The importance of owning your message

Never before has owning the narrative about your organization been as important as it is today

The notion that the current landscape of business marketing and communications is far different than anything we had experienced even five years ago is an obvious observation.

Digital platforms have created an unprecedented level of access and transparency to organizations that used to set the terms of the conversation. “Please call our customer service line between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time Monday through Friday and someone will be with you in the order your call was received” has abruptly shifted to a world where complaint tweets receive a response at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night and customer service representatives are standing by to chat by phone, text message or web forum any time a customer reaches for their mobile device.

Brands are also no longer allowed to be passive participants in the broader community. Where an annual fundraiser or blood drive used to be sufficient “community involvement” for many companies, 2019 brands are expected to tie their work to an authentic mission and engage in both dialogue and action that support those efforts. Recent high profile efforts by Nike, Gillette, REI and Pampers are just a few examples of how the current marketplace pushes companies not to simply provide a good product, but to position that product and their entire brand in a broader context of social and civic discourse.

Finally, the rapid proliferation of digital platforms and ease with which the average consumer can publish content mean brands are no longer a mystery. Online review sites, blogs and the “influencer culture” make it laughably easy for intimate details of how an organization operates to be shared publicly. In some cases, this can also allow organizations to spread false or misleading information about others to serve an ulterior motive, and it is harder than we ever could have guessed to spot the truth from fiction.

For all of these reasons, never before has owning the narrative about your organization — for-profit, nonprofit, governmental or otherwise — been as important as it is in today’s business climate.

That’s not to say that your organization is responsible for, or even capable of, fully controlling everything that is said about you in the marketplace. However, given the current climate of access and transparency, it is critical that brands of all sizes and background recognize how and where your organization can participate in the conversation and what steps are the most important when it comes to reinforcing who you are, what your mission may be and addressing what the public perceives you to be.

I’ve been fortunate to observe this evolving landscape, as well as the various players involved, from a variety of perspectives through my career — first as a journalist, then as an advisor and counselor at multiple strategic communications agencies and now as the communications director for the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, where I engage in a variety of community conversations on behalf of the Trust and several partner organizations and nonprofits. In my experience, organizations that successfully “own” their message in the public space, follow four primary principles:

Be transparent about who you are and what you do. If the public does not know who you are or what you do, it is a fair bet that someone will try to explain your mission for you. This can often have negative effects by either creating confusion or even false impressions about your organization. Identify opportunities through your website, social media and other platforms to share your mission and message.

Listen. Though not all feedback is created equal or should carry equal weight — for example, someone who complains because they dislike the color tie you wear likely does not have as much impact on your company’s success as a customer who endured a negative experience at your store — it is incumbent on every organization to invest in gathering and listening to feedback from stakeholders. This feedback is the compass that tells you if your organization is on course for success or heading for disaster.

Engage. It is understandable that, in today’s climate where a single social media post can touch off a global firestorm, brands hesitate to step out with a public statement on any matter. But the potential risk of saying the wrong thing pales in comparison to the risk of saying nothing and being considered disconnected or inauthentic. Consumers will support you and provide feedback if you work to engage in a productive, authentic dialogue.

Ask for help. Communications can be an overwhelming process for those who are not familiar with the nuances of an ever-evolving landscape. Don’t be afraid to reach out to support resources, such as partner organizations or a strategic communications agency, for help evaluating your position in the market and identifying an appropriate plan of action.

Colby Reade is the director of communications for the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. He can be reached at