Why ‘sticking to key messages’ is not always good advice

Doggedly sticking to your talking points, regardless of a reporter’s question, can often do more harm than good. Instead, take a different tack to build trust and bolster your credibility.

The prevailing wisdom in PR has been that you should keep hammering away at the key messages you’re trying to get across in a media interview, no matter what.

Is the reporter asking you a completely unrelated question? Doesn’t matter—repeat your key message.

Do they want to speak to you about an issue or topic your key messages don’t even cover? Doesn’t matter—repeat your key message.

Is the interview a fairly relaxed conversation about your company’s strategy, rather than a reputation-destroying crisis? One size fits all—just repeat your key message.

If you do this enough, this line of PR thinking goes, your points will stick and the reporter will repeat them. The industry even gave this approach a name of its very own: “block (the reporter’s actual question) and bridge (to your key message).”

Great—except it rarely works.

Without a doubt, messaging is vital to PR success. Your spokesperson or leader should know the story they want to tell, how to tell it and why. However, that’s very different from the “block and bridge” definition of a key message: a narrowly worded statement, aimed exclusively at promoting the speaker’s self-interest and repeated ad nauseam.

Leaders are counseled to “block and bridge” when they speak with reporters because of the illusion of control it creates. After all, if every single one of your answers contains the same one or two points you’re trying to convey, the reporter is bound to use them somehow.

You’re also creating a simple script for your spokespeople to follow, which makes missteps less likely. Nothing bad can happen if you talk only about how great you are or how well your company is doing, right?

This logic might make sense at first blush, but I have seen it in action both as a reporter and during my communications career, and the results just don’t bear it out. Here are a few reasons why this approach doesn’t work most of the time:

It erodes trust and insults the reporter.

Imagine a reporter asks you about the economy’s impact on your business, and you answer by saying, “That’s a good question, but the real point here is how well equipped we are to continue to deliver sustainable earnings growth.” Block, bridge, key message. Great.

Of course, what’s really happening is you are openly showing that you don’t understand or care about what the reporter is trying to do and why you’ve been given the opportunity in the first place. You’re also implying you think you can defeat the reporter’s professional-grade spin detector through brute force alone. You can bet the reporter knows this, and it can cost you interview opportunities down the road, in addition to destroying any existing trust.

Years ago, while working as a journalist, I called a soft drink company for a story about the industry. I wanted to speak to someone in marketing about the sales decline in one product category. The company could have offered someone who was willing to acknowledge that the market had changed, and who could talk about what the company was doing about it.

Instead, I was treated to a “block and bridge” interview about how everything was completely, unequivocally great. Rather than a conversation, the exchange felt as though the spokesperson was reading a set of two or three key messages to me, over and over again, regardless of what I was asking. It was a frustrating waste of time. I never used any of the comments, and didn’t bother calling the company for future industry coverage.

It hurts your brand and authenticity.

Even if you succeed at jamming your key message in the reporter’s face enough to get them to print some version of it, there is a good chance your quote will be highly incongruous with the rest of the story, or taken out of context altogether. I’ve also seen many instances in which interview subjects were perplexed as to why a journalist paraphrased what they said and parked it at the bottom of the story—or did not quote them at all.

Quite often, repetitive, lazy and blatantly self-promotional “block and bridge” key messages are to blame. I recall reporter colleagues complaining of being “key messaged to death,” which was synonymous with a wasted interview.

You also have the audience to consider. The customers, prospects, investors and other stakeholders who read, watch or hear your interview could see you as absent, inauthentic, unrealistic or thoughtless. This can have long-lasting, negative ramifications for your brand and your stock price.

It wrongly assumes all media requests the same.

To be fair, “block and bridge” can work when you’re facing a legitimate crisis, with little available information early on, as well as a rapidly evolving storyline. For example, if an equipment failure at your company causes a power outage, you will only be able to tell the media that you’re investigating, at least until you have more information, no matter how many questions they ask you.

The same is true when you’re trying to protect your reputation in a news cycle during which rumor and inaccuracy have tainted the coverage. When you’re trying to set the record straight, factual repetition can be key.

However, in the vast majority of media interviews, adopting the “block and bridge” strategy comes across as needlessly wary, cautious and even paranoid.

For example, if a new competitor to your business emerges and a reporter comes calling, you shouldn’t assume they are “out to get you.” It’s great that you’ve been given a chance to insert yourself into the story. It’s an opportunity to talk about what sets you apart, how your leaders have shaped the industry thus far and how you will innovate to stay ahead.

There is a better way.

Experienced and confident leaders know when to ignore the “block and bridge” counsel, and savvy communications advisers who truly understand the media very rarely invoke it.

Good spokespeople and their advisors know the story they want to tell and, notably, how to tell it authentically, transparently and in a compelling way. Again, it’s important to know and understand your messaging, rather than to drill home a set of rigid “block and bridge” key messages.

I firmly believe that PR success for companies hinges on healthy, respectful, give-and-take relationships with reporters and editors. That means an open and mutual understanding of each other’s goals, and of what makes a good story.

“Block and bridge” tactics almost never have a place in this sort of worldview. When a good storytelling relationship exists between an organization and a media outlet, there is no room or need for repetitive stonewalling with irrelevant key messages to hammer home a point.

Focus on storytelling.

That doesn’t mean leaders and companies should abandon any hope of telling a strong, positive story about their businesses. Quite the opposite—narrative arcs in which adversity is overcome can be truly compelling, especially if they’re anchored around human, multi-dimensional characters. Are you telling a good story? That should be the focus.

In addition, if you build trust with reporters, over time they will become more willing to listen to the story you’re trying to pitch, just as you will become more interested in listening to their queries when they come calling. They’ll also be more receptive to hearing your side when crisis hits.

So, as you get ready to act on your next media interview, think about more than just your company’s key messages. Begin long before then: Connect with the reporters and bloggers who cover your company, and see what they find interesting about you and how you can help each other.

Wojtek Dabrowski is the founder and managing partner of Provident Communications, a boutique corporate communications firm based in Toronto. A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Topics: PR

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