Message Development: Thinking Inside the Box

To start thinking about message development, consider the following questions:
• Your friend wants to try a new Italian restaurant for dinner. You’re craving sushi. How do you convince her to pick up the chopsticks?

• A CEO doesn’t see the value of starting a company’s twitter feed. What’s the best way for the marketing department to show him that tweeting can bolster the bottom line?

• A government agency wants to reduce the number of teenagers texting while driving. How do they convince “invincible” teens that this behavior is dangerous?
What do these questions have in common? The answer is the need for message development. Whether your goal to enjoy a sushi dinner or promote teen driver safety, the secret to success is developing messages that resonate with the audiences’ values and opinions.
How can you do that? Try using a message box. This tool offers communicators a framework for producing carefully-crafted messages that both respond to a particular audience’s needs and preferences while reinforcing how “the ask,” or desired action, relates to their values.

The messages produced can be used separately or together to achieve a desired outcome. Sometimes, several message boxes need to be created for a particular audience based on themes or ideas that resonate with them. For example, one message box for the CEO could be focused on the business case for twitter while another could focus on how participating in twitter would reinforce company’s commitment to customer service.

The Message Box in Action

Let’s go back to the question about the government agency and their education campaign about texting while driving. The following chart defines each element of the message box and shows messages that could be used for convincing teens that texting while driving as a dangerous activity.

Type of Message Definition Example
The Ask The desired action for the target audience to take. Stop texting while driving.  
The Barrier Message This message counters an audience’s key misconceptions about the particular topic. There should be a message to refute each barrier the target audience(s) may present. Statistics, analogies and quotes are powerful tools for overcoming barriers. Barrier:
I only look at my phone for a few seconds when I text. I can still see what is going on.  Message to Overcome It:
Sending or receiving a text message takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. That is the equivalent of driving the entire length of a football field at 55 miles an hour while blind. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?
The Value Message This message is used to connect with a value the audience has about a topic. Not texting while driving doesn’t just mean you will stay safe. It means you will keep your license and others on the road will be safer.
The Vision Message This message reinforces the value message point. It highlights the benefits audience members reap if they take the action in “the ask.”  If  you stop texting while driving, you can  enjoy the privilege of driving and staying safe at the same time.

Do you think that the message box could help you create compelling more messages for you and your clients? Let me know what you think.

Sarah Vogel is a Senior Account Executive at TMNcorp, a full-service communications company in Silver Spring, MD.  Follow her on Twitter @TMNcorp or connect with her on LinkedIn.



Attending the mHealth Summit this week reminded of several things I tell clients about how I approach a convention.

1. Actually have news. Don’t plan a press conference unless you are announcing the cure for cancer or  a $10 million prize for the person/company that creates a real Tricorder, as Qualcomm recently did.

2. Have a plan: know the outlets you want to be in and what your best-case headline would be.

3. Set aside specific times in your executives’ schedules to do interviews.

4. Prep your executives. My favorite prep is a notebook with a schedule, speaking points, press release, and “back of the book” with a graph on each outlet, each reporter and some clips. If your exec relies on a mobile device, give her an electronic version (or both).

5. Prioritize outlets and writers.

6. Do give exclusives to your top writers.

7. Don’t scoop reporters by blasting your news all over the internet before you talk to them.

8. Keep engaging writers long after the show.

9. Wear comfortable shoes [the first thing my PR mentor told me].

Vicki Stearn, principal of Think Out Media, is an adept generalist with an expertise in strategic planning as well as end-to-end communications implementation.  She is successful in a variety of industries and is currently expanding her practice to include the mHealth and eHealth sectors. Follow her at or @vickistearn.

When the Media Gets It Wrong: Why Language Matters when Writing about People with Disabilities

Text reading "Disabilities" above a drawing of an umbrella with the text, ".Visual, Hearing, Learning, Autism, Physical, Emotional, Cognitive" written in the folds and "Speech or Language" on handle


A few years ago, I was reading an article in the Washington Post that mentioned several political appointees with disabilities. All of them were intelligent and accomplished, according to the article, but I remember cringing when the columnist used the term, “wheelchair-bound,” to describe them. This was not the first time I’d seen poor word choices used to report on people with disabilities in mainstream media, and it would not be the last.

You may be asking, “What’s wrong with the term wheelchair-bound?” Well, first of all, it is not accurate. Bound, in this context, means “confined to.” This is not the case for people who use wheelchairs. Many people who use wheelchairs transfer out of them to sit at restaurants, drive, bathe and do all kinds of other things. Some of them only use wheelchairs on certain occasions, or also use other mobility aids. For example, one of the appointees mentioned in the article, Tammy Duckworth (who was recently elected to the House of Representatives, but at the time, was an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs) also uses prosthetic legs.

Even people who cannot transfer out of their wheelchairs by themselves are not “bound” or tied to the chair; rather they use it as a means to get around. If you rely on your car, because there is a lack of public transportation in your town, are you “car-bound”? Why not simply write that a person “uses a wheelchair”? (For more about language and disability, check out Emily Ladau’s excellent blog post, “Reflections on Language through the Lens of Disability“).

