RIP ‘on message’

I remember going to a marketing conference in the 1990s. For his warm-up, one of the speakers asked the audience to name people who they thought retail brands would be if they became sentient. The brand that most people made the same association with was Marks and Spencer. The person they felt M&S would be was Cliff Richard.

Since the 1990s, the concept of being ‘on message’ has been a huge part of the PR and media relations process. I think the drive to professionalise it started in politics. Carville and Stephanopoulos’s War Room for the first Clinton campaign did it brilliantly. The famous ‘grid’ that Labour’s communications team, led by Alastair Campbell, finessed and enforced it to great effect. Lines to take, bridging techniques, finely honed messages. All worked beautifully.

Businesses started to emulate this process. We operated with messaging grids, wrote copious Q&As, drilled CEOs, recced the backdrop for interviews, prepped for all eventualities. It was a time of one-to-many communication when we’d make up our own minds as viewers and readers. Sharing was a “did you see this” to someone beside us on the sofa, in the office or on the bus.

The days of a cohesive and consistent voice are over, though the residue remains. Social media warriors tear apart messages, people coalesce around critiques, wooden performances and jargon are widely ridiculed. The only option, and maybe the best option, is authenticity.

People in politics who make the most headway these days position themselves as authentic voices fighting against the elite and the establishment. Sadly, most traction is being made by voices that are to me unwelcome or disingenuous, but there’s no doubt that the unspun authenticity is compelling. It’s one of the reasons that Farage, for instance, appears so frequently on Question Time. He’s gritty and provocative and whilst I abhor his politics and values, he cuts through because he sounds genuine. It isn’t possible to sound genuine if you’re reciting from a messaging grid.

In commerce, a bit of authenticity is hugely valuable, especially from the CEO. When you’re on a roll or when the chips are down, speaking with an authentic voice and eschewing jargon is the way to cut through. I call it tub thumping language. Imagine you’re motivated to bang the desk in front of you while you’re saying something. If the words are uniquely yours and you feel passionate enough to do that, they’ll have purpose and authenticity and they’ll travel. Moreover, they’ll be immunised largely from the best attempts of social media naysayers.

Stay off message, go unplugged. Don’t necessarily conform to your brand’s equivalent of Cliff Richard. It takes many voices to build a culture, create a brand and cater to tastes.