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Is Your Tone Killing Your PR Campaign? Sometimes it’s not What You Say, but How You Say it

After 25-plus years in the media business, I have discovered that there is at least one inexorable truth: There are really only two elements to every media interview — tone and content.

I know that sounds a little like “inside baseball” theory, so let me explain what I mean.

  • Content — This is essentially the information you’re trying to communicate. If you’re an expert in scuba diving, maybe the interview is about the common pitfalls for beginners, or tips on how to get the most out of your dives. Those tips and hints comprise the informational benefit you’re trying to extend to the audience of the media that is interviewing you. That’s the content.
  • Tone — The tone is how you deliver that information. If you sound really superior about it, like a college professor pontificating on his worst pet peeves, chances are that you won’t connect with your audience. If you approach it as someone who was once a beginner, and so you demonstrate an innate understanding of how beginners may make mistakes — but you also know how to avoid them — then your audience will appreciate you.

And here’s the trick — let’s say you completely screw up your presentation of the content. Let’s say you say things out of order, you contradict yourself by accident and you even give the wrong advice. BUT, you nail 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. If you recite your content perfectly, getting in every single 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 resonates 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 at EMSI Public Relations, 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 a computer and just give them a manual on how to operate the device properly. There needs 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 oblivious about their kids’ activities. Her gut reaction was to be angry about it, and so her comments weren’t aimed at all parents, but mainly the ones she had been reading about.

So, I suggested that perhaps she articulate herself a different way. My point was that most parents, if they were asked, would believe that they are doing all they can to make ends meet and hold up to all of their responsibilities. Given that idea, most of them probably wouldn’t take well to the idea that they need to stand up and take better care of their kids, because they already think they are. So, it might be more universal and understanding to say that while she understands a lot of parents are so busy just 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, resonates a lot better with the larger community of parents who already feel like they are stretched thin, and working as hard as they can to provide for their families. Are there parents out there 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 might need, in our client’s opinion, a little kick in the behind will be more likely to be receptive to the message when it is worded in a more compassionate framework.

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 be short circuited 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.


Tony Panaccio, Senior Campaign Strategist for EMSI Public Relations is a 25-year veteran writer and marketer. He has been a journalist and a senior executive with several of the world’s largest PR firms.

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