How can you repackage messaging you don’t like?

Communicators often have to broadcast a message they find unpalatable but inescapable. Here’s how to hold your nose and hit “send” —and keep your pride intact.

Bad messaging

You’ve read the headline, so let’s be clear: This is not about handling a major ethical dilemma.

It’s not about someone wanting you to lie or be unethical. It’s not about matters where it’s necessary to quit your job or take a career-limiting stand.

On the contrary, in this case it’s about those times when, as a communications representative, you are required to send out a communiqué you just don’t like.

It may be totally ethical and fair. It may be reasonable to others, perhaps even to your targeted audience. You just don’t like the way the messaging is crafted or the way it is to be delivered.

Yet here you are: You’re the one charged with serving as the organization’s spokesperson or its public relations representative, and you must deliver that message the way someone else wants it.

If you’re a publicist, maybe you’ve been given a specific story or story angle you don’t like. Sure, if it were just you, you’d say it differently. Maybe you would do things differently. Yet, you’re part of an organization, a team. There is a chain of command, a decision-making process, and it was decided by someone else that this is how you are to say it.

How does this happen?

Sometimes lawyers may lay down requirements for what you can say and what you can’t, and even what to say and how to say it. There could be regulatory issues. Sometimes it’s HR, or the CEO, or the sales department. Sometimes, it’s simply that your boss wants it this way, and you know this matter is not big enough to warrant putting your career at risk.

What do you do?

The first step is to pose yourself a series of questions:

  • Can I change the messaging?
  • Who needs to approve? Will they approve?
  • Can I change the delivery approach?

If these questions don’t lead you out of your dilemma, the second step is to explore whether you can add to the messaging to provide context. If you can’t alter the messages handed down to you, can you add nuance and context to the content and messaging? Can you expand the content to make sure your targeted audiences understand both the literal meaning of what you say and the spirit of it?

Some techniques for doing this may include offering a summary insight or takeaway as you frame your messages. After you’ve delivered the message as specified, summarize it in such a way that gives it the credibility and impact it needs.

Use an abundance of caution

It must be noted, however, it’s not a good idea to go rogue. Don’t surprise your organization with this. Make sure you let your people know in advance that this is what you want to do.

There could be some good reasons why you may not be permitted to make changes: legal implications, contractual obligations and regulatory ramifications, just to name a few. It’s best to know now rather than find out later.

At the same time, in the interest of quality and effectiveness, it’s important to look for opportunities to make it better. Explore and offer ideas on how to better frame the messaging to make sure that the communications are both credible and effective.

Regardless of how rigid your organization may be when it comes to crafting the messages, you are not paid to serve as an order taker. So long as the people that you work with know that you have the best interests of the organization at heart, you owe it to your organization to provide the best counsel and advice.

At the same time, it is equally important to pay attention to the subtle verbal and non-verbal cues that decision-makers are sending you. I’ve known a few people who could not pick up on these subtle and negative indications in the feedback they have received, and they paid for it by getting kept out of subsequent decision-making.

Still hitting a brick wall?

You’ve tried to change the messages. You’ve tried to frame the messaging and provide both nuance and context. You’ve tried to convince senior management and others that the messaging as presently framed is too rigid, off the mark, incomplete or not credible.

Now, it’s time to manage expectations. It is essential to avoid any attitude while doing this. Don’t manage expectations in such a way that decision-makers believe you are setting them up for an “I told you so” moment.

Just make sure that your organization’s leadership knows what may come next and that you want to plan for it. Explain that the organization may need to work on a list of follow-up questions or issues that could arise.

Less is more

If all else fails, brevity may be your friend. If you can’t change, expand or reframe your messaging, the one thing you may be able to do is shorten it. Find ways to make your messages more concise, less confusing and more believable with some judicious editing.

Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy, and he is producer/host of the ShapingOpinion podcast. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.

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