Messages Matter

Greetings from your guest blogger. I’m Sandy Beckwith, author of Publicity for Nonprofits: Generating Media Exposure That Leads to Awareness, Growth, and Contributions (Kaplan Publishing). Nedra asked me to contribute here while she was moving to the Los Angeles wilderness because she knows that I want to help nonprofit organizations learn how to work with the media in the most productive ways possible.

Today, I’d like to talk about message development because it’s one of the essential early steps of publicity planning – one that I think is frequently overlooked. It’s important to give careful thought to exactly what you want to say to your audiences not only through the media, but in all your organization’s written and spoken communications. What is it, exactly, that you need to get across to people?

Your message could vary, depending on the situation and circumstances. In some cases, your goal might be to communicate a message related to your organization’s mission or reputation. In other situations, you might want to communicate messages related only to a project or program you’re promoting, not the entire organization. Regardless, here’s the bottom line: If you aren’t clear on your message each time you communicate with the media, your publicity efforts will be less effective. Careful attention to messages allows you to get a little more control over the unpredictable – and generally uncontrollable – publicity process. Anything you can do to exert some control is good.

Message development is essentially a six-step process:
1. Defining the issue
2. Creating draft or preliminary messages
3. Testing the draft messages
4. Refining the messages
5. Testing the final messages
6. Adjusting the final messages

Here are a few tips to help prevent some of the more common mistakes in this process:

  • Don’t make assumptions about what your constituents do and don’t know or do and don’t care about. Do some research instead. My book includes an anecdote about a foundation that assumed the group it was targeting with a communications campaign was familiar with – and understood – a key medical term. Wrong. Focus group research put a spotlight on this inaccurate assumption, forcing the communicators to change their strategy.
  • Don’t get bogged down in the details of the issue. Craft a message that is clear, compelling and direct.
  • Include emotion. And that emotion should come from your constituents’ concerns, not yours. Find a way to connect your cause to their feelings, and your message is more likely to resonate with them.
  • It doesn’t matter what your colleagues or peers think of the messages you’ve developed. What counts is how the people you want to influence react – so test your messages with them.

Got a publicity question you’d like me to answer? Send a note to and I’ll do my best to answer here.

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