Sunday, October 10, 2010

Themes and Messages

Singapore.  (10 Oct 10).

When consulting for companies in crisis communication scenarios, I often hear their in-house PR Professionals use the words "Themes" and "Messages" to explain their choice of press statements and sound-bites.  Unfortunately, many of them do not fully understand the difference between the two, and this is extremely dangerous as the selection of the correct Theme is fundamental to an effective crisis communication plan. 

So what is the difference between the two?

Themes are the over-arching idea/concept which the PR Professional wants the stakeholder to conclude, while messages are individual pieces of information which the PR Professional uses to "build" the Theme in the stakeholders' minds.  Themes are therefore never directly communicated but are deduced by the stakeholders.  For commercial companies, the Theme is usually aligned to the attributes of the company's (or product's) Brand Image.  Generally, Themes are "universal" in nature and remain constant, whereas Messages are contextual and will vary from incident to incident.

Allow me to use the April 2010 voluntary recall of over 40 infant and children's OTC medicines by Johnson & Johnson's (J&) McNeil Healthcare to illustrate.

In this incident, McNeil Healthcare's Message was the voluntary recall of the products as they "did not meet the quality standards" of the company.  Following up that Message was another press release from J&J that the company expects the voluntary recall to impinge on second-quarter earnings because of lower sales.  Noticeably absent from both press release was any mention of J&J's Credo which "put the needs and well-being of the people we serve first."  Combined, these two Messages build upon each other and conveys the Theme (J&J's Credo) and lead stakeholders to conclude that J&J puts their customers above profits and that consumers can always trust J&J products. 

Hence, as you can see from the above example, an understanding of the difference between Themes and Messages is important.  A failure to understand the difference, would have resulted in a crisis communication plan that only addresses the incident without protecting or building upon the brand of the company or product.

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