On Message? You Missed The Point.

by Jason Falls |

Driving to work the morning after Election Day I caught an interview with Renee Montagne and newly elected North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan. Montagne asked the senator-elect to elaborate on something which was a very simple request. The Dole-Hagan battle turned on a negative ad the Dole camp ran which many felt crossed the line into the unfair. Montagne said to Hagan, “Briefly remind us what that ad was an how big of a role you think it played.”

Image by tvvoodoo on Stock.Xchng
What the public mostly sees when spokespeople rely on talking points and messaging to avoid answering the question. Image by tvvoodoo on Stock.Xchng

Hagan made small mention of the attack tactic and then redirected the answer to mindless ‘tician talk focused on the topics of the economy, jobs in North Carolina and bringing change to Washington. When Montagne pressed, even politely offering she didn’t want to dwell on old news but did want to get an answer to her question of what impact the ad played, Hagan did the same redirect to the issue babble. By reciting campaign talking points over and over again two things became very clear to me. First, Hagan isn’t very smart. She won the election. There’s no need to continue campaigning. Second, and more importantly, in today’s media environment, she’s not a good communicator.

Several communications and public relations professional just uttered, “WTF?!”

Was she on message? Yes. Did she hit her talking points? Yes. Did she steer away from a sensitive or negative subject to refocus the conversation? Yes. So why am I claiming she isn’t a good communicator?

She didn’t answer the question.

From a philosophical point of view, social media is a reflection of the preferred communications of today’s consumer. People want dialog, conversation, both of which demand humanity from the other party. This is why you’ll hear many a social media strategist say your company must be human. You can’t have a conversation with a logo or a building.

Whether a brand, a corporation or a politician (arguably less human than many buildings), to be an effective communicator in today’s media environment, you have to participate in the conversation. This dictates you must listen as well as talk. Give as well as receive.

It dictates that you answer the question.

I would propose that all of our audiences, be they on-line or off-, now demand that humanity. Talking points and messaging are one-way communications mechanisms of the old guard. They’re cold. They’re impersonal. Kinda like a building. You can’t have a conversation with a building. Renee Montagne, as good as she is, had a hard time having a conversation with Hagan because she stayed on message.

Public relations professionals should consider this as they prepare their CEOs and spokespeople to represent the company or brand in media opportunities. Talking points and messaging certainly can be intertwined into the conversation, but it will take a much smarter talking head than we’re used to seeing to pull it off. I would challenge you to teach them how to have a conversation, not hit the company messaging.

If not, your CEO can talk circles around the finest of reporters. But no one will be listening.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).