This is not a matter of “political correctness” or people being “overly sensitive.” There is a reason language about certain groups of people (e.g., women, minorities) has evolved over the years. Some words are no longer acceptable, because they are offensive or hurtful. Any woman who has been called “honey,” “sweetie” or “dear” in the workplace by an older male colleague can attest to what it feels like to be demeaned by words, even if that was not the intent.

Disability advocates have been fighting the battle to get the media to use appropriate word choices when writing about people with disabilities for decades. Judging from what I’ve read recently, while there has been some improvement in this area, there is still work to be done. It should not be difficult to stop using antiquated phrases like “wheelchair-bound,” which re-enforce old stereotypes that people with disabilities are victims, and yet sometimes it feels like members of the media have been slow to adapt the way they write about people with disabilities. I believe these changes do make a difference – that they go a long way to altering perceptions of people with disabilities – so I will continue to fight for them, both professionally and personally.

The push to advocate for word choices that are respectful to people with disabilities isn’t limited to members of the media. Special Olympics has been leading a very successful and important effort called, “End the R-Word,” for the past several years to spread public awareness about how offensive and demeaning using the words “retard” or “retarded” in a derogatory manner is to people with intellectual disabilities, their families and friends. One young man in a video on the site illustrates the point perfectly when he says, “I’m not retarded. I’m Eric.”

Special Olympics and many others involved in the movement were very vocal with their criticism when political pundit Ann Coulter used the “R-word” on Twitter to describe President Obama following the third presidential debate. There has also been public outcry over the use of the “R-word” in movies, such as “Tropic Thunder” and “The Descendants.”

Thanks to the “End the R-Word” campaign and others, progress is being made. Recently, film director Adam McKay agreed to nix the word from the upcoming sequel to “Anchorman,” CNN reported positively on the campaign and last year, when comedian Rick Younger used the R-word on The Today Show, host Kathie Lee Gifford immediately told him, “We don’t use that word here.” Perhaps the most effective part of the campaign, however, is the “Not Acceptable” public service announcement, which compares the “R-word” to slurs used against other minority groups.

Some recommendations for writing about people with disabilities include:

  1. Using the word “disability,” rather than “handicapped”;
  2. Avoiding the use of the words “normal” or “normally” as a comparison to people with disabilities (e.g., People who speak with a stutter often experience more difficulty on job interviews than people who speak normally.);
  3. Avoiding terms that project a negative connotation (e.g. wheelchair-bound); and
  4. Not overusing the word “special,” as in “special needs” or “special populations.”

A note about person-first language: The use of person-first language (i.e, “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people”) is preferred by some people with disabilities, but not all. Many people with disabilities, particularly in the deaf and autistic communities, prefer identity-first language (i.e., “autistic” or “autistic person” rather than “person with autism”).

Writing about people with disabilities (of which there are nearly 57 million in the U.S. alone) in a respectful, positive manner isn’t difficult. Simply following the guidelines above and advocating for members of the media to do the same will go a long way in helping to change perceptions about people with disabilities, so they are fully included in their communities and the workforce.

Diana Zeitzer is the communications director for She is a proud Penn State alumna, who enjoys running marathons and performing improv comedy.

Updated October 2015

Reaching The Asian and Latino Markets Is Easier to Do Than You Might Think

Dottie Li

Want a hot tip? Consider sharing your news items with publications that focus on the D.C. Metro area’s Latin and Asian-Pacific communities.

Editors representing those diverse audiences offered insiders’ views on how to get coverage in their publications during IPRA’s November luncheon. They also spoke of the growing impact of media outlets that reach diverse cultural communities.

Addressing the group were Alberto Avendaño, associate publisher of El Tiempo Latino, a Spanish-language weekly newspaper and website covering local and international news for Washington’s growing Latino population, and Dottie Li, writer/editor of Asian Fortune, an award winning English language newspaper serving all Asian Pacific Americans since 1993.

Both Avendaño and Li were united in their opinion that to reach the niche markets, PR pros need to provide information that appeal to the particular audiences. They also agreed that niche-ethnic publications need to make professionalism a goal in their print and broadcast outlets. Avendaño said, “The presence of good quality niche outlets will help improve perceptions and help Americanize the communities.”

Alberto Avendaño

Li said Asian Fortune is designed to appeal to the cultural interests of the broad Asian community, whether Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese or other members of this population. She said that her publication focuses on what readers want to know, including stories about how Asians are making their way in America; Asian cuisine, arts and theater personalities; as well as any other news that highlights Asian culture. She said, “We may review a play at the Kennedy Center that has a Korean playwright, or an Asian American race car driver who has made it big.”

Avendaño pointed out that niche publications, as he calls them, are making an impact in mainstream media. The presence of niche publications is also increasing sensitivities and

cultural awareness about the various communities. While the diverse market publications are separate from the mainstream, he believes the trend is towards more complete coverage of ethnic news. He said, “In the future, media companies are going to have their fingers in many niche publications and broadcast outlets.”

