What to do when your message falls short

Dartboards with three darts missed off

Johnny Carson, longtime host of The Tonight Show, was the master of self deprecation. When a joke bombed, he didn’t steamroll on to another, he’d linger in the awkward silence, as if paying penance. (See 3:17-4:00 in this Christmas monologue.)

Audiences enjoyed his discomfort and loved him all the more for being humble and human.

No one enjoys feeling foolish, but acknowledging that a message has missed its mark is preferable to simply repeating it over and over with no changes.

Consider the case of presidential candidate Marco Rubio in this montage posted by Time following one of the debates last month. It’s possible Rubio’s initial message landed for some people, but I think the constant and unchanging repetition short circuited any benefit it may have had given the senator in his bid for the White House.

For those of us outside the national spotlight, it’s still possible to feel the heat:

  • Maybe that holiday tie-in wasn’t such a great idea for a newspaper ad or social media promotion. (Check out this great article from Sarah Burke on Spokal about newsjacking.)
  • Although accurate, the news story mentioning your business or non-profit fell short in some way.
  • The speech you gave to the civic organization yielded yawns instead of support. (It happens.)

How should you respond?

Own up to your errors. If you’ve lost your temper or simply said or published something thoughtless, own up to it. Although context is important, try to apologize without re-stating the offensive or erroneous information. Consider asking a professional for assistance. Don’t compound the error or controversy with a sloppy response.

Hold others accountable for their mistakes. If the news story contained errors, contact the reporter and ask for a retraction/clarification. Keep in mind that it will be more difficult to convince them that they have left out important information, but depending on the circumstances, it could be worth your time to meet with the editor. Letters to the Editor and polite, concise posts on the newspaper/station social media accounts can be effective to tell the rest of the story. If the issue is too complex to be brief, write a blog post and link to it from a comment on the media outlet’s social networks. A scripted and well delivered video on YouTube could be very effective, too. Again, get professional assistance if this is a controversial issue. Don’t play the victim or get defensive, just share the facts you know are needed to give the public a clear picture of the situation in question.

And the yawns? Invest time in practice and research. Speeches, purpose/position statements, interviews and Q&A sessions will go much more smoothly with preparation. Despite what we have seen on the campaign trail recently, this isn’t about stocking up on quips and insults to try to make your competition look bad, or to get payback for a wrong. Get facts from respected sources, including your own people, on why your business, non-profit or position on an issue is best.

For speeches, nail down a length from the venue organizer. In general, for Q&A sessions, set a goal for 15-second responses for most questions. Even shorter is better but avoid one-word answers by anticipating the follow-up question, “why.” Keep in mind that after a minute, eyes will begin to glaze over and ears will begin to tune out. Use a stopwatch as you practice. You’ll be surprised how much info you can share in just a few seconds.

Humor often works but avoid sarcasm, which can be misunderstood, and negativity. Often it is best to let your supporters come to your defense rather than attempt a biting comeback on the fly. Remember your goals for delivering the speech, granting the interview, publishing the post, running the ad. Here are some good, common sense tips from Mind Tools on “thinking on your feet,” that can help when you are feeling the pressure.

The Greek proverb, “know thyself,” is profound beyond an individual’s confidence in his or her identity. It is a great reminder in marketing and communications to stay focused on your stated mission. This goes beyond a slogan or even a mission statement. It requires as much thought, research and preparation as refining your product or service or expanding the reach of your non-profit’s good work.

Remember this exercise from Small Business Promotion, I posted a while back? If your message is missing its mark this is a great way to go back to the drawing board.

Super Bowl Ad Monday


For smaller businesses and non-profits, regular advertising often is out of financial reach, which is why it is so vital to have a communications strategy in place that takes full advantage of free, or nearly free, promotional opportunities.

But the latter is a blog post for another day.

Television advertising likely has no bigger day around the water cooler than the day after the Super Bowl. There’s the pricetag: $4.5 million for 30 seconds; There’s the estimated number of viewers: 110 million; There are the celebrity sightings: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Mindy Kaling, Britney Spears, etc.; Oh yes, and then there are the products themselves.

With so much money in play, it’s not surprising that so-called “experts” in advertising and marketing disagree on the effectiveness of the ads. Interestingly enough, the definition of “effectiveness” could be the reason for the disparate views.

Consider the viewpoint of Rob Siltanen, founder of a Los Angeles-based ad agency who wrote about Super Bowl ads in Forbes:

What other venue better assures that people are going to watch your commercial or talk about your brand more than being on the Super Bowl? What other venue says you’re a first-rate, big-time, trustworthy brand more than the Super Bowl? What other place allows you to catch the eyes of (millions of) men and women with one fell swoop? … What event can better tie-in and harness the power of digital and social media? And what other event better allows your brand and products to be talked about for weeks leading up to the event, during the event, and for weeks, months, and even years after the event?

His last point resonates. I still love Tide To Go’s Talking Stain ad from 2008, and when pros count down the best TV ads ever, the lion’s share debuted around a Super Bowl game.

Going back to Siltanen’s comments, notice there’s not a single dollar sign or percentage in any of his observations. Yes, advertising is about money, but its value is not so easily calculated.

Regarding personal purchases, price is a huge factor (for most of us), of course, but perception elbows its way in there, too. Think Crest instead of Colgate; Hunt’s instead of Heinz. Advertising is about perception.

What about the bottom line? Extreme Reach (previously known as Brand Ads) released a report on the performance of 2014 Super Bowl ads. They found that the consumers surveyed were, on average, 6.6 percent more likely to consider purchasing the product after having seen the ad than they were before. That response was consistent among 83.9 percent of advertisers.

Advertising works. It is important to find a place for it in your business’ or organization’s budget. Use it wisely and make sure you have a top-notch ad before you sign the dotted line.

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