“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind”.

These words are taken from a speech given by the English journalist and novelist Rudyard Kipling in 1923. Events of the past week illustrate that, despite this quote being almost one hundred years old, it remains as relevant today as it did then.

Last week we woke to headlines in the UK press seeming to claim that the end of lockdown was on the horizon. ‘Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons’ claimed the Daily Mail, while The Sun said that we were heading for ‘lockdown joy’ on ‘Happy Monday’.

Government ministers were soon busily briefing journalists in an attempt to quash any public misconceptions that we would soon be able to get back to normality. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was among those to warn that any changes to be announced by the Prime Minister in his Sunday evening address to the nation would be ‘modest, small, incremental and carefully monitored’. In other words, ignore what the press have been reporting and don’t expect to be seeing family or heading off on holiday any time soon.

Then on Sunday morning the media was awash with more details about Boris’ big speech. ‘Stay at home’ was being replaced by ‘stay alert’, while a new five-tier warning system would be used to flag up the virus risk and encourage the public adherence to the rules.

Judging by the outpouring of opinion from the British public on social media, it quickly became apparent that the change of slogan and selection of words had created confusion and uncertainty. By mid-morning #StayAlert was trending on Twitter, but what exactly did these words mean? We all understand ‘stay at home’, but how on earth can being ‘alert’ help to battle this deadly virus?

Again, we saw the familiar pattern of government ministers trying to minimise any damage and calm nerves by addressing the media. Appearing on Sky News, Robert Jenrick stressed that staying alert meant ‘staying home as much as possible’ but also ‘stay alert when you do go out by maintaining social distance.’ Sky presenter Sophy Ridge was not convinced. “My point is that ‘stay alert’ is so vague that it borders on being meaningless,” she said.

As Mr Kipling so rightly said, words – their selection and the way they are used – are a ‘powerful drug’ with the ability to shape minds and influence behaviour.

Anyone involved in PR and communications will appreciate the importance of the time spent choosing words. Messaging is an integral part of the strategic element of every campaign – it the DNA of an organisation, representing your values, the benefits you bring to stakeholders and the elements that set you apart from your competitors.

At Babel, message development is one of the most important priorities for forming the base of any campaign – and it needs to continually evolve. We start by understanding the business objectives. These will dictate the PR strategy that is adopted and delivered, and the audiences that your messaging needs to reach. Both the PR agency and the brand need to work together to ensure business objectives can be translated into clear, measurable PR objectives.

We don’t stop there. Messaging – as we have seen with the move from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’ – must be adaptable. We work with our clients to constantly review messaging in reaction to any shift in market conditions and any changes to business objectives. It is our role as the radar between client and the outside world, feeding back information about any changes in the way that messages are perceived.

Brands have been doing exactly that, as COVID-19 has swept the globe. The pandemic has completely altered every aspect of our lives – businesses have had to carefully choose their messages fully in the knowledge that one misplaced word is the recipe for stakeholder negativity and the barrage of repercussions that can bring.

We have some great examples of how brands have adapted their messaging, including Uber’s ‘Thank you for not riding’ and Land Rover’s ‘Explore the great indoors’. And while these messages were designed for ads, the sentiment should be played out in your all your stakeholder comms.

It’s not just global consumer brands that should be revising messages at this time. Messaging and the way we help to position our B2B tech companies in their respective markets has been a crucial aspect of our work in recent weeks. As business objectives have changed, so has the PR strategy and the messages that we arm spokespeople with.

So, how should you go about reviewing and revising your messaging? Here are my three key tips:

  1. Be prepared: the media remains as hungry as ever for content and expert comment. Before putting a spokesperson in front of a journalist with hastily drafted messages, take the time to think about your choice of words and how they may be interpreted by your target audience. The type of people you may want to influence – including B2B decision makers – may not have changed, but their circumstances will have.
  2. Be distinctive: in these unprecedented market conditions you need to be able to stand out from the competition. It’s not enough to say ‘we know what you’re going through’ and ‘we care about you at this time’. In the world of B2B tech with stretched budgets and a heightened battle for market share, careful messaging which highlights your unique values and benefits may be the difference between success and failure.
  3. Be genuine: some brands have been criticised for being less than genuine in their response to the pandemic. While the words you use may change, it is vital you stay true to your organisation’s values – the beliefs that your stakeholders have always known you for. If you are going to say something, ensure you have evidence to support your claims. And remember that your employees are vital during this time – if you are saying something to the outside world, live up to it within your business.

Please get in touch with the Babel team to find out how we can help your messaging needs during these difficult times.

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