What is a key message?
Key messages answer the question: “What do we want the public to know about us?” in a nutshell. Key messages are short, memorable phrases that create an emotional narrative around the unique selling point(s) of your product, service or goals. Organisations that fail to define their key messages can be sure that if they don’t know what their key messages are, nor do consumers. They are clear, concise and consistent sound bites that sum up your value proposition.
Your audience most likely won’t listen to, comprehend and accept the message you are trying to convey immediately upon hearing it. A certain frequency needs to be achieved before a person will hear, understand and buy into it. The key messages your organisation wants to impart will need to be repeated over and over again to become the dominant narrative.
To do so without boring your audience to tears, the PESO model suggests combining traditional media, advertising, social channels and company-owned media to reach them in a variety of different ways. Key messages may be shaped or presented in different ways according to the demands of different channels, but the messages themselves remain the same. Some organisations choose a quarterly or annual theme as a way to group key messages.
Communications expert Jeremy Porter argues in an essay on persuasion that emotion is a critical component of a key message. He said:
Don’t rely on facts and figures to persuade your audience. You need emotion to persuade. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience and understand where they are coming from. If you can make an emotional connection you’re on the path to persuasion. That’s how you get them from where they are to where you want them to be.
Porter invokes Aristotle in arguing convincingly that emotion generally trumps reason. This theory was discussed at length by commentators in the British and world media in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Despite stark warnings from economists and politicians from all major parties of the negative repercussions of leaving the EU, slogans like ‘Believe in Britain’ that appealed to people’s sense of sovereignty prevailed. Similarly, Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, appealed to a powerful sense of nostalgia and emotion.
How to create a powerful key message
Porter argues that there are nine elements to bringing emotion into messaging; a human voice, authenticity, framing, storytelling, use of metaphor, visuals, delivery and wording. Creating a key message that combines these elements in a few short sentences is no mean feat.
One method worth considering is the combination of a claim, a fact and an example e.g. “80 people sleep on the streets of Dublin each night. Your donations save lives. John went from sleeping in doorways to working in the post office within six months.” That’s a powerful key message in 29 words, which takes around ten seconds to say. The shorter your key messages are, the less likely they are to be misinterpreted.
Key messages are vital in defining your company’s brand to the public, but no amount of messaging can help your company’s brand if the products or services you provide fail to match up. Iconic branding, clever catch phrases, celebrity endorsements and positive publicity can help turn a good company into a great company, but they cannot turn a bad company into a good company.
Katie Harrington is a Public Relations professional based in Galway, Ireland. Her book, Strategic Communications: The Science Behind the Art launched in November. Katie has worked with global brands including Emirates Airline and Allianz, as well as the Irish parliament and Qatar’s semi-government oil and gas company Nakilat. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.