Toronto communications consultant Wojtek Drabrowski had a good article posted by Ragan Communications Tuesday: “Why ‘sticking to key messages’ is not always good.” He gave some solid reasons why, when talking with a reporter, adhering to your message points can actually harm communication.
But he didn’t go far enough.
Sometime in the past five years, the noun “message” disappeared. It became a verb. The noun form of the infinitive verb “to message” became “messaging.” We stopped sending messages. Instead, we began to message. And what we messaged came to be called messaging.
These changes seem to be most associated initially with three groups: marketing people, political consultants, and public relations people.
I’m not exactly sure when I first heard the term used in my day-to-day work, but I can recall being struck by a colleague at work asking someone “what the messaging was” for a particular issue. Soon I heard marketing people saying they were working on messaging. I heard people asking for message points and someone even more important called “key” message points.
This happened to coincide with another and related development: companies and other organizations stopped talking to reporters. Instead, they sent email responses to reporters’ questions. And the responses, usually one or two sentences long, were packed with every conceivable key message point one could imagine.
It made for awkward responses. It made the organization sound like a bad Google translation.
In fact, I know what both developments happened, why “message” became a verb and organizations stopped talking with reporters.
It wasn’t fear of reporters necessarily; it was fear of losing control. Organizational lawyers like email statements packed with message points, because they can be completely controlled. PR people like them because they offer protection – no more can PR people be blamed for a negative story or a misquote.
It was also fear of social media: what can happen if any public response is not completely vetted for possible misinterpretations. The social media mobs salivate when it comes to identifying and celebrating missteps. A single word can create a viral sensation. So can omitting a single word.
But the fear of losing control is the greater fear. Somehow, organizations think that a generally opaque response (in the so-called age of transparency) will endear them to readers or viewers. “If we say it exactly right, and the reporter uses it exactly as we said it, then we win. Or at least don’t lose.”
This isn’t transparency, and this isn’t communication.
The word “message” comes from the Latin “mittere,” to send. It’s one way. A message goes in one direction only.
Every time organizations send emails to reporters in response to questions, the organizations are saying, “We don’t want to talk with you and we don’t really want to talk with your readers or your viewers.”
Now that’s a message.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.