Mapping Your Message: The Key To Telling A Media Relations Success Story

Media relations may be the foundation on which public relations was built, but oh how times have changed. Disintermediation, increased public scrutiny, consumer-generated media, stakeholder empowerment - you name it and it has probably affected the way PR executives communicate their messages to the media - and, subsequently, to their target audiences. But just as new communications platforms have developed to complicate the landscape, new methods of aligning messages with organizational goals have emerged. Hence, message mapping.

Message maps are communications tools that set a framework for the creation of key messages. In the words of MediaMasters CEO Tripp Frohlichstein, "Message mapping provides a consistency of message, not only for the person who is speaking, but for anyone else involved on the team. It's an easy way to help understand the message - what it is and how to support it. The whole idea is time efficiency and providing consistent messaging across the organization. (See page 7 for a sample message map.)

At first glance, the message map, with all its shapes and connector lines, may resemble a complex spider web that is easy to stumble into. But such is not the case, Frohlichstein insists.

"It's an incredibly effective tool that anyone can use. It helps you understand what is related to what," he says. "It can be used for media communications, internal communication, legislative lobbying or developing a presentation. Once people learn how to use a message map, they can use them for anything. Exposure is the key."

Frohlichstein offers a step-by-step guide to building a message map that is effective for the entire organization.

1. Develop the "home base" message. This is the first and most critical step in the message mapping process, as many organizations don't have a single message that is consistent throughout every department and function. This inevitably leads to incongruent communications with different constituencies.

To establish a clear message (if you don't have one already), first consider your core audience and its needs. This is the crux of the message, and Frohlichstein calls this the "home base," or the single most important communication objective around which speaking points are developed. For example, "concern for customers" is a common home base.

Says Frohlichstein, "Home base is a very high level thing. It can often be shared by a number of different corporations. 'Improving the customer experience' could be McDonald's, and it could be Target's. It just needs to relate to what your audience cares about - the 'what's in it for me' factor."

2. Develop positive points. Positive points are primary messages that support the home base and add credibility to its objective. For example, if a food corporation's home base is improving the customer experience, some positive points may include the speed of service or the cleanliness of the restaurant. A retailer could have the same home base but different positive points: merchandise availability, for example.

During media interviews, these predetermined positive points will help spokespeople deliver succinct, relevant, well-thought out statements that are consistent with their organization's brand identity and goals. Frohlichstein recommends using no more than three positive points in an interview, though you may have many more on tap.

3. Develop positive proof points. These are supporting arguments that prove your initial positive points to be true. They are specific and often quantitative. For example, if your positive point is that you have competitive pricing, illustrate that by citing price reductions, or your product's cost in comparison with your competitor's.

4. Develop distinguishing points. These are points that differentiate your company from its competitive peer set. These points are hot buttons for the audience, as they demonstrate distinguishing characteristics. For example, if your company offers 24/7 customer service, as opposed to customer service from 9am to 5 pm on the weekdays, it takes you a notch above the rest.

5. Mapping the message. Now that you have all of your points in place, from the home base to the supporting evidence, you can create a visual representation that organizes the thoughts. Begin by placing your home base in the center, then connecting the positive points to it. Each positive point has its own proofs, and some may have distinguishing points as well. The key is to make sure everything leads back to "home" - that is where you want to begin and end when telling your story to the media.

If drawing out a message map seems like a throwback to arts and crafts class, think again. This tool can be disseminated throughout your organization to teach employees in every function what they need to know to stay on message. It is also a safety net in the event of a crisis, as it can serve as a preliminary guide to reinforce the corporate mission in a positive light; crisis-specific talking points can be substituted accordingly.

Frohlichstein also emphasizes the flexibility of message maps and their use throughout an organization. "In some organizations, there is a message map for the entire corporation, and then each division has a tailored one of its own. The home base doesn't change, but what is around it does. If home base is to improve the customer experience, then each division needs to worry about what they do to contribute to that."

Frohlichstein speaks from experience. His communications team used this method for the University of Missouri's Outreach and Extension Program, and to good effect.

"We trained 100 people to use it over a 30-minute teleconference," he says. "And it worked." PRN

(To sign up for PR News' June 7 Media Training Webinar, visit


Tripp Frohlichstein, [email protected]