Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth HughesLocal Democracy

Staying on your message

By Elizabeth Hughes, Strategy & Communication.
The Covid response has provided an extraordinary opportunity to school us all about key messaging.

“Be kind, wash your hands, stay home if you are feeling unwell, this is uncharted territory.”

These are just some of the things we have repeatedly heard in recent months. Setting aside whether you agree, or disagree, with the handling of the pandemic, it would be extremely difficult to have neither heard nor understood, the key messages at each stage of the Government’s response.

But, to be fair, there are a few key messages the Government failed to land. For example, people continue to confuse ‘managed isolation’ and ‘quarantine’ – using these words interchangeably when they are actually two quite different things.

For the record, the former is something all citizens returning home must do for 14 days and the latter is where you go if you test positive for Covid-19 on days three or 12.

However, by and large, we all understand what the Government’s coronavirus response was about and its reasons behind reducing a pandemic health risk to ourselves and our country.

And councils, as governing organisations within your communities, can learn a lot from this.

“Key messaging” is communication-speak for knowing what needs to be said and repeating it no matter how the question is posed.

Key messages form the basis of any effective communication strategy and therefore, should be at the centre of any council’s thinking about how it will engage with its community.

Key messages have all the following elements.

Clear – they are created, before anything else, through dedicated effort focusing on understanding the essence of what you are trying to communicate.

Concise – they are short and sweet – less is more (i.e. if you end up with half a page about key messages, then you can be pretty sure they are not key messages).

Comprehendible – they make sense and are simple.

Common language – not council-speak and no jargon (and, in case you didn’t realise, “LTP” qualifies as jargon).

Core to your belief – make your key messages authentic (no BS).

Consistent – repeat, repeat, repeat (and repeat again).

Compelling – key messages work to compel action because they meet the six Cs above.

It is very tedious to hear elected council members and staff say that issues are often too complex or complicated to communicate easily – whether due to politics or management or financials or timing or size or shape.

There is an implied arrogance in this that really has no place in local democracy.

However, if elected members and staff really do believe that improving communication is one of their priorities – which is something that is often said – then learning how to develop key messages for all public conversations and activity is a good first step.

You just need to put the effort in from the outset.

Too often, the real thinking about what is to be communicated is left to the last minute or, more often than not, is not actually agreed at all.

The effort to create strong key messages requires paying attention to the outcome needed and then refining this until a common understanding is reached about what needs to be said. Note: common understanding is quite different from having unanimity around the council table – in fact, some of the most effective key messages may be that there is not council agreement on a particular issue.

As you head into your engagement for Long Term Plans, there is much to be gained by starting with the end in mind and asking: what are our key messages likely to be and then how will we make these: clear, concise, comprehendible, core to our belief and compelling.

Then just create them and use them consistently.

Staying ‘on message’ is a useful opportunity from Covid-19 communication that everyone can learn from. LG

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