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.

Communicators, Get Ready for Healthcare Reform

Image of U.S. flag with stethescope

All signs indicate that Congress will pass healthcare reform legislation before the end of this year.

While there have been vast differences of opinion about the reform legislation, I think we can all agree that — once the bill is signed into law – employers will need to inform their employees about the changes that will impact them and their benefits.

The good news is that most organizations are either in the process of, or have just completed, annual benefits enrollment.  So there should be some processes already in place for communicating benefits changes.

The bad news — we don’t know exactly what the law will mandate, and exactly how the law will change our company’s benefit offerings.  Unfortunately, our employees will expect to hear that information as soon as the media reports passage of the bill.  And they will get frustrated by our inability to provide specific details.

In this scenario, the best course of action is to start communicating now, start setting the expectation that the HR team is tracking the healthcare reform debate and working proactively with current benefits providers to ensure that information is communicated as soon as details are available.

I’d recommend equipping managers and executives with a holding statement, similar to the ones used in the early phases of a crisis, which reinforces both the organization’s preparations and the plans for ongoing information updates.

You should also be working now on FAQs.  It shouldn’t be hard to determine which questions should be addressed if you’ve been following the healthcare debate:

  • How will I (and my family) be impacted?
  • Will I need to switch my coverage?
  • How much more with this cost me?
  • What are my options for getting insurance?

You might also want to prepare a presentation deck that can be used either by a department manager, or by the HR leader during an all-hands meeting or webinar.  You won’t have enough details to release it until after the bill becomes law, but at least you’ll have a head start.

Don’t delay.  Pull your communications team together and start working now on your plans for communicating what has the potential to be the biggest change facing your employees in the past few decades.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at

What to Tell Employees When You Don’t Have All the Answers

Layoffs. Plant closings. Mergers. Executive departures.

These are uncertain times and, thanks to the economy, fear and paranoia, the rumor mill is stronger than ever.

When a company is gearing up for a major change during these uncertain times, the worst approach leadership can take is to hold off on communicating to employees until all decisions have been made, to sit back and wait until they have all the answers before addressing rumors and speculation.

So what do you say when you don’t have all the answers, when there are still unknowns? How do you announce a change when there are still many variables to be decided or when the end game is not entirely clear?

First, don’t discount the role of the manager or supervisor in this scenario. Employees will often go to their manager for “the real story” and if the management team has not been briefed in advance, they won’t be able to reinforce the key messages. Make sure that your managers understand the issues, can answer question about the facts at hand, and are comfortable reinforcing the unknown elements of the change.

Next, leadership should introduce the change with an acknowledgement that employees will have concerns and that there will be opportunities to voice those concerns. They should stress that this initial announcement is intended to provide context and outline the elements of the change that are known at this time, as well as the unknown. In addition, they should articulate a timeline for the change and specify which programs, divisions or teams may be impacted.

The first communication should set the stage for future updates and reinforce a commitment to communicate frequently as more information becomes available. It should also include instructions for voicing concerns or raising questions – to the manager, the executive, etc. And it should close with a sincere acknowledgement of how difficult change is in any organization and that the organization appreciates the employees support and dedication.

You owe it to your employees to be as honest and direct as possible about the changes afoot. This open communication won’t eliminate the rumor mill, but it will keep it in check.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at