Winning the Political Game: What’s the Headline?

During a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting some years ago, I was asked to do a presentation on political communications for legislative staff who serve in public relations roles. I asked these PR professionals from all over the country to list some of their biggest public relations challenges.

An item frequently mentioned was the difficulty in getting their legislator bosses to "stay on message." They said, for example, that during a press conference or when otherwise asked a question by a reporter, their bosses tended to ramble all over the place, and did not have the discipline to talk in "sound bites" or return frequently to the main message they were trying to convey.

These are problems common to most people who deal with the news media. It’s very difficult to stay composed and communicate well with a microphone stuck in your face.

Here are some suggestions: Remember that no matter how long an interview or press conference is, there will be just one headline in the newspaper about you and your issue, and usually only one or two quotes or sound bites broadcast on TV or radio. So think about it. What do you want that headline to say? What do you want that sound bite to be?

You must discipline yourself to ask, "What precisely do I want to communicate and how do I say it concisely?" Then practice stating that "headline." During the interview, return to the key point frequently, no matter what questions are asked. No matter how complex an issue is, no matter how much knowledge you have of the matter, no matter how much you’re tempted to ramble, you must clearly convey the "headline."

Even in a lengthy newspaper interview, repeat your main point several times and make it the focus of the interview. And in broadcast interviews, resist the temptation to tell everything you know. Just repeat the "headline" over and again, because that's what will get on TV or the radio. Even when giving a speech, you ought to think about the "headline" and make sure you communicate it clearly and concisely.