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Making the Message Resonate

When it comes to ensuring that a message is seen and heard by the right people, leaders can learn from public relations professionals. In his book Feeding the Media Beast, Mark Mathis identifies a number of techniques that individuals or organizations that are seeking publicity employ to get noticed by the media. Three salient elements of raising awareness are relevant to leadership communications: difference, emotion, and simplicity.[3] Let's take them one by one.

  • Difference. Leaders are about making a difference. We look to our leaders to give us the guidance to take us to places where we have not yet gone. Therefore, leaders need to link their communications to their difference. A leader's difference is both metaphorical and literal. The metaphorical difference relates to the difference the leader will bring to an organization: how he or she will make changes that will make things better for the stakeholders. Colin Powell is a master at delivering a message that explicates a policy and demonstrates the benefits. The second difference is literal. The leader must look to make her or his messages different (i.e., "fresh").[4] The freshness may emerge from the use of new and different words or stories to underscore key points or from the use of different forms of delivery. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill was a master of the well-honed story; he had a treasure trove of tales that he was ready to tell at the right moment. Likewise, politicians on the campaign trail are good at finding new locales and venues for their messages; one day it might be a school, another day a factory, a third day a farm. By linking location to constituency need, they illustrate their vital difference as well as keeping the message fresh and alive.

  • Emotion. All of us are bombarded by messages, both spontaneous and recorded, all day long. Most of the time the words and sounds run together. We stop in our tracks, however, when we sense emotion—or, better, passion. Governor Mark Schweitzer of Pennsylvania demonstrated passion as he addressed the media hour after hour during the Somerset mine disaster in the summer of 2002. When the miners were found alive and rescued, his passion turned to getting to the root cause of the disaster and determining how such disasters might be prevented in the future. Passion need not be oratory. Mother Teresa was a quiet, unassuming speaker, but her words echoed her passion for her mission of providing for the neglected poor.

  • Simplicity. People have a lot on their plate. A leader needs to shape the message in a way that is straightforward and simple in order to make it accessible. Remember the KISS slogan (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Bill Clinton's first presidential election campaign adapted this phrase to "It's the Economy, Stupid" to remind everyone on the staff what the real issue was; it worked, and Clinton defeated an incumbent president. (Do not think that sloganeering is beneath you. It simply gives people a handle with which to grasp your message and begin to understand it.)

[3]Mark Mathis, Feeding the Media Beast: An Easy Recipe for Great Publicity (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2002), pp. 29-87.

[4]Eric Felten Books, "How to Be Your Own PR Flack," Wall Street Journal, Aug. 2, 2002.

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