The program provided practical information vital for helping today’s PR pros learn how to reach the growing and diverse population markets in the Washington area. Said Susan Rink, of Rink Strategic Communications, and IPRA membership co-chair, “This was one of the most informative IPRA programs I have ever attended. I wish everyone could have heard it.”

Thanks to IPRA program committee member Dana Vickers Shelley for arranging the event.

Vicki Robb of Vicki Robb Communications is an independent PR practitioner with over 20 years experience, specializing in media relations for traditional, social and online media. She can be found on the web at

How “The Avengers” Boosts PR Results

By Michael Smart (MichaelSMARTPR)

I will be sharing a bunch of media pitching tips and techniques during the Nov. 2 seminar for PRSA-NCC. I’d like to share one in advance.

I’m big on using pop culture to land positive placements. Here’s an example….

A sober and geeky disaster analysis company landed several dozen media placements, including Bloomberg, the Guardian, and Gizmodo, with one connection to the movie “The Avengers.”

The analysts worked up an estimate for how much it would cost to repair damage to Manhattan caused in the film’s climactic scene. The answer ($160 billion) is beside the point – isn’t the idea alone a great way to naturally create a story journalists and bloggers would love to tell?

Keep in mind, I’m not talking about merely offering your experts as sources for ongoing news. That’s working great for prominent divorce attorneys in the wake of the latest celebrity breakup, but is not a surefire way to ensure you are a part of the resulting stories.

Kinetic Analysis Corp got loads of free publicity — that is on-message for them – by delivering a value-add to journalists and bloggers already looking for new angles on the year’s top film. Instead of offering themselves as one source among many who could comment on a given natural disaster, they produced a deliverable that required mentioning them in any resulting story.

So next time you’re chatting with your friends about a pop culture phenomenon, take a few minutes and brainstorm any potential ties your organization might have.

Not just what you can SAY about it, but what you can DO about it.

You might surprise yourself and end up with the next media relations blockbuster.

To register for “Perfect Pitching: Winning over Journalists and Bloggers in the New Media Landscape,” click here.

Michael Smart, principal of MichaelSMARTPR, has been landing top-tier coverage for 14 years. He’s also trained more than 3,000 communicators across the globe how to boost their media and blog placements, including pros from Allstate, Disney, Verizon, Edelman, Fleishman-Hilliard, the EPA, a U.S. Senator’s office and many other companies, associations, and non-profits, large and small. Michael has twice been a top-rated presenter at the PRSA International Conference, and he partners with PRSA to offer daylong pitching workshops and national webinars on the topic.

Media Relations in the Digital Age

Media Relations in the Digital Age

In today’s Digital Age, almost every public relations professional wants to see their client or organization’s story placed with journalists at prestigious and influential media outlets, as well as in prominent new online media outlets. The PRSA-NCC Professional Development seminar on June 8, 2011 held at the Navy Memorial provided a diverse group of journalist speakers that addressed many of the issues involved in media relations within their various reporting beats and media outlets. About 80 participants were on hand to listen to speakers from Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, Bloomberg News and the National Journal, who related methods of accessing information for their news cycles, and how to pitch information for their news articles, broadcasts, or blogs.

Considering that most journalists have entered the Digital Age, the speakers related examples of some tried-and-true methods of getting information for their news reporting, such as talking to top officials as well as direct quotes and access to pre-interview press releases, but depending on the news topic and media outlet, they may or may not include the use of social media. Tony Capaccio, Pentagon Correspondent of Bloomberg News mentioned that although readers/followers might read Twitter for events coming up, it is usually only top officials who can provide information that he is seeking for his reporting for the specific information needed in Bloomberg’s Pentagon news. “I’ve only used social media twice to talk to defense officials, such as the Admiral in charge of NATO, and only because he was a reader of Facebook,” said Capaccio.

For those who are more tech-savvy, Maggie Fox, Managing Editor of Technology and Health Care, said that many PR professionals need to refocus how they appeal to journalists, because “most journalists have to wade through 600 email messages per day. It takes up all my time.” She stressed “knowing who you’re pitching and why, so that the journalists and you don’t waste your time,” Fox said. “Only pitch if you can offer something no one else is doing, and be quick, topical and concise. Don’t be one of the PR types who bug people all the time.”

The bottom line, according to Jeffrey Ballou, Deputy News Editor of Al Jazeera, is that “journalists are tired from all of the world’s major upheavals, and if you don’t watch the media you pitch, you are not aware what is being covered day-to-day, so your pitch will be irrelevant.” And delivering the actual newsmakers to the journalists is something all speaker panelists agreed on. “You must be able to offer a speaker that has current experience in the news topics covered, such as diplomacy in foreign relations in the case of Afghanistan.”

Social media plays a big role too for many media outlets now, such as Al Jazeera and The Huffington Post, who say most of their reporting is done on social media, i.e. blogs, Twitter or Facebook, which were also the main outlets cited by panelists. Jennifer Bendrey, Washington Correspondent for The Huffington Post, said “We think about the audience and their niches, and we do welcome pitches, but know who you’re talking to before you call, and it helps to offer a couple of knowledgeable sentences for the journalist to get a flavor of the story you are pitching.”