I’ve said it.
You can officially classify me as a heretic.
My viewpoint started to form in 1983 when I landed my first job at a PR agency. Shortly after, the big boss decided I was ready to support our client Philips at COMDEX — THE computer show at the time (eventually bulldozed by CES).
To prepare me properly for the big event, I got to attend and observe our senior folks conduct media training for the Philips executives. The academic-like curriculum eventually gave way to mock interviews which is when the fun began.
“That’s off message.”
“Don’t stray from the message.”
“Keep to the message.”
As I watched our trainers pummel the executives to stay on message, it occurred to me that this might not be the best way to help them up their game during a media interview. But what did I know at 25 years of age with little experience?
The following week I’m at COMDEX and with the Philips VP of Marketing Rob Moes. We sit down for 30 minutes before our first interview so I can regurgitate what’s in the briefing document. Playing the astute account executive, I pointed out the importance of staying on message. I can’t remember for sure, but I think he offered a slight nod, more acknowledgement than agreement.
Then the interviews with journalists commenced. Rob was doing a fine job. I perked up with a sense of pride every time he inserted one of our pristine messages into his answers.
Unfortunately, this approach did not resonate with a Reuters reporter. When she asked how many CD-ROM drives Philips expected to ship in three years, an exasperated Rob responded “That’s like asking Mrs. Magellan how many lunches to pack. It’s impossible to know.” All of the sudden the interview took on a different tone. The Reuters journalist laughed. Rob laughed. They proceeded to converse like actual human beings. Unshackled from the messaging, Rob answered her questions with anecdotes and back stories and conversational language.
Taking this in, I’m thinking what works in an interview with a journalist is exactly what our media training strives to squeeze out of the spokesperson. This doesn’t make sense.
Perfect Messaging or Great Story
Every communications consultancy offers a messaging workshop. Every corporate communications type has spent the requisite two agonizing days in a hotel conference room eating bridge mix while debating the merits of “innovate” over “pioneer” as the verb of choice. All this time and money and bridge mix to create perfect messages that are never going to move the needle with journalists, and in a best case scenario, end up in the company boilerplate. As the coach of a little league baseball team would say when the ground ball does NOT go between the legs, “well done.”
I’m all for having a plan. What impression are we striving to impart to the audience? What themes do we want to communicate? The magic comes from developing the content that supports those impressions or themes.
Have you ever heard a customer say, “Wow, that’s a great message.”
But all of us have heard customers say “What a great story.”
That’s where our time should go. That’s where we can make a difference.