Thought Leadership

What do Indie Rocker John Mayer and Institutional Public Relations Have in Common?

What do Indie Rocker John Mayer and Institutional Public Relations Have in Common?

Sean McBride

I was surfing my song list the other day and came across the song Say by John Mayer, in which he repeatedly implores another to stop beating around the bush and “Say what you need to say.” That mirrors my public relations counsel to clients, “as often as you can and as directly as you can, say what you mean and mean what you say.”

Successful external communication for companies, trade associations and foundations is extraordinarily difficult. Social media, influencers, watchdog groups and instant communication raise the degree of difficulty for institutions and their public relations professionals.

There is no substitute for getting your point of view published by new or legacy media or the trade publications that cover your sphere of influence. Those placements fuel social media and get the attention of policymakers, the public, patients, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Wall Street analysts, influencers and allied organizations.

However, journalism is a chaotic mess right now. The amount of news that deserves to be covered is at a zenith at a time when many publications are struggling to remain profitable and cutting staff and services to boost the bottom line. There are not enough people and column inches to cover every story the way it deserves to be covered, and that dynamic extends to trade publications as well.

It’s a tough draw, forcing journalists to cut through the “BS” and pound out a story as quickly as possible. Speed dominates. Written statements and texts are the norm. Reporters are largely uninterested in the “context” you desperately want to provide. They want to write about opposite views on the same topic, add a provocative headline that will generate clicks and move on.

To counter that norm, organizations need to ditch the “storytelling” axiom that has guided organizational communications for the past twenty years.

Storytelling became a popular strategy for softening external messaging and providing context around core message points. Colleges, universities and public relations firms got in on the act, as they informed, educated and advised students and clients in the art of storytelling.

There is just one problem, the pendulum has swung too far. The quest to tell the perfect story often goes astray, drowning core messages, rendering them unrecognizable and infusing them with pablum to avoid risk. The storytelling problem is acute when it comes to high-stakes communications, especially advocacy and crisis communications.

Just like audiences quickly identify defensive or negative messaging, they are also quick to recognize and discount meaningless or evasive rhetoric that dances around a question or topic.

When communicating with the media and policymakers, organizations should:

  1. Be direct. Develop and use clear, earnest messages and talking points that address the issue at hand. If you agree or disagree, say so.
  2. Explain the merits. Tell the audience who benefits from your position and why.
  3. Provide an alternative. When your organization has an alternative solution, say so and explain why.
  4. Stay on message. Avoiding the core subject by injecting ancillary messaging on commitments and achievements in the hope of winning over reporters or policymakers won’t work.
  5. Avoid branding. Resist the impulse to embed marketing information in high-stakes communiques. You risk annoying your audience and reader backlash when you surround core messages with this content. It’s useless, so get rid of it.

Take care to understand that brief and to the point is its own art form. It is not negative, technical or legalistic. It is a comfortable tone combined with earnestness. Earnest, defined as, “…resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction,” is the most persuasive approach you can take.

Your audience will respect a piece that gets to the point, and you will reap the rewards in the form of more media placements and engagements that help shape public opinion.

To be clear, storytelling still applies to numerous communications channels – Web sites, case studies, patient stories, annual reports, newsletters, and many other public relations vehicles. But when it comes to high stakes communications, you may want to consider a more simple and sincere approach.

Sean McBride is the founder of DSM Strategic Communications. He is the former Executive Vice President of Communications for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (now the Consumer Brands Association), former Vice President of Communications for the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform and the former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association