One of the staples of the PR business is the inevitable set of talking points we create for those who are about to participate in a media interview or speak at a media event.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the purpose of talking points and how they are used, it’s pretty simple. PR people and others usually work together to hone some key points that the group believes the person being interviewed should make during the interview. Sometimes, the preparations also involve certain questions that could come up and how the interviewee should respond.
In development talking points and preparatory Q&A, those of us in PR should follow a range of ethical principles that ensure that our interviewee is responding to the questions in good faith, with answers that include information that is as accurate and complete to the best of his or her knowledge.
At the same time, the primary purpose of creating the talking points is to provide focus. We want to make sure that during the course of the interview, the interviewee stays “on message,” or focused on the key points that need to be made, regardless of any attempt by the interviewer to knock the interviewee off track.
Why would an interviewer do such a thing?
Reporters are more often than not smart. They know that the people they interview have something they want to say. Reporters see it as their job to get deeper than simply to take what the interviewee wants to say on face value. Quite often, reporters don’t know if there is more to know, but they will ask questions to find out.
They use a variety of techniques to throw the interviewee off, such as interrupting, changing the subject and then coming back to the original question. Asking the same question in different ways over and over. Presenting hypothetical situations and asking for hypothetical responses. Quoting third parties such as, “Critics say….”, and then seeking a reaction.
When an interviewee is on the receiving and of these techniques and stays focused, we say that the interviewee is “on message.”
From a PR standpoint, this is usually a good thing. But there are times when simply staying on message creates the perception that the interviewee is one-dimensional or just a talking head. That usually undermines the point of participating in the interview in the first place.
With this in mind, there are times, and they are completely situational, when the best approach is to go slightly off message. There are times when the interviewee has to add color or nuance to a response that quite frankly makes the PR people in the wings cringe.
I’ve had clients use very colorful language, tell jokes, and do a number of rather informal things in the course of interviews that were not only quite effective at developing a rapport with the journalist doing the interview, but were absolutely critical to building credibility.
Sometimes, staying on message is not enough. We have to demonstrate commitment, knowledge, understanding, empathy and compassion by responding with a little extra detail and information that conveys the credibility we need to support our messages.
We certainly don’t want to contradict our messages, reveal proprietary or confidential information, or speculate irresponsibly. But there are those times when going down a parallel path can actually help to make messages matter.