The importance of key messages


PR efforts are not successful because the person at the helm was winging it. Rather, effective communication takes time and planning. It depends on clarity, and clarity requires developing key messages and then using those key messages consistently. Developing key messages, which seems like an overwhelming exercise, is actually quite simple. Once mastered, key messages will make every aspect of your business’ or brand’s communications more effective, whether it is advertising, marketing, or PR and media outreach.

Many people in the PR industry find the concept of key messages to be so basic that they don’t think they need to devote time to them. But truly effective communication means developing key messages must be a regular part of preparing for any public-facing interactions and media-related activities.

The effort of developing key messages, writing them down, and then organizing your communication around them will pay huge public relations dividends in the end. But the process itself doesn’t need to take a long time.

Below are some easy-to-use tips to help draft key messages for your business or brand.

The what

In a nutshell, key messages are the most important and impactful messages that tell your brand’s or business’ story.

These are the key takeaways that you want anyone who comes into contact with your brand to quickly understand. They can be used on your website, social media updates, and in pitches to the media.

To be useful, key messages should be:

  • Few in number, usually no more than three to five.
  • Concise, generally no more than a sentence or two delivered in seven to eight seconds.
  • Free of jargon, devoid of technical language, and relevant.
  • Written down and shared internally across the brand or business.
  • Consistent, so they can be repeated if they are to sink in.

If you have too many key messages, you won’t have focus. If your key messages are a paragraph each, you will not be effective. Writing your messages down makes sure they are short, concise, and understandable.

Most importantly, be concise. By being concise you have more control over the message your audience hears. If you deliver a long rambling answer to a reporter, you will end up giving them too much control. Rather than hone in on your key message in its entirety, the reporter will pick the words that they think are most interesting, which probably isn’t what is crucial to your brand or business.

By saying less you have more control.

The why

Key messages are the words that help you deliver your narrative. Messages help you focus your communication, which is critically important.

Similar to the advertising concept of effective frequency, key messages mimic the idea that information has to be seen or heard multiple times before a consumer will a) notice and b) respond favorably (i.e., make a purchase).

You know the basic speech structure: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you just told them. That, in summary, is the proper use of key messages.

As a best practice, you should start any communication with your key messages, return to them throughout, and then summarize with them at the end.

While each individual may remember different details of your key messages, they should all be able to sum up your general brand message consistently in one or two sentences. If they are properly developed and delivered, those sentences will be your key messages.

The when

Developing key messages becomes especially valuable in settings where other issues are likely to come up, such as pitching the media or media interviews. If you have formalized your key messages, you have something to return to so you can keep the discussion on track.

Key messages also provide a structure for the rest of the information you want to include in your brand’s or business’ public perception. All the information you want to include should support your key messages. And, any supporting marketing materials you create should convey the same key messages.

Stay relevant, but on message

While designed to be evergreen, circumstances will arise where you will need to update your key messages.

Depending on whether you are speaking publicly or privately, you may need different key messages. Experts may expect more evidence and technical arguments, so give it to them in your key messages. The public’s expectations are different, so keep your key messages brief and at a seventh grade reading level.

If something changes in your PR strategy you may need to update your messages to reflect the change, but make sure that the new key messages still reinforce your overarching narrative.

Test your message

It is critically important prior to using any key messages in your PR strategy—or anywhere—that you test your key messages to make sure they work.

Email your peers, hold a focus group, or survey other employees. All are good methods for testing key messages. If you can afford this level of research, do it.

This research will give you ideas about what messages work and what messages do not. Your messages may evoke a mindset that isn’t helpful to your brand or business. You may find that the order in which you present your messages changes the way your audience reacts to them. Your language may be too aggressive or a bit blah.

Practice makes perfect

Once your messages have been tested and you know what works, practice them. Never wing it.

Media interviews can be nerve-wracking. It is very easy to stumble, forget what you wanted to say, and default into technical language or jargon.

Practice helps prevent this. You need to be prepared for the easy questions and know how to deal with the hard ones.

To be truly effective, you must practice your key messages. There is just something about saying things out loud that brings a clarity that is not always possible just by looking at the written word.

If you find that your key messages do not flow off the tongue easily, redraft them. Test the messages with someone you trust to see if they make sense and are credible.

Are key messages at the heart of your PR strategy?

Want more helpful tips like the ones above plus more? Check out The Buzz: A Media Darling’s Guide to Press Coverage, get on the wait list for Hearsay’s PR mastermind group (launching soon), or email me directly to schedule a Mini PR or Mini PR Plus session today!