key Messages
One of the first things we do in a new client relationship is conduct a full-scale “communications audit” – this is a comprehensive look at all of the client-facing, media-facing and employee-facing correspondence, collateral and commercial messages we can get our hands on from the past 12-24 months. Each piece is read and reviewed to discern the purpose of the piece, the main message(s) that are most important and the supporting message(s) used to illustrate/bolster the main message(s). Notes are also made regarding the method of communication, the production values, use of color, identity characteristics, etc. as part of a larger survey of communications continuity and “short hand” – tools, trends, icons and art that help reinforce key messages or brand values.
The last thing that’s noted about each piece of communications reviewed in the audit are the “values” associated with or attributed to the company or brand. Many times, these “values” are absolute distillations of messages built into the piece. Sometimes, the “values” are more nuanced than that.
In addition to the communications audit, we may also interview one or more key stakeholders – corporate leaders or communications personnel who may be involved in the creation of the messages being audited. The purpose of these interviews is to identify possible disconnects between stated missions, values or messages and what’s actually been published/produced on behalf of the company or brand.
Finally, we’ll often take a look at the history of the company or brand to see if there are any larger, cultural influences at work in the communication. Evaluating the importance or relevance of these cultural influences helps us strike the right tone when it comes to crafting key messages for a client and can help overcome objections to adopting a stricter set of key messages – in essence, a “script” for corporate/brand leadership to follow when they are talking to employees, customers, business partners or the media.
Key Messages are not created in a vacuum, though. We will often draft a set of key messages and review those with management (and sometimes customers or employees) to make sure they accurately reflect who the brand really is as well as what it wants to become. By the time we’re done, the key messages created for a brand usually summarize what the client wants people to “get” about their company or brand.
But that’s only half the battle.
Making Messages Relevant
One of the byproducts of conducting a comprehensive communications audit is the identification of important audiences: groups of people who can make a difference to the success or failure of a company or brand. We will often identify sub-groups inside of broader audiences related to demographic or psychographic preferences. Sometimes those sub-groups will be identified by geographic location or job responsibility. Sometimes by media channel or cultural stereotype.
What’s important here is to identify what’s important to these different sub-groups and how the company/brand addresses those differences. This is the essence of relevance – and it’s how you make sure people “get” what the brand is about.
At BLPR, we have a tool we use that helps us craft messages that are relevant to every audience. It’s called a “Message Matrix” and it re-states each key message for a brand in a way that is relevant and realistic for each sub-audience. This can mean, at times, that we’ll re-state each key message for a brand a dozen different ways (or more). It also means that some key messages are merely repeated from one audience to another.
What’s important is that there is thought, consideration and discipline in the process that ensures messages are relevant when they’re delivered. That way, they hit and make an impact rather than miss or be misunderstood.
The end result is a handbook that gives every person speaking on behalf of the brand a clear set of messages and guidelines on how to deliver those messages to any audience. Key points don’t get lost and, more importantly, are reinforced over time so often that people start to “get” what makes the company or brand special.
And once your story is straight, you can be heard in ways you’ve never thought possible.
But more on that later.