The Message House is a long-established part of the PR toolbox. Its attractiveness for communicators is in its central purpose – to focus communications on simple, effective and structured messages. After first encountering the technique, I was immediately sold on it – so much so, it became the name of my business! Yet whilst still a much valued tool, I think there are ways the Message House method could be improved to ensure communications are even more effective.
For those not familiar, the traditional Message House is typically constructed in three parts. First comes the ‘roof’, which is the overall theme or idea. Then the ‘walls’ are created. These are the main messages which will form the heart of the communication and, as is typical in comms, there are usually three of them. Finally, we create the ‘foundations’. These are the facts, proof points or arguments on which the messages depend.
It may be a bit of a strange way to build a house, as we shall see later, but the Message House approach does have its advantages. It is extremely flexible and adaptable: you can apply it to the CEO’s speech just as much as the planning for a major product rebrand. It’s also relatively easy to create and straight-forward for people to follow. Indeed, most PR professionals use the approach because it provides a discipline and focus to their organisations’ communications. If everyone in your company follows the Message House structure, there should be a greater likelihood that the messages used will be consistent, flow naturally and make sense.
As an example, imagine you are in charge of the launch of a product, let’s say a new mobile phone. The core strength of the product is in its sleek design and its cheaper price point, so the roof of your Message House would be something like: “Affordability and desirability come together with our new smartphone”.
Underneath the theme would sit the core messages – how the design of the phone has been crafted with the input of the world’s top fashion designer, how it is more cost effective than competitors, how it advances beyond other phones, etc.
The foundations would then include facts about the design, the price differential between it and rivals, and so on.
With this Message House, all spokespeople and creative teams could be briefed about the product launch simply and effectively, enabling a consistent approach across all channels.
I’m obviously a big fan of the Message House but I also sense some limitations with the traditional approach.
For one thing, it tends to build communications from the inside out. It starts with us, what we want to say, the key things that matter from our perspective. The audience doesn’t particularly feature in this structure.
Traditional Message Houses are also built from the top down. We start with the roof and end with the foundations. Apart from the obvious sense that this is an unusual approach to construction, it has always seemed to me to be a less effective way to build good messages.
Finally, the Message House is a useful tool but I’ve always felt there are some elements missing. It tells me the key theme, for example, but not where to start or how to introduce it. It also can feel a bit formulaic and compartmentalised, lacking a language that connects all elements.
Over the years, I’ve wanted to make some modifications to the traditional Message House approach. They change not only the way to create a Message House but also what to include in it.
First, step one is to establish the foundations, not the roof. An effective Message House should rest on a shared issue, theme or concern that make our communication relevant to our audience. So to create the foundations, we need to ask the questions “Why should our audience care? What is it that we want to talk about that connects with them and their perspectives?”
This could be an insight or an idea that we have uncovered through research, or something that has originated from the wider culture, news or social media. The key is that it connects what our audience cares about and what we want to communicate.
So in the example of the new mobile phone, the foundation could be built around the insight that consumers today want phones that say something about the sort of person they are: cool, fashion-focused and innovative.
To be clear, this foundation is not necessarily where we would begin our communications. But it is where we begin the process of creating our communications, the first building blocks to a new Message House.
With this foundation, the walls go up next. As with the traditional approach, these are the key arguments and messages you want to deploy, but rather than being evidence for our theme or ‘roof’, they need to be the arguments that most credibly connect us to the founding ideas.
So with our new mobile phone, we could talk about the cool design of the phone, how it includes new innovative technology and how our affordable price makes it accessible to our target audience. Evidence and data should be included here too, as they are often effective ways to build credibility. So we could talk about the design awards the phone has won, how its new power system provides 50% longer battery life, etc.
These walls, you will notice, are not radically different from those created in the traditional approach. But small changes in tone and approach do matter. Rather than making our product messages only fit around our product, we have made them also fit around what people want. Sometimes these two things can be radically different.
Finally, the roof goes on last. The roof is the simple and digestible summary of the key arguments we have created, the sound bite if you like, no longer beginning with us but resting on what we and our audiences both share in common. It goes on last because it can only be properly written at the end, when you have created all the other elements.
Approaching the construction of a Message House this way, starting bottom-up rather than top-down, makes for more credible and relevant Message Houses, and also enables each element to feel more connected.
There are a couple of other features that I would add to our new Message House.
The first is ‘wiring’. One of the flaws with the traditional approach is that it tends to compartmentalise the messages, with the different elements lacking a sense of interconnection. So our new house needs ‘wiring’, that is, words, phrases, images and ideas that sit almost hidden under the surface of the communication but are woven into everything that is said.
In some of the best speeches, for example, you will usually find the repetition of phrases, metaphors or facts. Although these may not directly feature in the traditional Message House, they are an important part of how the messages are communicated. Our new Message House should provide a map of the ‘wires’ so that our communicators know the sort of language and ideas they should be trying to reference throughout.
Finally, our house needs a front door. The traditional Message House approach implies you begin your communications with the ‘roof’. It seems logical in the workshop room, but once in front of a camera, it’s quickly apparent most effective communicators don’t talk like that. They usually start with an anecdote or a story that introduces the idea they want to discuss.
Our ‘front door’ is the way we want people to first experience the Message House. The best ‘front door’ might be a personal anecdote, a quotation or a compelling data point. We should help communicators think about what these could be, so they have an idea of where to begin their communications.
The Message House is a long-standing tool of smart communicators. Its durability is a result of its simplicity and its effectiveness. I am one of its biggest advocates. However I think it is not beyond improvement. With some modifications, hopefully the Message House will remain a core and valuable PR technique for many years to come.
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