Handling the Media

by Jennifer Stenhouse

The message

What do we mean by message? What is it and why is it so important?

Andy Warhol may have predicted 15 minutes of fame for everyone, but in TV or radio news you’ll be lucky to get 15 seconds. That’s about the average length of a TV news sound bite – radio can be much shorter. So you can see how useful it might be to have a snappy message prepared ahead of time. And you can see how, this way, you don’t need to ape Einstein explaining the theory of relativity to make an impact.

Your message is the distillation of what you want to communicate. Remember:

  • Only say what you intend to say
  • Keep it short, keep it simple (KISS)
  • Say what you want to say and then stop talking!

Put simply, a message, or two or three main messages, helps you make sure you say exactly what you want to say, every time, without fail, and if the message is good, you’ll shorten your odds on being misquoted, misrepresented and misunderstood.

No news or media outlet can cope with a complicated message – there just isn’t the space or time. A sound bite on Western news bulletins might last up to 20 seconds if you’re lucky – that’s about 60 words. A long story in a broadsheet newspaper might run to 500 words, not all of them yours by any means.

The optimum number of words for a message is around 15, which works out at about 6 seconds when spoken. Add to that the fact that people’s brains generally can only take in 7 things at time, plus or minus two, and you can see how a clear, short message can be an invaluable tool.

So, whether you’re launching a campaign, commenting on an issue or promoting something, first establish your message.

Preparation is key to a successful media encounter. Remember, too, that you only need to say what you want to say. Here are three cardinal rules in talking to journalists:

Cardinal rules
  1. Only say EXACTLY what you intend to say.
  2. Make it short and simple.
  3. Stop talking when you’ve said what you want to say.

How do I get the message?

Ask yourself, or your group, organisation or company:

‘What is it I/we want to say?’

You may get all sorts of notions and suggestions back as answers. So ask:

‘Which of these is the most important point to get across?’

This may be a matter of where you stand on an issue or a strong belief. If you’re a member of a group or company, it may reflect a common goal. It’s likely the ideas will have been expressed in a fairly longwinded fashion, in which case you need to work out

‘How can we communicate this in around 15 words – or even fewer?’

Another useful question to bear in mind as you do this is

‘Who am I/we aiming this message at?’

This question might cause you to change the language you use.

The importance of positive language

A message that says: ‘We must say No to War’ might not be as effective as ‘Say Yes to peace.’ This is because your positive words anchor the positive alternative in people’s minds. This is far more powerful. ‘Say No to war’ begs the question ‘And then what? What’s the alternative to war?’ By allowing the listener to visualise the positive alternative, you’re more likely to carry them with you.

The message brainstorming process can take some time. You‘ll know when you’re finished. By then, you’ll have a short, pithy form of words that you’re totally comfortable with, and that you know clearly expresses your views in any situation. It will mean you always have exactly the right thing to say at hand.

Think of the main New Labour message from the 1997 election campaign – Britain deserves better. There’s no way of telling exactly what impact that made on the campaign, but the open language of the message meant that everyone from unemployed labourer to nuclear physicist could identify with it. It was also positive, aspirational and user friendly. It was easy to use in so many ways – whether in a speech on the hustings or on the radio and TV.

Once you’ve decided on your message, practise using it in different situations. Think about where you might use it, what questions you might be asked and what your replies might be, using your message. Most importantly, think of the most difficult question or questions you could be asked, and then rehearse the answers.

Ideally, work out a maximum of three arguments or illustrations to back up your message. Again, rehearse these before you come face to face with any journalist. Bring in stories that will reach your audience, create pictures with your words and use metaphor where appropriate.

Knowing how to brainstorm a message doesn’t just help with the media. You can use this in a work context – or even at home. If you think carefully about what you want to say before you say it, you lessen the chance of being misunderstood. You can also make absolutely sure you deliver the right message to the right person or people.

Message recap

  • 15 words or fewer
  • One main message and two or three sub-messages
  • One concept per message (not an essay!)
  • Clear, positive and active language
  • Active tense
  • Know the target audience