Over the past 10 days I have conducted around half a dozen messaging workshops for new clients in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, ranging from exchange-listed companies and NGOs to private businesses and family-owned enterprises. These workshops result in ‘message houses,’ also known as ‘corporate narratives’ or ‘core stories.’ They are a great way to kick-off the client engagement, as well as a valuable method for finding out about the organisation. They also serve as a reminder of the importance that messages play in communication strategy and the development of content.
Why have messages?
The process of developing a message house is straightforward, but not necessarily easy, leading some to question whether developing them at all is worth the effort. While it’s true that competent spokespersons can handle even the most difficult interviews and brilliant writers can create wonderful prose to describe the organisation, it’s messages that are the foundation of every piece of content we develop for communication purposes. They form the basis for quotes in press releases, content for feature articles and responses for interviews. They are woven into the text of blogs and create the starting point for tweets and Instagram captions.
Without messages, PR content is random and will never work towards the PR objectives, which in turn have to be designed to support the organisation’s goals. A lack of messages in PR plans mean that any media coverage will just be about the organisation and will never link to their communication objectives.
What is the format?
Everyone has his or her own preference for structuring a messaging document. My own preference is the message house – a matrix that contains a number of sentences. There should be an overall organisational message that sits at the top of the house and below that a number of sub-messages, normally between two and four, depending on the organisation, its stakeholders and the priorities for the business plan. Each message should be no more than two sentences each and very importantly, should be substantiated by proof-points.
How do I do it?
In developing a message house, I suggest a three-stage process that works for me:
First stage: Undertake some background research in order to understand the organisation in advance of the workshop. This will prevent you going into the workshop blind. Organisational websites and past media coverage are usually the best source of information for this stage.
Second stage: Host a brainstorm meeting with the client to learn about the organisation’s vision, business plan, aspirations, history, future objectives… anything that will help determine the desired perception they wish to present to target stakeholders. I run these workshops with flipcharts and sugar-laced snacks, the latter helping to keep things nice and informal. I find that it’s best to hold such workshops in the mornings when minds are fresh and free of distractions from the day’s work. The activity should involve key client personnel who will have a valid perspective on the desired image of the organisation.
Third stage: Distil the content of the brainstorm meeting and combine it with research to draft the message house. This is perhaps the most difficult phase and normally takes three to four iterations to get right. My suggestion is to draft the message house within 24 hours of holding the brainstorm workshop, as the discussions and ideas produced during it will still be fresh in your mind.
What makes a good message house?
If you are faced with the task of creating a message house, start as early as possible. Don’t wait until you need content or face an interview situation. With a message house in place as part of your communication strategy, you will be able to conduct media training for your spokespersons and easily develop the required PR content.