Slogans are not speech

Yes, your communications must be aligned. You must say the same thing on social media as on TV and radio news. Your switchboard must have access to the same core script that you’re using for broadcast. Your paid publicity (posters and adverts) must be in sync with your PR (interviews and events). But you shouldn’t speak in slogans. Because slogans are not speech. What looks okay on the front of a leaflet will make you sound like a robot.

If you’ve travelled by train recently, you’ll have heard the slogan “see it, say it, sorted” over the loudspeakers. It’s a catchy phrase, but it doesn’t sound quite human to me. Until today, when a staff member on a Chiltern lines train said: “If you see anything that doesn’t look right, tell us. See it, say it and we’ll sort it.” That little adaptation of the last phrase was just enough to make the staff member sound like a real person and give the message real impact, while still remaining close enough to the original slogan.

I think it’s important to give people the confidence to be themselves and get messages across in a way that fits their own style. We need to trust our teams to flex the delivery, while we’re confident that the message is still aligned with what we want.

Often in the media training room, we’ll be really pleased when the same scenario produces different styles of interviews from one delegate to another. We’re not looking to produce a row of robots, all saying the same thing in the same way. You need to put yourself into the story. Be confident enough to be the real you.

But there’s a limit. When writing a previous blog post about Boeing, I realised I needed to research how to spell Dennis Muilenburg’s name – partly because I’d heard it on the radio and partly because it’s a name where it would be possible to get both parts of it wrong.

I went online and found this articleWhen I got to the bit about impact, the apology was linked to how it felt very personal to Mr Muilenburg. This felt to me like the right level of detail – a demonstration of empathy, which doesn’t slip into feeling sorry for himself. Many of us can remember the way that Tony Hayward of BP apologised for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and then immediately ruined that apology by saying: “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

Of course, it’s good to show that you are determined to fix the problems and that you are invested in the process. But this smacked of self pity. Sure enough, when he appeared before a Congressional Committee weeks later, Tony Hayward was on the receiving end of those words, both from the politicians who repeated them back to him when holding him to account, and from Channel 4 News’ Sarah Smith, whose package included that CNN clip I’ve linked to above.

Because words do have power and effect. So, choose them carefully and authentically. Be you. You on a good day.