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The OCR Glossary

Message Design

Peter M. Smudde

Message design is the common ground for all corporate communication, especially that concerning reputation management. Message design, in short, concerns creating and then sharing the central idea(s) about something for people to perceive, remember, embrace, and apply. This entry discusses three areas of message design that pertain to reputation management: (1) the philosophy behind it (i.e., why it works), (2) the methodology of it (i.e., how to make it work), and (3) the tools to use it (i.e., what is needed to do the work).

Philosophy Behind Message Design

Why must messages be designed thoughtfully? There are many reasons; chief among them is concern for others and how they might respond. This concern stems from a profound and ancient area of thought: rhetoric. From the Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman philosophers to contemporary rhetoricians, the use and misuse of language and symbols have been a source of great interest, research, debate, and advice.

Many definitions of rhetoric have been proffered, ranging from the equation with persuasion to the enactment of human communication. While these definitions tend to state how rhetoric works (i.e., how we can know it when we see it in operation), they do not assert what rhetoric is existentially (i.e., what it is in its essence). Rhetoric, then, is the inherent quality, characteristic, or feature of human language and symbol use and misuse. So in terms of the philosophy behind message design, rhetoric is it, and purpose gives it focus, whatever purpose is at play. In other words, rhetoric is the capability of language and symbols to fulfill one or more purposes. Language and symbols are used in particular ways at particular times for particular reasons for particular people for particular ends. In this way, messages may be focused on purposes, such as persuasion, education, entertainment, information, celebration, caution, remembrance, and so on.

Common across all purposes, however, is one overarching purpose: identification. In every subordinate purpose, the ultimate objective is for people to see themselves in a message through common ground shared with others and opportunities for cooperation, however great or small.

Instrumental in establishing identification, such as inspiring cooperation between an organization and its publics/stakeholders when managing corporate reputations, are the special purposes of (1) gaining attention, (2) raising awareness, (3) bolstering attitudes, and (4) resulting in a desired action. Note that all four special purposes are vital in effective message design. One is rarely, if ever, enough, as one can be used to build toward another, especially to lead to behaviors that fulfill defined communication objectives. Any of these special purposes can and should be the basis of good communication objectives that each message, in a single statement, (a) focus on one effect (i.e., attention, awareness, attitude, or action) that is (b) measured against a goal (i.e., target, measurable amount) that is (c) sought within a target audience by (d) a particular date. When it comes to message design, within and beyond matters of reputation management, rhetoric is its philosophical foundation.

Methodology of Message Design

How should messages be designed effectively? Rhetoric, the philosophy behind message design, is the essential, strong foundation for the methodology of message design. Two things are essential to a methodology of message design: process models and research. Process models for message design are very useful and offer insightful ways to conceive of and, especially, execute (even manage) the work to design and share messages within the context of any communication effort. Organizations that employ these models (and others) enable professional communicators to investigate their reputations, obtain actionable information, and engage in sound decision making about what to do. Particular kinds of situations, such as crises, are addressed on their own terms in specific models. All models thrive on research and the data gained from it to design effective messages.

The importance of research, the second of the two essential components of a methodology for message design, cannot be overstated. Research provides information that is formative to the message design process. Research for message design is fundamental and revolves around answering basic questions about (a) what needs to be said, which concerns matters of content, language, and tone; (b) who needs or wants to hear what is said, which concerns knowing the audience; (c) why say it, which is a matter of purpose; (d) how to say it, which concerns rhetoric plus choices for discourse genres and communication channels; and (e) when to say it, which is a matter of timing. Answers to these questions can be best acquired through one or both of two research approaches.

First is primary research, which is original research an organization either does itself or employs someone to do in order to use the data, findings, and conclusions. Examples include audience research conducted through surveys, interviews, ethnography, focus groups, or owned data about customers, markets, and sales. Another example is content analysis of an organization’s own discourse, media coverage, competitors’ discourse, particular audiences’ and stakeholders’ public communication, and Web/social media analytics, among others. Still another example that is highly potent but rarely used is rhetorical analysis, which relies on one’s professional expertise and systematic application of a rhetoric theory to any discourse by anyone (a method very similar to the analysis of literature). Targets for this kind of analysis can be an organization’s own communication or the communication from competitors, news media, government bodies, and so on. Another useful category of primary research involves situation analysis tools, such as a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, gap analysis, force field analysis, or order restoration.

All these approaches, used individually or together for good message design, can be instrumental in effective environmental scanning, or gathering information from the external environment for management and strategic decision making. There are pros and cons to primary research. The pros are that it is focused exclusively on a situation and organization, creates the method needed to fit the degree of complexity or simplicity, and provides full control over and ownership of the study. The cons are that it requires unique approaches, can be expensive depending on its complexity, and is usually completed over a long period of time (from project design through data analysis and reporting).

The second approach is secondary research, which is the use of already published and publicly available research on pertinent subjects. Examples of secondary research include cases about similar organizations in similar situations, reports on award-winning communication efforts, organizations’ published reports or white papers about pertinent topics, articles in journals and periodicals, seminars or conference sessions, case books, and textbooks. Secondary research can reveal best practices of what has worked exceptionally well for other organizations that may be applicable to an organization.

