PR pros’ role has never been more critical. Important goals and initiatives will succeed if they are clearly understood and widely appreciated, and we make that happen. It’s a complex time for communicators, but we must avoid the trap of transferring that to the people and organizations we serve.

Clear purpose and well-defined stakeholders are foundational. After that, the keys to success break down into the Message, the Messenger and the Method.

Taking a different view of “the message”

The most common C-Suite complaint is “we need a better message.” Let’s unravel that. What makes them think it’s wrong? What does “better” look like? More importantly, the executive, by making the claim in the first place, demonstrates a lack of understanding of what good messaging really is.

There’s never been a communications challenge that didn’t require changing opinions and behaviors of multiple groups of people, all with different interests and motivations. One message to get them all on board is wishful thinking. Instead, we need key message sets for each audience that all roll up under a common narrative.

At Padilla, we use a Message Pyramid that starts with a core theme or idea (what execs mistakenly refer to as “the message”), an elevator story (often termed “the narrative”), key message sets (organized by audience or topic), and proof statements (reasons to -believe).

There’s been a shift in the types of messages that resonate with different audiences — driven by a well-documented increase in skepticism and lack of trust in traditionally venerated institutions. Aristotle coined the words ethos, pathos and logos to categorize the three main persuasive methods. Ethos focuses on experience, pathos focuses on passion and logos focuses on logic.

C-Suite executives love ethos messages: talking about years of experience, market share, breadth and depth of product offerings, and other key points that demonstrate authority and longevity. They say, “trust me, I’ve been here and I know what I’m doing.”

The problem is, people don’t care. If you say you’ve been in business 150 years, a Millennial just thinks you’re old. If you talk about your market share, a consumer thinks you have too much control. A customer doesn’t want breadth and depth of product line; they want products specifically for their needs. When ethos messaging doesn’t apply, we fall back on logos messaging, citing scientific studies and test results to show why “we’re right.”

But as Richard Thaler, winner of the Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics has proved, it’s often our emotions that drive decision making, which has resulted in more need for messaging based on pathos. Not-for-profits have focused on pathos (probably to an unhealthy extreme) for years, and we’re seeing it emerge as an important messaging approach in corporate settings as well.

It’s often our emotions that drive decision making, which has resulted in more need for messaging based on pathos.Click To Tweet

A “single message” is not only unrealistic, it’s also ineffective. Instead, we need to be using a mix of ethos, pathos and logos-based messaging, choosing the right mix with the help of research-based audience insights.

Don’t pick the wrong messenger

In contrast to “the message,” very few executives point to “the messenger” as a key part of the strategy, assuming it as a given or dismissing it as unimportant.

But a great message will be squandered if delivered by the wrong messenger.

Sometimes the CEO is the best choice. Sometimes not. When Facebook was called before Congress to account for its mishandling of user personal data, the only right messenger was CEO Mark Zuckerberg. When Tony Hayward, CEO of B-P during the Deepwater Horizon accident, said he “wanted his life back” in the midst of the company’s disaster response, he was fired. That resulted in a shift to different messengers for different audiences.

Smart companies know when they are not the best messenger. We all know that a major corporation telling a teenager not to text and drive will have zero impact, which is why AT&T’s successful “It Can Wait” campaign uses stories from real people who have been victims — or perpetrators — of distracted driving.

Using the right messenger is fundamental to effective social media strategy. A brand that posts about itself will usually receive a less desirable response when compared to that same message delivered by more trusted and believable members of the social media community. It’s urgent for brands and companies to build their network of social media followers before a critical issue occurs, so that they can be leveraged as advocates during difficult times.

The right method among the madness

And then there’s the method. We all know the PESO model, where an “integrated” campaign is supposed to have paid, earned, shared and owned channels.

The problem is, the PESO model isn’t like choosing a sandwich at the deli: pick your bread, pick your meat and cheese, pick your condiments, warm it up or take it cold. It’s about picking the method of communication that is going to achieve the most effective outcome.

Companies today are no longer breaking news with national business outlets like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, but instead are opting for the most influential online trade publication because that’s what their customers and employees are reading. Likewise, a public service announcement that used to be pitched to numerous television news outlets now has just as much chance of getting viewed by making it available on Vimeo, YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, or Hoopla (or a combination of all).

So, when the CEO comes to you and tells you that the company needs your help in communicating a major initiative, instead of discussing the complexity of the challenge, break it down into the Message, the Messenger and the Method. Not only will he or she appreciate your ability to simplify the complex, you’ll improve the likelihood that Communications is seen as an essential part of the company’s success.

This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s, May 2018 – PR Firm Rankings Issue. 

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