What is a Key Message in Public Relations? - A Closer Look

By Tiara Ogabang

Defining ‘key message’

What is a key message in public relations?  

Marketing and public relations professionals use many industry-specific terms to refer to important concepts that are a major part of their work. 

By design, many of these terms are fairly straightforward and make use of common sense. 

This is certainly the case with the term, ‘key message,’ which, in short, refers to a statement or idea that you and your client want to make to your target audience. 

A key message is generally very concise and, most importantly, easy to understand. Rather than expressing something very complex and heady, key messages cut to the heart of what you want to communicate with public relations efforts. 

In terms of how key messages are presented, they’re most commonly listed out on a page, generally three key messages to a page with supporting points for each. 

The first key message should be the most important and fundamental, and the subsequent key messages should be slightly more specific, elaborating on the main key message without getting into the fine-print details. 

Once a campaign has established a set of key messages, these messages can then be used to guide any and all marketing materials. 

If an ad or a press piece doesn’t communicate these key messages in some way, then they need to be reworked. 

That’s the basic definition for ‘key message’ that we’ll be using here. But since it’s much simpler to explain this idea by using examples, the remainder of this article will offer a few theoretical PR scenarios, and then provide good and bad key messages for each scenario. 

Scenario 1: A local nonprofit organization

Let’s say your client is Good Eats, a local nonprofit that provides meals to the elderly needs to increase brand awareness and raise funds for new outreach programs. 

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll say that the target audience for the campaign is the residents of the small town where they’re based, across all age groups and demographics.

A local nonprofit organization

Before you settle on ways of actually communicating with the local residents, you’ll need to decide on key messages for this campaign. 

Let’s start by looking at an example of a key message that WOULD NOT be very effective:

“Good Eats is working on brand new programs that need to be funded by contributions from the community, so we’d like everyone to pitch in and help others in the community.” 

While this message does reflect the underlying needs of the campaign, it’s also too long and does nothing to explain what Good Eats does or establish their credibility as an organization.   

In addition, a key message probably shouldn’t contain a request for funding upfront. That request will be part of communication with the community, but even then, it should follow behind more crucial information. 

Now let’s examine a fitting key message for this campaign: 

“Good Eats directly aids elderly members of our community.” 

Like all good key messages, this statement is not comprehensive, but it communicates the essentials of this campaign. 

It tells people what Good Eats does and at least implies that it’s a nonprofit organization. 

There’s plenty of room for elaboration as well, explaining exactly how Good Eats benefits the elderly and that they’re currently raising funds. 

The second key message might be something along the lines of: 

“Good Eats delivers healthy, tasty meals to seniors via a volunteer network.” 

This second key message explains precisely how the organization aids the elderly in the community and establishes that they do their work via volunteers. 

Scenario 2: A tech startup 

In this scenario, the client is a brand new tech startup called FRSH, hoping to disrupt the dry cleaning industry. 

They have devised a system where they can pick up clothes from customers’ homes, dry clean them, and deliver them within 24 hours. 

The biggest goal for their campaign is to get their name out there and reach their target audience, which is busy young professionals. 

An appropriate primary key message would be: 

“FRSH is the easiest way to get all your dry cleaning done.” 

This very simple statement highlights the company’s number one selling point: making a common task more convenient. 

Notice that it doesn’t claim the company is the cheapest way to get dry cleaning done or the fastest, just the easiest.

A tech startup

FRSH doesn’t want to highlight in their campaign that their service costs a bit more, just that it will make the lives of their customers easier. 

A second key message might be something like: 

“FRSH picks up and drops off your dry cleaning within 24 hours.” 

This describes the meat of the business, the service that’s actually being provided. 

It also provides the timeframe for the service, which in turn establishes accurate expectations for potential customers. 

A third key message can highlight the target audience:

“FRSH saves busy young professionals valuable time.” 

So if FRSH wants to make a video ad, providing the creative team with this list of key messages would be extremely helpful. 

The team could quickly shape the ad. For example, it would probably feature actors in their late-20s or early-30s. The ad would highlight just how busy daily life can be. 

Then, a FRSH worker swoops in to take something off their plate, suddenly giving those very busy actors some much-needed downtime. It could even show them wearing their freshly-cleaned clothes into the office. 

Closing notes 

As much as we’d like to tell you that the process of creating key messages is black and white, it’s really not. 

There’s room for interpretation in most cases, which is why we wanted to mention that collaboration with other team members, and especially with the client, is an extremely important aspect of creating key messages. 

Even the smallest misunderstanding could result in a subpar key message, which would then influence the creation of marketing materials that miss the mark. 

In fact, after seeing key messages spelled out, the client may second-guess one or two points, leading to an updated description of the goals for their campaign. 

When in doubt, ask for feedback from others. Key messages are crucial to PR campaigns, which is why it’s so important to get them right before moving forward.