Additional sources for secondary research apply to audience analysis and can take advantage of studies from the U.S. Census, Nielsen Corporation, Arbitron, any publication’s data about itself and its subscribers, and so on. Secondary research for environmental scanning can reveal much about what an organization faces through information from media coverage (traditional and digital), industry organizations and associations, financial and industry analysts, community leaders, and defined publics of any kind. There are pros and cons to secondary research too. It is relatively easy to do and can focus on specific research questions, is inexpensive because it involves using existing resources, and is completed as needed and in a short time span (similar to a literature review). However, it relies on assumptions about the similarity between a given situation and case examples, while there may be significant differences in context (e.g., economy, attitudes, and events). In addition, the information from secondary research may be limited to only reported, public information.

Tools for Writing and Sharing Messages

So what is needed to write and share messages effectively? Organizations that employ the message design principles and practices effectively are the ones that communicate best with publics and stakeholders. The writing of messages, then, is not as simple as it seems because the best, most effective messages are well designed through a solid philosophical grounding and a sound methodological approach as explained in the previous sections. The means for obtaining results from that philosophy and methodology are found in two principal cabinets of tools for writing and sharing messages: message formation and message framing.

The first cabinet of message formation concerns deciding what to say (key messages) and how to say it (discourse)—all based on the philosophy and methodology of message design. One tool is form. In fact, in message design, like many creative endeavors, form follows function. The matters of rhetoric come into play because what can be used to convey a message must be used for a purpose and an audience. In this vein, there are two types of messages that apply, like having two different kinds of screwdrivers.

The first type is rhetorical genres, and they include apologia (enacted in self-defense when confronted with accusations of wrongdoing), apocalyptic (enacted to prophesy end times), jeremiad (enacted to appeal to first principles to inspire a return to core values), utopian (enacted to envision an ideal state of affairs), introduction (enacted to present someone or something for the first time or at the outset of some occasion), appreciation (enacted in thanksgiving), award (enacted in the presentation of special recognition), and tributes (enacted to extol someone or something). The second type is discourse genres, and it subsumes the many different kinds of documents, texts, and other means of communication that professional communicators may use (at least 41 of them), all of which are expected to uphold established rules, or conventions, about all aspects of their design, content, utility, and so on.

The next tool in the message formation cabinet is a key message platform (KMP). A KMP is made up of two parts. First is the formal and concise statement of what the central idea is for all communication about something (i.e., theme, slogan, or thesis). The second part is a small and compelling set of proof points that argumentatively support the central idea. A KMP works as the single source for the core messages that can be reflected and augmented in any effective and ethical way in any text. A very useful approach to ensure that messages “stick” in people’s minds is Chip and Dan Heath’s SUCCES approach: Messages should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and stories. The effectiveness of messages, then, relies on a number of interrelated factors of rhetorical choices.

In the other cabinet of tools for message design—message framing—the focus is on writing what needs to be said in specific and ethical ways that balance organizational and audience perspectives. Five particular tools work here. The first is rhetorical or literary devices, which are numerous and include a wide range of techniques for ethically using language (e.g., ambiguity, anecdote, irony, metaphor, synecdoche) to fulfill particular purposes. The second tool is rhetorical appeals, which involves the matters of logos, ethos, and pathos. The third tool is culture, which includes shared values, rules, norms, tales, policies, procedures, discourse, symbols, rites, rituals, and so on—all of which reveal matters of importance for effective communication. The fourth tool is storytelling, which is especially potent because, as Walter Fisher argues, humans are storytelling animals who like and need to draw others together (i.e., establish identification) through the tales that are told. In today’s digital world, authentic storytelling is especially potent and a matter of joining conversations. The fifth and final tool is search engine optimization, which entails, after preparing the content of any discourse on the basis of the approach explained in this entry, analyzing the content for the presence (or absence) of key words that would be beneficial to making the discourse rise to the top of any web search. Skillful revision of the original content to include key words or phrases in the text and in metatags that would result in strong search engine results would, then, be done to optimize the discourse’s place in a web search.


Message design entails competence in critical areas so that what is said is effective and ethical for everyone concerned. Message design is, as it is for all corporate communication, at the heart of reputation management. Instrumental in the designing of a message are a firm philosophy to guide why it works (rhetoric); a sound methodology to guide how language, symbols, and discourse would be employed (process models and research); and useful tools to craft the content of any discourse so that the messages are shared effectively (message formation and framing). Message design ultimately enacts an ethical approach to creating and sharing key messages for audiences to perceive, remember, embrace, and apply—all to inspire cooperation between an organization and its publics.

Carroll, C. E., Greyser, S. A., & Schreiber, E. S. (2012). Reputation management: Building and maintaining reputation through communications. In C. L. Caywood (Ed.), The handbook of strategic public relations and integrated marketing communications (2nd ed., pp. 459–478). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fisher, W. R. (1987). Human communication as narration: Toward a philosophy of reason, value, and action. Charleston: University of South Carolina Press.

Golden, J. L., Berquist, G., Coleman, W., & Sproule, J. M. (2011). The rhetoric of Western thought: From the Mediterranean world to the global setting (10th ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2009). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York: Random House.

Smudde, P. M. (2015). Managing public relations: Methods and tools for achieving solid results. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smudde, P. M., & Courtright, J. L. (2012). Inspiring cooperation and celebrating organizations: Genres, message design and strategy in public relations. New York: Hampton Press.

Smudde, P. M., & Courtright, J. L. (2013). Form following function: Message design for managing corporate reputations. In C. E. Carroll (Ed.), Handbook of communication and corporate reputation (pp. 404–417). San Francisco, CA: Wiley-Blackwell.

See Also

Advertising; Agenda-Building Theory; Anticipatory Impression Management; Ethics of Reputation Management; Facework; Feedback; Impression Management Theory; Message Integrity; Messages; Noise; Paradoxes in Reputation Management; Political Positioning

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