PR Training

Key Message Development: Building a Foundation for Effective Communications

Is developing key messages really worth the effort? You bet! Communications cannot always be controlled; key messages can. They help you prioritize and crystallize information; ensure consistency, continuity and accuracy; measure and track success; and stay focused when speaking with media or stakeholders.

Join Debbie Wetherhead for her online training session, “Key Message Development: Building a Foundation for Effective Communications,” on Tuesday, December 6, 2011.  Register Now

It’s not sexy; it’s not fun. But, oh, so necessary. We’re talking key message development. With repeated use, such statements serve as the foundation of your branding/marketing efforts and should be reflected in all written and spoken communications.

Not a believer? Consider what business guru Tom Peters says: “In a competitive environment, only those who have a strong, unified message, who create and sell quality and value, will survive.”

So what are key messages? You can describe them as:

  • The takeaway, master narrative, elevator pitch; essence of what you want to communicate.
  • What’s needed to engage people.
  • Bite-sized summations that articulate: what you do, what you stand for, how you are different and what value you bring to stakeholders.

Is developing key messages really worth the effort? You bet! Communications cannot always be controlled; key messages can. They help you:

  • Prioritize and crystallize information.
  • Ensure consistency, continuity and accuracy.
  • Measure and track success.
  • Stay focused when speaking with media or stakeholders.

Plus, organizations using key messages are quoted more, misquoted less and develop better relationships with reporters.

However, there are three steps I suggest before you gather the troops to brainstorm:

  • Start by revisiting company goals and objectives to ensure key messages align with overall business strategy.
  • Identify brand vocabulary, considering words and phrases you want associated with your brand and their SEO implications.
  • Conduct a competitive analysis to avoid creating key messages in a vacuum or too close to competitors. You can review competitive websites, collateral, ads and publicity placements to chart others’ key messages, value propositions, proof points and brand vocabulary.

Wondering what are the attributes of key messages? They should be:

  • Concise: Optimally three key messages on one page; each statement only one to three sentences in length or under 30 seconds when spoken.
  • Strategic: Define, differentiate and address benefits/value proposition.
  • Relevant: Balance what you need to communicate with what your audience needs to know.
  • Compelling: Meaningful information designed to stimulate action.
  • Simple: Easy-to-understand language; avoid jargon and acronyms.
  • Memorable: Easy to recall and repeat; avoid run-on sentences.
  • Real: Active rather than passive voice; no advertising slogans.
  • Tailored: Effectively communicates with different target audiences, adapting language and depth of information.

Bearing all this in mind, it’s time to engage internal stakeholders and marcom experts in a facilitated discussion that answers probing questions. On a flip chart, collect explanations, words and phrases to fashion into sentences and, ultimately, package into key messages.

I recommend following a five-step process:

  1. Identify your messaging needs, considering if they are evergreen or need to support a specific offering, issue, situation or combination of topics.
  2. Verify your target audiences.
  3. Determine if one-size communication fits all.
    • Prepare key messages that are more strategic than “three most important things” and:
    • Describe an organization, product, service, program or point of view.
    • Differentiate it and showcase strategic leadership.
    • Focus on benefits, highlighting your value proposition and stating the WIFM (What’s In It For Me) for target audience members.
    • Prove your points with supporting information to substantiate, distinguish and add credibility. Facts, figures and statistics, quoting authorities, stories and visuals can be effective.

Think you nailed them. Think again and put key messages through a litmus test, asking:

  • Do they complement your business plans and brand strategy?
  • Can you “own” them or can they be applied to competitors?
  • When read out loud, do they sound conversational?  Ring true?
  • Can you simplify the language or make statements more concise?
  • Do they motivate stakeholders to act?

And then test them to ensure they resonate with internal and external audiences.

Now you think you’re done. Well, maybe not. While key messages tied to your mission, values and brand may be long-lasting, you’ll want to routinely revisit statements to ensure they still meet your and audience needs, as well as reflect current marketplace dynamics. A public relations pro’s work is never done!

Debbie Wetherhead is president of of Atlanta-based Wetherhead Communications. Her firm is best known for its ability to generate positive publicity and finesse business communications. Backed by 25+ years of experience, Wetherhead has conducted nearly 500 media, presentation, crisis communication and key message development trainings, and has presented at two PRSA International Conferences and to numerous Chapters nationwide.

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Debbie Wetherhead


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