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  • Writer's pictureFelicity Cowie

Are your key messages ready for media scrutiny?

The risks and opportunities of putting your key messages under the media microscope

A lot of communications training is focused on what a business wants to say about itself and how to find the key messages it wants to share about its purpose or value. As a result, there’s a huge trend for organisations to find their ‘why’ as a starting point for how they describe themselves.

But whilst this is all crucial, it’s only half the job.

Good communication isn’t about what you say… It's about understanding what other people hear.

Communications is more than key messages

Unfortunately, no matter how much time and budget you put into discovering, agreeing, crafting and rehearsing your key messages, this all fails to land if you don’t factor in how other people receive information.

Good communications are more about the negotiation of information than the transference.

And nowhere is this more true than when you are working with journalists.

Unrealistic expectations of your key messages

There are too many business leaders with unrealistic expectations about the landing power of key messages, vision and mission statements - inside and especially outside their organisations.

For example, I was once asked by a client to secure a ‘500 word story on page 3 of the Guardian which communicates all of our key messages’. I laughed thinking they were joking. Have you ever read a news story which unquestioningly promotes one business?

So, I checked if they wanted to place an advert but they were insistent that they wanted to reach the wider world, via independent media coverage.

I never give clients false hopes. So I told them that, as a former journalist, I knew there was no way they’d get what they wanted and, in fact, to be covered in detail on page 3 of a national newspaper usually happens when a business is gaining exposure for mistakes, not for good works.

They were disappointed and angry. Their board and members wanted greater brand recognition for the organisation and for their unique insights to drive their sector. Like many organisations, they’d put a huge amount of hours and money into developing their core value, services, and associated key messages. Their feeling was this: What’s the point of you if we can’t get ourselves out there or if we get represented falsely or negatively? Why is the media so difficult?’

This is such a common frustration and you may be feeling it too, so here’s the action we took.

Proof points are critical for media scrutiny

First, we reviewed the client’s key messages and crunched them down into just three brief sentences, all with associated proof points. Proof points are critical. They are statistics, behaviours, or actions that show rather than tell.

For example, you may have a key message that you are one of the safest cities in the world and your proof point would be your consistent top ranking in a recognised global index.

Journalists are your audience

Then we took each message, with its proof point, and looked at it through the lens of the media. Will journalists engage with it? It’s critical to recognise that your agendas will not be the same; you will have very different ideas about what is of interest to your common audience.

Whilst it’s true that the ultimate purpose of media relations is to get your business in front of the public (which could include existing or potential customers, new talent, investors in your sector, or even the whole world), this is done indirectly via journalists.

So, when you work on media relations, your audience isn’t the public at all. Journalists become your audience.

And, as a critical audience, even if they are interested in your story, they will challenge your key messages.


To help you understand this, let’s say that your #1 Key Message is ‘We are the safest city in the world’ and your proof point is that you are consistently ranked top of the Safe Cities Index - a global, policy benchmarking tool developed to measure urban safety.

It would be hard to find a clearer key message with a stronger proof point. This obviously needs to go all over your annual report, funding applications, branding, website, social media and speaker bios and in all of the content you create such as tourism and thought leadership videos and blogs.

However, the media will want to interrogate this because they work in the public interest and their independent position is their key value to that public. Journalists see themselves as asking the questions their readers or viewers want answers to. If they fail to do this then they lose their audience. Media outlets are obsessed with reader or viewer figures just as businesses are with customer acquisition and retention.

So a likely headline they will go for is, ‘Safest City In The World Depends On One Man: Where Would Gotham Rank Without Batman?’

They have spotted the vulnerability even in what seemed such a strong point. You need to understand their approach and prepare for it.

Preparation is critical for media scrutiny

There are two things to do once you have your three key messages with proof points drafted:

First, create a list of Media FAQs - the toughest questions you can think of about your key messages and which you’d least like to answer. Then prepare answers.

Second, with that list in mind, re-evaluate your 3 key messages and proof points and see if you can modify them to find a middle ground between what you want to say - ‘We are the safest city in the world’ - and what journalists are likely to report - ‘Safest City In The World Depends On One Man: Where Would Gotham Rank Without Batman?’

For example, you can modify the key message you put out on a press release to ‘Safest City In The World Invests In Batman Academy’. This communicates your message but anticipates a fair challenge.

Preparation can ensure that how journalists share your key messages is still aligned with your business and has the impact you plan.

Journalists are forthright versions of all your stakeholders

Your team members and stakeholders may not be as openly challenging as journalists. However, this doesn’t mean that they too don’t have their own tough questions and agendas. Just because they don’t voice them to you doesn’t mean they aren’t being debated within your organisation. So this ‘middle ground approach’ can be applied, whoever you are communicating your key messages to.

An added benefit to your business strategy…

The example also reveals the power of key messages to develop and gain clarity about your business strategy. For example: ‘Gotham is the safest city in the world’ reflects an achievement which has already been gained. But ‘Gotham Invests In Batman Academy’ reveals a direction of travel. It shows the city is aware that its safe status is vulnerable and so is investing in a programme to consolidate and grow this. Working backwards from how your communications will land, especially with the most directly challenging of stakeholders, the media, helps develop a strategy for success.

If you want communications training for your business, I offer a Deliver Your Key Messages service.

Or, if you and your organisation are still in the process of identifying and articulating your key messages, my Discover Your Key Messages service is a great starting point.

To find out more email


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