Packaging the Message

Dr. Kathy B. Richardson
President, Westminster College

We’ve just come through a season of wrapping gifts, a season in which we search for the right packaging in which to fit the new shirt or the tiny ring or the basketball or the book.  It’s easy to find a shirt box that will fit the new shirt, but that may be deemed too obvious—too apparent. To build interest and excitement, we may try to be clever by putting the ring in a series of boxes so the recipient will have to work to unwrap box after box after box in order to get to the gift itself.  We may put the ring we purchased at the pawnshop in the box we’ve been saving from the famous jeweler hoping to convince the recipient that we had paid full price for the gift.  We may try putting the book in a box from a sporting goods store and the new shoes in a box from the bookstore. For large gifts too difficult to wrap, we may even employ a scavenger hunt to send recipients scampering from room to room before they can finally discover the bicycle or the basketball.

Communication Packages

Communicators have similar choices to make each time we cast a message. We can choose to wrap the message transparently—laying the truth out there with little shaping, putting the speech or release or statement out as simply and clearly as possible—just like wrapping a new shirt. That speeds the process and leaves little room for guessing or misunderstanding. Or, if we want to make the audience work a bit harder, perhaps we add extras, fancier wrapping papers, ribbons and adornments that will keep them busy longer before they have to get the actual news or information. Perhaps that will keep them engaged and help them feel flattered and honored.

Or, we can also hide the message inside a cascading series of announcements, releases, alerts, briefs or non-answers in hopes that the audience may just get lost or annoyed or distracted. Remember the fine print at the bottom of the advertisement or contract, or the too-rapid-for-comprehension information at the end of commercials? We may also wrap our messages in abstract language, jargon and icons incomprehensible to outsiders, and posts with multiple links to other posts with videos or illustrations that take so much time to load on people’s phones or computer that they give up in frustration. Our defense against those who would complain? The message is there: “See, you just didn’t look hard enough!”

And, there’s also the scavenger hunt approach: Social media posts with the tantalizing headline—the recontextualized photo—the frozen video: Clickbait designed to capture attention so that viewers will chase the message to a site where the message is framed, reframed, and disconnected so that it appears more urgent and shocking and palatable and sharable. It’s the digital use of the “But wait, there’s more!” advertising gambit used to spark flagging attention and prevent viewers or listeners or readers from turning away just yet.

Alternative Styles?

Wrapping messages is at the core of a communicator’s task, whether it involves designing the press kit announcing a new product, devising a catchy tagline to promote the product, staging a press conference to issue a statement, or writing the lead or headline for a breaking story. Undeniably, in a media-saturated and media-dependent culture where information flows from around the globe in an unending 24/365 cycle, few truths arrive without the packaging from reporters, editors, practitioners, spokespeople, videographers, and directors—even when we in the audience may be unaware or deceived about such origins. (Remember, some messages that come in branded boxes didn’t originate from there.) Terms such as yellow journalism, spin, puffery and fluff have been used to describe and criticize some of these efforts for decades. Recent political debates about facts and alternative facts resonate within such an environment and bring new attention to the process of selecting, representing, targeting, and disseminating news, opinion, and promotions. Audience reactions range from disingenuous belief to skepticism to anger and to avoidance. Indeed, many of the case studies in Media Ethics (10th edition) focus attention on the ethical issues arising from how stories are written and edited and how campaigns are designed and executed:  Does the shaping and crafting and packaging highlight the truth, or are the techniques and delivery mechanisms designed more to obfuscate, muddle, confuse, or disguise it?  In print, broadcast, digital, and personal delivery, how much shaping and wrapping is ethically defensible?

Professional Advice

One professional communication association spoke out last week to offer its members guidance in this area. Jane Dvorak, 2017 Chair of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), issued a statement on January 24, affirming that the “PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts.” (The full statement is available at http://media.prsa.org/news-releases/prsa-opinions-and-commentary/prsa-makes-statement-on-alternative-facts.) The statement reminds the organization’s members of the Society’s Code of Ethics, which highlights as the first element of the Code of Conduct, “Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society”

Wrapping It Up

The Code’s Core Values list includes “advocacy” but also includes honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness—all virtues that would rightfully and ethically be weighed when any communicator is making decisions about how to wrap the truth in a message for sending to an audience, regardless of whether one is a member of the PRSA, a journalist, an advertiser, or a social media friend or follower. The core principle of truth must not be left out of the message packages that are created. The wrappings may be designed for show, but they should not be designed for deception. The gift of truth from a communicator to an audience is too valuable to be lost in the display.