09 Sep Getting Your Message Out Without Saying Anything
When trying to get a message out, what you don’t say is often just as powerful as what you do say. This struck me as I read a CNN report this morning on the tragedy involving Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. A Dutch investigation concluded the airline was felled by “external causes” and “high energy objects.” Read between the lines and it becomes apparent that it was a missile, or missiles, that brought the plane down. But nowhere in the report is that explicitly stated.
It would have been easy for the investigators to fall into a trap and offer color commentary that went beyond the facts of the case, but they refrained. As a result, the report achieves its primary goal of clearly and concisely presenting the investigative team’s findings on the cause of the disaster. The main message – here’s what happened – is presented front-and-center, not buried by other messages that may not be relevant to the purposes of the report.
Company spokespeople often find themselves teetering over similar traps (though hopefully while discussing far less severe and devastating situations). During interviews, they may be lured into saying things they shouldn’t, or that might dilute the messages the organization is trying to get across.
If you’re a company spokesperson, and you find yourself doing this, I’d like to provide one piece of advice: stop talking. This isn’t an easy thing to do. During interviews, one wants to talk – after all, isn’t that the point? No one likes dead air.
But many executives have gotten themselves into trouble by saying too much. A little inside information here, a little preview of things to come there, and a little off-the-cuff commentary to spice up the conversation in between. Before you know it, you’ve given away too much information about your upcoming product pipeline (robbing any future news of its power) or said something you don’t want to see in print (hint: always assume there’s no such thing as “off-the-record”). At the same time, you’ve taken away from the primary message that you wanted to use the interview for in the first place.
Fortunately, there are some tricks to avoid this situation. My colleague Jennifer laid many of them out nicely in her post, Six Tips for Nailing Your Media Interview. I’d like to expand a bit on what she wrote with a few additional points:
When you’ve made your point, close your mouth. It’s not my intent to sound harsh; I mean this literally. All you need to say is what you want to say, not what you think the reporter might want to hear. Most of the time, what you want to say are simply the things you want people to know about you, your product, or company. There may not even be that many; three or four items, in some cases. Don’t feel the need to expand beyond that, even if you sense the reporter would like you to. When you’re done talking, you’re done – it’s your interview, and you can control the flow however you wish.
Don’t bash the competition, regardless of how tempting it might be. Your biggest competitors may someday be your closest partners; why risk a potentially beneficial relationship somewhere down the road just to get a shot in? Besides, if your product or service is exemplary, it should be able to stand on its own attributes. Focus on those, not what the competition is doing. Don’t give them free press.
Be friendly, open, and helpful – but not too friendly, open, and helpful. Reporters are not your buddies, even if you’ve spoken with them many times. Don’t feel like you need to overly share information with them, no matter how well the interview’s going. At the same time, try not to be standoffish or provide overly canned responses. Be yourself, and try to be informative, without straying from the points you want to get across in the story.
Spokespeople typically love to talk, and that’s great, up to a point. After all, as PR consultants, we want you to talk. But we also want you to be careful about what you say. Following these simple guidelines will help in that regard, and ideally lead to a fantastic story that touches on all of the things you want it to.