I have long been an advocate of speaking to the people. Perhaps this comes from a career in public health communication, where I need Joe and Jane Public to hear my message, internalize it and act accordingly. My messages were always written with that public in mind. Joe and Jane Public, this is what you should know. There was no media attention, by and large, so this methodology of developing message distribution strategies that did not involve the mass media worked well.
In the last few years, especially amongst national-level conservative candidates, there has been a push to avoid the media, to speak around the media. There was a feeling that the media was twisting the message, putting a liberal spin on their conservative message. The “mainstream media,” as there were derisively referred to, was abdicating their responsibility to inform the public. These candidates would then craft and deliver messages using a parallel media universe.
I always thought this was a great idea. They were able to get the public to feel Iike they were in on a secret, investing them in the outcome. They could set up their cause as just and their constituents as oppressed. By talking directly to the public they avoided media scrutiny while simultaneously refocusing the narrative anyway they wanted (as opposed to how the media was framing the issue).
As I got more involved in crisis communications and read more about best practices, I learned that how I thought was not the norm. PIOs would craft a press release and consider their job done until the next release was needed. There was no follow-up to see if the correct message was being distributed or even if it was being distributed. The releases were written for the media to be able to craft stories, not written for members of the general public to learn from.
This was very confusing (and disheartening) to me. Wasn’t the public the consumer of the information?
Then a couple of months ago, I saw a post by Gerald Baron about a study done by the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm looking at message gaps. That is, when given a message to pass along to the public, how well does the media actually replicate that message. Think of it as a real-life game of telephone, with real-life consequences. Good messages ignored harm one’s reputation. Negative spin or suppositions can also harm a well-crafted reputation. The analysis they did, and subsequently presented here, attempted to quantify how much of a message was successfully forwarded, and why.
The results were eye-opening (to them at least, not so much me).
In the United States, communicators could expect to see message gaps up to 48% from the mainstream media, and up to 76% from bloggers. That means that the media might only successfully forward 52% of your message and spend a significant amount of time talking about other, less relevant (or harmful) topics. And bloggers are even worse!
What does that mean for us? If you want to get a message out, do it yourself (as part of a complete, balanced communications strategy)! You do this by building relationships with your public before the crisis happens. By becoming a regular source of information to your public stakeholders. By, yes, going around the media.