Message development and testing

The world is an increasingly risky place for organisations. Debates are conducted through loud halers, keyboard warriors attack without mercy. The echo chamber of social media can produce a near histrionic reaction to even the most apparently anodyne comment or action.

Little wonder then, that so many more companies, charities, think tanks and individuals are approaching us about our message development and testing workshops. It’s an element of media training and it’s similar to crisis communications training. It can help organisations to manage difficult situations and minimise harm to their reputation during testing times.

What is message development and testing?

We assist PR companies and in-house media relations teams of organisations facing difficult decisions or having to implement unpopular changes and reforms. Others voluntarily enter a debate or issue a comment because they believe that it’s important for them to do so and they have something to say. However, they’re understandably anxious about being criticised and suffering adverse publicity as a result.

We’ve worked with organisations that have struggled to articulate their sustainability policies or who have launched campaigns around LGBTQ+ issues. They believe in the cause but don’t want to be accused of “pinkwashing.” In other situations, companies have come to us because they’re undergoing restructuring, and they want to check that their corporate messages sound reasonable and sympathetic. 

We worked recently with a large consumer brand that was changing one of their product offerings and was concerned about being accused of cheating customers or engaging in “shrinkflation”. We provide media training for law firms and one large firm wanted help explaining the difficult situation that they found themselves in with regard to female partners. 

We’ve helped companies explain why they have to work in countries which don’t have good records on human’s rights. We recently worked with a manufacturer that is aware that it can’t yet meet its sustainability targets to help it to put the situation into context and to tell a convincing story here.

How does message development and testing work? 

Like media training we support and enhance the role of PR companies and in house media relations teams. They will often bring us in because our trainers are working journalists (operating under strict NDAs) who can cast fresh eyes on an issue. More importantly, we bring a journalist’s instincts and approach to issues to bear. What might sound reasonable and understandable to the organisation can fall apart when subjected to the unflinching gaze and tough questioning of the journalist.

We’ll start by taking a brief from the PR executives and then do our own research into the issue to establish the broader context. Then we’ll carry out realistic role play interviews with the organisation’s key spokespeople. But unlike mainstream media training, we’ll spend less time on how the interviewees came across and more about what they said. Did it sound logical? Did they appear to be human and sympathetic? Does it sound fair? (Fairness is huge when managing these issues.) Does it make the organisation a hostage to fortune? Does it end up prompting more questions than it answers?

All of these things have to be carefully reviewed and checked. We’ll get the white board or flip chart out and start brainstorming and writing, writing, writing. However, very often the process involves reducing words rather than adding them. We might use a message house or five act structure to hone down the message. We take the view that good writing isn’t about adding everything you want, it’s about taking away everything you can. These achieves clarity. Once we’ve got the message nailed we then need to help the organisation’s spokespeople to find the words and phrases that they need to express it in a way that sounds personal and authentic. 

How does message development and testing relate to public relations?

We have a number of ways of managing awkward questions and difficult issues. At Communicate Media we help organisations to put the situation into context and to explain why they are where they are. We work with them to create a narrative that sounds sensible and shows how the organisation aims to resolve this challenge.   

Having developed these arguments and messages we then set about testing them, identifying weaknesses and counter arguments. Refining and fine tuning the messages ensures that when the organisation uses them in the real world they’ll hold water. 

In a way it would be nice if we didn’t have to offer this service. But organisations have to take difficult decisions and accept messy compromises. There are trade-offs that have to be made between employees’ needs, customer demands, profitability and sustainability. Tackling these issues and having clear, concise and believable messages about them that everyone within the organisation can believe in and express with sincerity and confidence is increasingly important. 

Message development workshops

At Communicate Media, all of our training programmes are created from scratch to meet the exact needs of each client. This means that we can develop a presentation training course that will work for you. Come and talk to us. You can follow us on LinkedIn here.

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