Media messaging is a bit of a dark art when it comes to interviews. The message we put into that opening sentence, for example, was “dark art”. It’s as if a media training company had a vested interest in making this stuff seem difficult.
A lot of our clients have difficulties with it, though, so it’s worth spending a little time on it. The truth is immutable, they say. They will just be honest about what’s going on, state their position or flog their story (whichever is the greater) and that will be it.
Which is interesting. It’s not going to work, though. The thing about media messaging is that it can vary according to which media you happen to be speaking with. That’s not a matter of being deliberately tricky, it’s simple realism.
Let’s take a simple example. Say you were a computer manufacturer and you’d done something revolutionary like released a new computer. (We can’t tell you how many times that was touted as something surprising when Guy worked for the trade press in the technology sector). Here are some possible scenarios and some relevant messaging.
The national press
You’re going for a big announcement here so you need the broad brush approach. Focusing as much on the brand as the technology, you’ll probably need to put messages out there as simply as possible to ensure people understand this is going to make their lives better. You can’t count on readers having in-depth technical knowledge so you’ll need to keep it relatively simple. Pick a few distinctive things about your computer, state them a few times and hope the journalist goes with what you want them to write. If you make it interesting enough and you haven’t done anything more interesting like robbed a bank. they’ll probably go with it.
The trade-only press
This is where Guy started out many years ago. He went in not knowing much about computers (it was the 1980s, only the obsessive knew anything about computers) but soon realised he didn’t have to. He wasn’t expected to be asking about the technology because the publication in which he’d got his first journalism job, called MicroScope, went to computer dealers only.
And computer dealers in the 1980s didn’t much care what a computer did. The good ones cared that it worked. No, they were more interested in where they could get stock, what percentage mark-up they should expect, whether they needed to qualify as dealers and whether there would be any joint marketing budget available from the manufacturer. Cynical? No, this is just targeted. You just had to know what the reader needed and make sure you gave it to them. Messaging for this publication and its modern equivalents would need to be very financial.
The tech press
Confusingly, a lot of public relations people refer to the technology press as the Trade Press as well. So publications like Computing would be referred to as “trades” – to make it simpler we’re going to refer to them as the tech press.
The readers tend to be the highly technically literate. You can go in deeper. You may also want to explore how the technology fits into a large enterprise and whether there are any implications for the tech support people who might be in an organisation. Your messaging will therefore be a lot more complex than it might have been for the more basic national press interview and the tech press won’t give two hoots about margins the dealers are earning unless you have evidence that they are fleecing the buyers.
Tailoring your media messaging for the readers
The publications and the knowledge the journalists have are only one side of the thing. The other is understanding the readers. The journalist should understand who he or she is writing for of course; there are other ways you can make sure your messaging is right for them.
Let’s stick with the computer example. Is the technology fashionable, does it carry status? The more style-conscious readers will want to hear about this, although if you’re not selling Apple then they might take some persuading that it’s a fashion item.
This one speaks for itself. Are the readers the sort of people who will go around trying to make their own computer? Can yours be part of a larger system somehow? If your target publication has a lot of those readers you’ll want to play that message up above all others.
You can expand the pool as much as you like. As well as the hobbyist you might have the bargain hunter, the maverick (who’ll want to hear something about why your computer will want to make them look a bit of a rebel), the family person who’ll want to see how the system fits into their home – the list is as long as you want it to be.
It’s worth thinking all this through before going into an interview because going in with the same information for everybody is ultimately a bit insulting and leaves you with a very bland message. Think of a musician with a new album; if they gave the same details and information to the nationals as they did to a specialist guitar magazine, one of them would find it inappropriate and the interview would probably get spiked.
The other major thing you need to decide is what you want the readers to do next. A decent clipping in a major publication is a fine thing and may well do something for you if your aim is solely for mindshare and branding. This isn’t going to work for everybody so it’s worth thinking about what you need the reader, the viewer, the listener to do next.
Speaking with purpose
For example if you’re in a growing business you might be looking for your next round of financing. This will mean targeting the sort of publication the investor community is going to read but then preparing messages about financial solidity, the reliability of your board and maybe something about growth in your market overall.
If you wanted people to be more aware of your brand then you’re likely to be putting more general messages out. These are likely to focus on what you might call thought leadership; you’ll be looking for insights to offer that establish you as experienced and knowledgable and you won’t be pushing the sales message particularly hard (let’s be completely transparent, if we’re getting this right then you’re reading an example of precisely that at the moment).
You might just want an increase in sales. To make the best of your chances you’d first target a publication that your market looks at before buying things and then prepare messages on value, time saved, professionalism, or whatever it is that motivates people to buy from you next time they’re in the market.
Try to remember an opportunity for an interview is one thing but there are other steps. The fact that you are an expert in your market and your business probably means you’ll know more than a journalist is going to be able to take in. You have the right – you might say the obligation – to select the parts that are going to make a coherent story.
The fictional example that makes the point
It’s actually been parodied brilliantly in the film, “Notting Hill”. Hugh Grant’s character needs to speak to Julia Roberts so he poses as a reporter from the nearest publication he spots. He claims to be from “Horse and Hound” magazine and asks whether there are any horses in the film. The answer is no so he asks about hounds. The riposte (apologies if you haven’t seen it) is that it’s set on a submarine.
Obviously, this is an exaggeration but it’s how you need to think if you’re a spokesperson for your business. Ask what this particular publication needs and what you want its readers to do next; frame your responses around that and you should stand a chance of getting some useful coverage.
Final thought: don’t mention messaging
One of the worst pitches our founder Guy ever had was when he was writing an article and had sent a plea for help and experts out. There were, as always, many excellent replies. One PR executive, however, sent a note saying “let me share our messaging with you”.
Messaging is a PR term that will basically alert the journalist to the fact that they’re getting something that isn’t spontaneous, it’s prepared and worked on. That might be fine in your view but the media outlets aren’t going to be all that excited about your telling us that we’re basically fitting into your plans. Let’s put it another way: if you were to approach a new client or prospect, would you tell them your offering will work because of the value it offers and the fit with their requirements or would you say “I’m delighted you got in touch because I need to hit my monthly sales target”? Which might also be true!
Tell us you have thoughts, tell us you have a spokesperson or tell us you have insights by all means – just keep the word “messaging” for internal use.
Do you need help with your messaging or interview technique? Our team can help – get in touch and we’ll talk.