Message control not realistic, but management is possible

One of the most enticing, yet deceptive demands of top communicators is to control the message.

One of the most enticing, yet deceptive demands of top communicators is to control the message.

Executives and experts alike speak about it in ways that conjure up visions of a snake charmer using semantic prowess to sway his or her mark. In real life, however, it's the snake charmer who is more likely to get bitten.

Message control today is a myth. It began as a truth, back when people accepted paternalistic communications and snappy phrases like "singing off the same page" as viable strategies. Message control then became a half-truth, during the time when chroniclers attributed part of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential win to crafty discipline and a "message of the day" plan.

Today, information flows not from a pipeline, but through a field of gushers. Everyone works in rapid-fire fashion to trade information, define truth, and create identities for themselves and others. A leading trade title once estimated that each day a person is confronted with more than 30,000 messages. Message control went out the window when the daily number of messages zoomed past what can be counted on fingers and toes. For top communicators, message management is the doable challenge.

But what is a message? Considerable confusion exists around the word. When a group of high-level communications consultants where asked that, answers ranged from "a message is the means to change/form an opinion" to "a message is the summation of a true thing." Samuel Johnson, author of A Dictionary of the English Language, wrote in 1781 that "Oratory [message] is the power of beating down your adversary's arguments and putting better in their place."

The most important point about a message is that it is directly linked to actions. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "What is said is the least part of oratory [message]." Branding and positioning initiatives, message development, outreach strategies, and audience research are all critical work for communications professionals. They all become just interesting hobbies if organizational actions don't match up to the promises made. Chief amongst a PR professional's responsibilities is being forthright with senior management about the benefits of harmony between actions and rhetoric, and the dangers posed when the two aren't in sync.

The second most important point about a message is that it creates a feeling or an emotional response. Message management is about connecting. Reaching audiences with actions they respect and like, in venues where they live, and in their language is the challenge. Listening, researching, and fighting the urge to simply "deliver your message" help. The endgame isn't having people hear a message. Those who win get target audience attention and then a positive reaction.

Michael Lewellen, SVP of corporate communications for Black Entertainment Television, perfectly depicts the landscape when he notes that communicators are "dealing with the most volatile substance in the world: human nature." We can't harness it, but we can't leave it unattended, either.

Lisa Davis will join AstraZeneca on September 5 as VP of corporate communications. Each month, she'll look at a different aspect of counseling senior management from an in-house viewpoint. If you have any comments or suggestions, e-mail her at lisa.davis@prweek.com.

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