Effective messaging for associations

Keeping it simple - and have something to say!

In an age of social media overload, short attention spans and fake news, communicators spend a lot of time and resources trying to figure out the best way to get a message across – and what channel/platform/interface will have the most impact.

But they often overlook the most important communications tool of all: the message itself.

Nearly everyone knows (and some even understand) Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, “The medium is the message.” Writing in the 1960s, McLuhan posited that a message’s impact and meaning is shaped by the medium in which it is delivered. From a theoretical standpoint, that’s still true – even if the number and variety of media have exploded since the days of tie-clip, the chalkboard and the cathode-ray tube.

But for PR professionals – especially from trade associations, NGOs and other lobby groups clamoring for attention from journalists and policymakers – there’s a new, updated version of the dictum: The message is the message.

Translation: If you don’t have something to say, it doesn’t matter where you try to say it. No amount of infographic wizardry, animation or promotional budget will help it make an impact. This puts a premium on finding a short, simple message and then framing it as news rather than blatant flackery.

Here are a few useful tips:

  • Have something to say. This goes without saying. But it’s surprising how much PR fails to make any point whatsoever, or is so over-reliant on jargon or backstory or rhetorical throat-clearing (“…in the framework of…”, “At a conference last week…”, “…towards a viable blueprint for…”) that no message gets across. A communications director’s most important job is forging a coherent, compelling message from confusing and often competing interests.
  • Shorter is always better. One of the best things about Twitter is that it has enforced brevity – even taking into account the unfortunate decision to double the character limit. There’s no reason that almost all communications can’t be shorter and punchier. Get your point across in a few words in the first sentence. The order should be: 1) NEWS DEVELOPMENT; 2) WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT; 3) DATA/EVIDENCE/SUPPORTING ARGUMENT.
  • Make it news, not publicity. A policy position or annual conference isn’t always news. In fact, it almost never is. News requires friction/conflict/movement/surprise/counter-intuitiveness/timeliness. Something needs to happen. A new product or decision needs to do something or be important for a reason. The more a communications piece – whether a press release, infographic, tweet, or LinkedIn post – looks like a news article, the better. That means skipping the background and diplomatic protocol of the titles of who spoke at your conference and getting to the point.
  • Speak for something. Too often associations fail to speak on behalf of the people and causes they represent, choosing instead to be characterized by some acronym or committee or – heaven forbid – platform: “Last week, WAWA, the World Alliance of Widget Associations, welcomed…” It’s more effective and more compelling to speak on behalf of actual people, or a coalition or community or cause: “Rising household electronics prices will hit consumers unless widget policy is…”

The media landscape is ever-shifting, and communications pros will always be looking for the newest, coolest tool to try. But one thing that will never change is the need for a meaningful message. Without it, the medium won’t matter at all.

Craig Winneker is director of communications for ePURE, the European renewable ethanol association. He’s on Twitter at @CraigWinnekerA version of this article originally appeared on the website of the EACD.

Craig Winneker

Craig Winneker is director of communications for ePure, the European renewable ethanol association. Formerly, he was news editor for POLITICO Europe. He has spent more than 25 years working in journalism and communications in Washington and Brussels. He joined Roll Call in 1989 as a reporter, eventually becoming managing editor. In 2000 Craig moved to Brussels to be deputy editor of European Voice. In 2007 he joined the Wall Street Journal Europe as editor of the Weekend Journal section. From 2011-2015 he worked in communications for the solar and chemical industries.