Strategic Communications is a Game of Telephone

3 min read

At some point in our much younger years, we’ve all played the game of telephone. Sitting in a circle of your peers, one person whispers something to their neighbor, who ostensibly repeats the same phrase to their neighbor, who does the same, until the message works its way back around to the original messenger. Invariably, the message at the end of the chain bears little or no resemblance to the initial message.

One boy whispering to another, much like communications  (Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Lambert/Getty Images)

One boy whispering to another, much like communications (Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Lambert/Getty Images)

This simple game conveys an important fact of life: human beings tend to play it a little loose with the truth. Humans, of course, can’t be expected to reproduce messages with the accuracy of a tape recorder, but even the best intentioned of us will inevitably filter the things we hear and read through our own ears and eyes. Sometimes we convey things inaccurately because we’ve misremembered a detail, and sometimes it’s because what we heard conflicts with what we previously thought. Strategic communications must grapple with this fact.

The challenge for strategic communications professionals is to do everything within our power to ensure that the message that comes out at the end of the chain is as close to the original message as possible. This is no easy task, of course. All communications pros have stories of seeing their messages, even the hard facts underlying their messages, badly misstated. That is simply a fact of life. Our job is, frequently, to convey a large amount of information to others – reporters, clients, investors – who generally don’t have the time to digest it all completely.

This is why messaging is of such primal importance. It can be tiring to repeat the same few points over and over again. But the unfortunate reality is that for whatever small shift you make in the original message, what comes out the other side is likely to have moved even more. There is nothing strategic about having a message du jour.

Once you’ve developed your message, your outreach should stick closely to it. Promulgating your message means repeating it, over and over, whether singing it from the hills or whispering it to your neighbor. Prepare one-pagers that you can easily share with your clients and colleagues so that everyone is, literally, working off the same page with the same message. Anyone with a responsibility for external interactions should know the messages. The more that the message shapes the way that your company or client is talked about, the more likely it is that it will be reproduced accurately down the line.

As a strategic communications pro you must recognize that getting a message out is like playing a giant, unending game of telephone. However, when you play the game, you have the benefit of concluding the game with a clarifying moment where the original messenger tells everyone what they were meant to hear. That won’t happen in the real world. Certainly you can point out to a reporter a specific fact they misprinted, but you won’t be able to adjust the frame of the conversation around your company once it has already been set.