“On Message”

“I’m supposed to be the soldier who never blows his composure
Even though I hold the weight of the whole world on my shoulders
I ain’t never supposed to show it, my crew ain’t supposed to know it
…I’m supposed to set an example
I need to be the leader, my crew looks for me to guide ’em
….And even though the battle was won, I feel like we lost it
I spent too much energy on it, honestly I’m exhausted
And I’m so caught in it I almost feel I’m the one who caused it”

– Eminem, “Like Toy Soldiers”

False Logic

There is a fallacy about branding that really hurts the credibility of the organization trying to enhance its image.

That fallacy is the notion that people who speak for the company are in effect toy soldiers, with no brains of their own.

That spokespeople, which is to say everyone, because nowadays everyone is presumed to be an emblem of the brand (a.k.a. “brand ambassador”) must robotically repeat a simple message, set of messages, themes or stories over and over again in every encounter with the public.

It is assumed, again falsely, that such repetition will somehow build up a certain image in the public’s mind, because they’ve heard it over and over again.

The “Staff Meeting” Test

The way you know this kind of thinking is wrong, is that normal people don’t believe it.

So you tell them what to do at a staff meeting, and someone speaks up. After two or three rounds of argument, they find that continuing is just not worth it.

Let’s listen in:

Says A: “Everybody, remember, we must stay ‘on message.'”

Responds B: “Why?”

A: “Because we don’t want to confuse people.”

B: “So you are saying that clarity of understanding is the result of us conforming to some talking points?”

A: “No. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that we should avoid coming up with our own answers.”

B:  “Why?”

A: “Because if we speak with multiple voices, people will get confused.”

B:  “Why don’t we just tell people what we know?”

A: “Because WE do not have all the information.”

B: “Oh.”

A: “So the main thing to remember, is that we should speak with one voice. And then the people we’re talking to, won’t get confused.”

There are parts of this conversation that make sense. But in this staff meeting, they’ve been overtaken by an explanation that would befuddle anyone.

Achieving Clarity

When does “messaging” make sense? When is it a good thing to stay “on message,” “speak with one voice,” “stay consistent?”

And when is it better to simply let one person’s observations, perceptions, and collection of facts speak for themselves?

Without getting into the realm of policy, we can talk a little bit about communication theory, and how it works in practice.

From a theoretical point of view, your brand is:

  • the ongoing and dynamic result of –
  • the numerous interactions between –
  • “your organization” – meaning you and all the people you employ and the systems you use that touch the customer – and –
  • “the outside world” – meaning any human being on the planet who physically or emotionally touches a manifestation of your brand.

Your brand becomes credible the more you tell the truth, the more people you tell the truth to, the more qualitatively authentic your speaking of the truth is.

And so from that point of view, you have a vested interest in allowing the members of your organization to speak authentically, at all times, on matters of interest to the customer.

At the same time, the reality of all organizational life is that valuable information is often highly confidential.

And so the “facts” — to someone who works for an organization but is not privy to its confidential information — may not be facts at all, but rather misperceptions.

When & How

It is for that reason that organizations need to tightly control who talks about which thing, because when somebody does talk, the things they say need to be true.

And if the organization cannot talk about certain things, it needs to know precisely which things those are, and say so to the public explicitly.

Things like “talking points” and “messaging” are helpful, to an extent, but only to those who are supposed to speak on behalf of the organization.

They don’t replace the facts on the ground, but they do provide a context, a way of helping the outside world understand the reasoning behind a given set of actions.

Only a few people should be dealing with communication aids like this, and they are the individuals who are specifically appointed to speak for the company.

As for everybody else, a far preferable way of ensuring consistency, accuracy, and ultimately credibility is to have a very simple set of policies in place, that allow for a maximum flow of information about facts that the public is entitled to, facts that the speaker would be in a position to know intimately and to represent.

And to leave the messaging to the professional spokespeople, the messengers if you will — who actually do know what is going on, who understand the context within which certain things get said and not said, who know the distinction between what can and cannot be shared, and who aren’t just playing the part of “toy soldiers” but actually have a hand in the battle plans.

No brand benefits from robots pretending to be humans speaking in its name. Credibility comes from authenticity, humanity, spontaneity. From accurate information, distributed widely, with confidential information explicitly identified and just as explicitly protected as appropriate.


Photo by Onion via Flickr. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

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