I recently heard from a client with a message-platform problem. The problem wasn’t that he didn’t have a message platform. He had a brilliant platform. (I know, because I wrote it ;-)

The problem was that he couldn’t get his executive team to use it.

Sound familiar?

Corporate messaging: a moving target

Imagine my client’s frustration. Right after he took the job of marketing director, he discovered the company lacked cohesive, clear messaging. It was a sort-of message du jour that changed on the whim of personalities and situations.

So he convinced his executive team that it needed to speak with a unified voice. The team, including the CEO, the president and VPs, agreed to participate in a series of sessions, which I ran. The meetings were a success. Everyone participated. We got down to the existential core of who the company was, what made it unique and why customers should care.       

We were on a roll. I took the notes from pre-session homework and the meeting and created a first draft of five key messages. Working with the marketing director, we shared this draft with the team for their feedback. I then created a second draft containing statements for the company’s mission, vision, positioning, unique value proposition, key messages, and proof points.

We again shared this with the team. A few diligent folks got back to us right away. A few got sidetracked (perhaps an omen). Eventually, the marketing director gave me the go-ahead to proceed to final draft.

I spent another couple of days sculpting the messaging. I hammered and chiseled until the platform took final shape. The language was clear, concise, compelling. There might even have been a few great lines. I was proud to hand it off.

Who’s following the script?

A couple of months later, I started getting concerned. I’d checked the company’s website and collateral. No sign of any changes. So I checked in with my client. Did the platform solve the original problem of lacking a cohesive, unified message? Yes.

So, were all the executives using it? Was it showing up in corporate collateral and social media? Was it being repeated in the trade press?

You know the answers: No, no and no.

The message platform sat on the digital shelf, collecting virtual dust. Among the reasons the executives gave was that the company operated in a dynamic marketplace and couldn’t be held to a static message. But what company doesn’t operate in a changing marketplace? Plus, the messaging was intended to be flexible enough to have an extended shelf life.

I was bummed. The marketing director was even more bummed.

Putting the cart before the horse

There was plenty of blame to go around. I could have spent more time explaining the purpose and use of a messaging platform to the executive team. The marketing director could have learned more about internal politics and influence.

In hindsight, the message platform was the cart that came before the horse. We needed the CEO (or another key executive) to drive the initiative. It’s a top-down thing. The CEO must buy in to the need for a unified messaging platform, inspire his or his executive team to subscribe to it and then enforce the discipline to use it.

Instead, the marketing director led the executive team to the water but couldn’t make them drink.

The lesson learned? Make sure you have a champion in the C-suite who understands and supports the need for a message platform and has the clout or charisma to make it happen. Do this first, before you write one word of copy.

Otherwise, you’re putting pretty words on paper that will never see the light of day.