Clients have high hopes when they first engage a public relations firm. Building a brand will mean interviews with the Wall Street Journal! Blogs that go viral on Facebook and Twitter! Appearances on CNN! And well they should. After all, clients are paying good money for marketing and PR services, and they should get results.
But unfortunately, what many companies—either young startups or more mature companies hitting an inflection point such as an acquisition or new product launch—DON’T have is a clear message they want to convey. And that is the first building block for any brand.
In fact, we find with many clients, simply launching an intense media relations and content marketing campaign is like starting in the middle of a race when you don’t know the course. Companies will reach that finish line—an effective PR strategy—sooner if they begin at the starting line with a clear understanding of the race course and where they are going.
Here’s some advice for companies looking to create or hone their messaging for a precision brand-building strategy.
- Begin with a brainstorming session
A good PR firm can lead your team in exercises that will help fine-tune your messages for each product and for each audience you hope to target. This could include efforts to name a new product or to determine which concepts resonate with consumers versus potential investors and/or partners. We find that at some companies there may be a significant gap between the messages the CEO wants to convey and those advocated by the head of marketing or other important stakeholders. By engaging in a brainstorming session, those differences will be revealed and can be mediated by the PR agency to help guide the team toward the messages that will resonate best in the marketplace and show the company to its best advantage.
- Develop messaging documents
An investment of time upfront to create comprehensive messaging documents will save a tremendous amount of time down the road. Individual documents for each product are advisable. These should include a one-sentence descriptor of the product, a list of differentiators, customer pain points and gaps in the market addressed by the product. The product messaging documents should also include relevant context, including the competitive landscape. In addition, companies should develop a few versions of the overall value proposition and mission of the company, geared toward different stakeholders including investors, partners and customers. Developing these messaging documents will likely require interviews of key subject matter experts at the company to make sure they correctly reflect the most current features of the products. These documents could also include a company FAQ to either be posted on the website or used internally. CEOs should sign off on all messaging documents before they are finalized.
- Use messaging documents as “already approved content”
Once messaging documents are completed, they can form the basis for content marketing assets including blogs, bylined articles and company whitepapers. While additional input or interviews may be required, this work will be cut down significantly by having agreed-upon messages as a common backbone for all content. This will also streamline approvals for each new piece of content and preempt messaging differences among team members since all stakeholders have already agreed upon the key messages.
- Use messaging documents for media interview prep
The appropriate product messaging document, the overarching company messaging asset and the FAQ can all form the basis of media interview prep for CEOs or other company spokespeople. Your PR agency can come up a list of targeted talking points and sample questions based on the outlet, audience and angle the reporter is pursuing. But ultimately, every interview should circle back to the company’s core messages which are contained in the documents. Using the messaging documents as “lane bumpers”, as in bowling, will prevent a passionate CEO from running afoul of investors, partners or customers by veering off-message. Combining a message development program with media training, which high-quality PR firms should provide, is the best way to ensure that CEOs and other spokespeople take the best advantage of every media interview opportunity.
- Periodically update the messaging
A common challenge in developing consistent messaging for clients is when a member of the team, often the CEO, is out a step (or two, or five) ahead of the company’s current capabilities, size or product development status. Visionary CEOs are a tremendous asset for companies seeking to advance their brands, but risks abound if the CEO promises things the company can’t deliver. One way to overcome this obstacle is to commit to messaging as a dynamic process and not a static set of documents. A quarterly review to sync up messages to goals achieved is a great way to make sure that customers, partners, investors and the public are continuously reminded of the company’s forward march. Companies may also want to consider adding a “future goals” messaging document which can be added to as goals are achieved and moved into “current messaging” status.
Start at the very beginning…
It’s a very good place to start, as Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music. And it’s great advice for companies who are newly engaged in building a brand. Your PR firm will start by making sure everyone is on the same page regarding the company’s key messages. Then they’ll get it in writing via messaging documents you can leverage again and again to develop a consistent, memorable brand for your company. Even if your company is well-established, your key messages may need a refresh to help take the company to the next level in its maturity.