My Reservations With "Key Messages"

My career started on June 14, 1982 (where did all those years go?). I can’t exactly remember when I began hearing and using the term “key message,” but I suspect it was in the late 1980s or early 1990s. 

Today, the expression “key messages” is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere! Everyone uses it in virtually every context—but especially in media relations. 

And, although our profession coined the term “key message,” it’s a phrase I could just as soon do without. 

The reason? It implies that success occurs when someone can remember the key messages, rather than apply the information the messages contain or take action on them. 

Emphasizing key messages focuses on communication inputs, rather than seeking appropriate attitudinal or behavioral outcomes. In other words, the mistaken perception most people have (including many in our profession) is that the more you hammer home your key messages, the more effective they become. 

Yet we all know that nothing could be further from the truth. 

There are many parallels between excellence in negotiation and excellence in communication. The best of both lead to win-win outcomes. 

Should you have a plan when negotiating? Of course. But if that plan bears no resemblance to reality at the bargaining table, what should you do? Stubbornly stick to the plan? Or adapt?

The same applies with messages. You should have a plan, and ideas to carry out that plan (i.e. key messages, although broader than what that term implies) should be prepared. 

But if the questions asked do not fit the messages prepared, what should you do? Stubbornly bridge to your messages? Or adapt? 

If you’re a strategic communicator, or a strategic spokesperson, you should adapt.

And therein lies my problem with “key messages.”