Carillion key message

For years Media Training was built around making sure your corporate spokespersons knew the Key Message and went out to deliver it consistently.

Subtleties were introduced. Change the words, improve the body language, scrap the corporate speak but essentially the ‘what do we want to say’ and therefore the Key Message ruled.

I suggest more new thinking is required.

To get the very most out of what may be a limited opportunity in the media we need to reverse the whole process. It should no longer be a case of “What do we want to say?” but, wait for it…“What are the audience prepared to accept?”

When ‘sorry’ seems to be the easiest word

Carillion executives appeared before not one but two Commons Select Committees this week (Tuesday February 6th 2018). In front of the UK media all hanging on their words, waiting to hear what they had to say about a corporate collapse on a grand scale.

And one by one they each said how ‘sorry’ they were for the collapse of the company. It was obvious by the third executive’s testimony they’d been coached on delivering this Key Message: “say you’re sorry”

  1. They were ‘sorry’ that they had let down Carillion pensioners
  2. They were ‘sorry’ that they had let down Carillion employees
  3. They were ‘sorry’ that they had let down Carillion customers

And the reaction from their audience, in this case the committee members, and then on The World At One, Sky News, Daily Telegraph on line… everyone… was unanimous and was summed up by one of the Committee Chairs Rachel Reeves MP:

’what we had today was an exercise in blaming everyone else but themselves,’ 

“It’s all very well to say you’re shocked, saddened and sorry… but when you’re still sitting on huge pay-outs from many years I wanted hear more contrition.”

That’s right. The audience wasn’t ready to accept sorry. And by only being sorry, well, it just made the audience angry.

Yes, for years and years Media Training concentrated on developing corporate Key Messages and making sure they were consistently developed but coming back to my original point – “What are the audience prepared to accept?”

What is the audience prepared to accept?

Audiences have become more sophisticated. They’ve been around news for as long as anyone and with their presence in the social media and the rise of the citizen journalist, they have their own voice too.

So corporate communicators working with Media Trainers need to start preparing their corporate spokespersons by understanding the end-user, the audience. What do we think, given all the circumstances surrounding this story, taking into account not just facts but the strength of emotion out there, that the audience will actually accept and take on board?

Example: there’s no point saying “safety is our number one priority” – even if it is – if you are standing in front of a burnt out tower block. Emotions are running too high. It’s simply not acceptable.

In this Carillion example the executives are lining up to say

  • they’re sorry – but not culpable
  • They’re sorry – but they did their best
  • They’re sorry – but they’re keeping the bonuses

The audience isn’t prepared to accept this. There’s too much anger. The hole in the pension fund is too big. The audience, the committee members, the waiting media, the audiences they serve – are never going to accept a simple sorry. And so the Carillion directors, in not thinking what the audience is prepared to accept, make their situation worse, not better.

Now in Carillion’s case, they’re bust and inflict further damage to brand and reputation. Carillion’s reputation maybe largely irrelevant as there may only be personal reputations left and they may not be salvageable.

What can your business learn from Carillion?

If you are part of an organisation which has taken a heavy blow and the media storm is surrounding you – and where brand and reputation might be saved – then much more attention needs to be given to your audience, the end user of what you are going to say to the journalist, in front of the microphones, to the people out there ready and prepared to listen – the audience.

There’s more than one audience

Audiences come in all shapes and sizes. You need to think carefully about what each audience is prepared to listen to in a crisis.

There’s a rule among comedians when there’s been a disaster and when you might make a joke about it and the question you need to address is this “Too soon?”

Let’s stay with the hapless Carillion for our example, putting aside the fact that they’re gone. Let us think they had been a going concern with a brand and reputation to salvage and they’re going public and to accept a grilling, not from two Commons Select Committees but the media.

If you start from “what do we want to say?” or “What’s our Key Message?” You miss just about every opportunity to at least have something accepted by an audience. It’s a tricky balance but it’s worth considering what the audience who read Construction News, who may know the difficulties of private finance initiative (PFI) contracts, are prepared to accept may be more than:

  • The Daily Mirror, which is spiritually against them
  • BBC Radio Merseyside representing an audience which isn’t getting its new hospital built
  • BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours looking at pension deficits
  • The Financial Times who are concerned with the role of corporate auditors… you get the idea


The Key Message is Dead

The single Key Message had its day a long time ago. Even the need for having a range of messages for a range of audiences was embraced a long while ago.

Now we corporate communicators need to go one stage further. It’s not enough to just consider what, given the circumstances as they exist at the moment, and what I understand to be true, is my Key Message for this audience.

Now it has to be…

What is this audience expecting to hear? What is their mood?  What is the emotion out there? What is the most I can achieve with this audience, at this time, today, right now?

And that is the best you can do.