When we begin working with a client, the first thing we recommend is creating or revisiting their strategic messaging. We have heard more than a few moans, and witnessed some not-too-subtle eye rolling when we insist starting here, instead of immediately firing off a story pitch to the Wall Street Journal. Yes, we think it's that important.
Betsy Linaberger, senior vice president at Tierney Communications in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, describes messaging this way: "Concise thoughts, ideas, arguments or impressions you most want to leave with your target audiences. [Messaging] should complement your vision and mission, and provide you with a practical way to articulate your position, reinforce your brand."
Our emphasis in solid messaging can be summed up in the words inscribed in gold over the portico of the temple at Delphi: Know thyself. "To communicate effectively, you really have to understand who you are," said Christopher Liechty, vice president of communications at Bank of American Fork. "You have to know who your customer is, and how you're different. But once you have it boiled down to the essence-the core messages-your ability to connect with your audiences increases, and the relationships are much more genuine."
Developing messaging is not necessarily a process of creation. Instead, it is a process of refinement; of distillation. It involves putting all of the pieces out there, and having the courage to cut what doesn't fit. And while the message development process is definitely not a science, there are steps you can take that will encourage an outcome that is true to who you are, and effective with your audiences.
Step 1: Internal Audit
In this step, key stakeholders inside the organization come together to give their input, brainstorm, and begin the elimination process. In addition to discussing who you are and what you do, it is also important to draw a line at who you are not, and what you don't do. Trying to be all things to all people dilutes both your brand and messaging.
Step 2: External Audit
This phase includes several steps designed to keep you honest. The first is a competitive evaluation. Take a look at your competitors, what you feel their strengths and challenges are, and how they communicate these things will give you a better idea of how your organization fits into the landscape, and which differentiators are most compelling.
The second step in this stage is talking to people outside your organization to find out how they feel about you. This process often reveals disconnects between internal and external perceptions, and can even identify serious customer service and product issues. Listen, and act on the feedback so that what you say genuinely reflects what your audiences experience.
Step 3: Test and Refine
Once you've drafted your core messages, don't forget to test and refine them with both internal and external audiences. And remember, messaging is never finished. Revisit them often to make sure they reflect any changes.
The results of messaging exercises-when done right-are simple, yet powerful statements that capture your organization's soul. The process of getting to that point isn't easy, but it is as valuable as the outcome. Coming to know who you are, and why your customers, the media, and all of your other audiences should believe and care about what you have to offer, will give your organization a depth and authenticity that nothing else can replace.