How Do I Stay on Message?
When I do media training sessions I hold my hands about a half a metre apart and I say “You hardly ever get in trouble by saying this much.” I then spread my hands much wider and say “You may get in trouble if you speak this much. My job today is to get you to understand you need to say this much and say it well,” as I move my hands back to being about a half a metre apart.
Good reporters will try to get spokespeople off message because they know there’s a good chance that will produce a sound bite they can use. They’re not talking to you, in most cases, to get the prepared response for the media. They’re hoping for something different than what the next reporter will get and if you say something interesting, all the better.
I always advise people I train to do a few things before they do any media interview, such as developing key messages to use and to practice their responses in advance, but even if they do both, they can get in trouble by talking too much. As a former communications professional I always shuddered when somebody who I was preparing for an interview would want to cut the practice short by saying “I’m just going to wing it.” The result usually wasn’t very pretty.
Staying on message is critically important. Perhaps people think they can look or sound more knowledgeable about a certain topic by talking a lot about it. I can’t argue with that logic, but I can tell you that less is more. The less you say, the less that can be used against you. Develop your key messages and then stay on message. There’s little to gain by speaking a lot, but there’s a lot to lose by saying too much. The loose cannon who answers every question with volumes of words is the PR person’s worst nightmare.
A really good trick to learn to stay on message is the use of bridges. A reporter may try to put you into a difficult position with a tough question on increasing taxes, so use a bridge to get back to your key message. Here’s how it may work – “The most important thing for taxpayers to know is….” After that you can get back to your message about improving services, even though taxes will go up for it. This is a great way for you to stay on message, even if you may have the idea of saying something else to try to refute the reporter’s question.
I don’t always agree with lawyers about the media and brand image, but I certainly do when it comes to how much people should say. Lawyers tell those going on the witness stand to only answer the questions directly. Responding to questions from reporters is much the same, so stay on message and try to talk about what you want to talk about.