Is Your Tone Killing Your PR Campaign?

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Sometimes It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It

My Senior Campaign Strategist has been speaking for years to groups on the topic of “Tone and Content” as it relates to a successful publicity campaign. Because this information has been of great value to our clients, I wanted to share it with you as well. So, here’s Tony…

After many years in the public relations business, I have discovered that there is at least one unchangeable truth; there are really only two elements to every media interview: tone and content.

I know this sounds something like “inside baseball” theory, so let me explain what I mean.

  • Content: This is the information you’re trying to communicate. If you’re an expert in scuba diving, maybe the interview is about the common pitfalls of beginners, or tips on how to get the most out of your dives. Those tips and hints are the informational benefit you’re trying to extend to the audience of the host or journalist that is interviewing you. That’s the content!
  • Tone: The tone is how you deliver that information. If you sound really superior, like a college professor preaching on his worst pet peeves, chances are that you won’t connect with your audience. If you approach it as one who once made mistakes as a beginner and is now sharing how to avoid those mistakes, then your audience will appreciate you.

And here’s the trick, let’s say you completely mess up your presentation of the content. Let’s assume you said things out of order, contradicted yourself and even gave the wrong advice. BUT, you nailed the tone perfectly, balancing between expert and former beginner, and engaging both the interviewer and the audience. Well, you’ll still be remembered as having given a good interview. On the flip side, if you recite your content perfectly, get in every element of your message with precise detail, but your tone is off, then you won’t be regarded as well. In truth, what you say is important, but how you say it is the trump card. In a perfect world, a good interview consists of perfectly articulated content with a flawlessly executed tone that connects with the audience equally. That’s the perfect combo that people should aspire to achieve.

A good example is the advice we recently offered a client of ours, whose interview topic involved the dangers of cyberbullying and sexting for kids. Her point was that parents need to be more careful when they present their kids with consumer technology. It’s not enough to give their kids a cell phone or computer, and an operator’s manual with no supervision. There need to be rules and guidelines for how that technology should be used. Practical and useful advice, when you think about it.

During the call with the client, she articulated that message by saying, “Parents need to stand up and do their jobs better to protect their kids.” Now, I know this woman very well by now and she is very sweet and understanding by nature. However, she had been reading a constant barrage of articles in the media about some kids who were perpetrating some of these behaviors and the parents seemed to be unaware of their kids’ involvement. Her gut reaction was to be angry and so her comments weren’t aimed at all parents, but mainly to just the ones she had read about.

So, our chief strategist suggested she articulate herself in a different way. His point was that most parents believe that they are doing all they can to make ends meet and be responsible parents. Given that idea, most of them probably wouldn’t take kindly to the idea that they need to take better care of their kids, because they already think they are. So, it might be more understanding to say that while she understands many parents are so busy getting through the basics of providing for their kids, it’s understandable how this particular area could be overlooked, so here’s some advice on how to address cyberbulling and sexting to help them out.

The content itself hasn’t really changed. The advice is the same, for parents to provide some level of moral compass for kids who have access to technology that could be used for bullying or sexting. The wording, however, connects better with the larger community of parents who already feel like they are stretched thin. Are there parents who need to “stand up and do better?” Sure there are, but is it fair to address them by aiming the message at ALL parents? Probably not. Moreover, even that minority of parents who, in our client’s opinion, might need a little prodding will be more likely to be receptive to the message when it is worded in a more compassionate way.

The results so far have been nothing short of spectacular, with both television and radio taking to her message extremely well. And, at the end of the day, that’s the point of doing PR. So absolutely research your content until you know it backwards and forwards, but don’t allow that perfect content to become buried because you tripped over your tone. In the media, as in life, sometimes it’s not always what we say, but how we say it that counts the most.

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