strategy

The overreach trap: best practices for avoiding PR fails

Christine O'Connor | February 3, 2022
PR tips for avoiding the overreach trap

If your PR team bugs you with long lists of questions that you feel have obvious answers, or circles back to clarify fine points of issues you’ve hashed out, try not to get exasperated. Instead, consider it a sign that you’re in good hands.

Audiences are increasingly sophisticated and skeptical of brands’ sustainability and impact claims. Yet many communications teams fall into the overreach trap, building messaging based on promises that sound great, but don’t stand up to rigorous questioning. That’s a bad mix.

In a noisy media environment and a general climate of distrust, PR practitioners—in-house and outside—should be working on overdrive to make communications crystal clear and credible. As pros at rooting out inconsistencies and clarifying the inscrutable, we’ve formulated these best practices:

1. Don’t let the talk get ahead of the walk

Even well-meaning organizations slip into promoting ambitions rather than actions or accomplishments. But while it may feel good in the moment to commit to a net-zero emissions pledge or to increasing your team’s racial or gender diversity, organizations that do so without concrete plans to reach that goal set themselves up for public failure. The same goes for touting, say, soaring growth numbers when the CEO believes they’ll happen as opposed to when they actually have happened.

Act first and talk later is the best policy. That way, your organization will have something to show for its claims rather than having to play catch-up with your audience’s expectations.

2. Show your work

The best way to prove a point is to back it up with concrete, specific data. Direct evidence builds credibility, while vague claims inspire skepticism.

Communicators should focus on the strengths or core aspects that make a product, service or initiative stand out, and then make the strongest statement evidence will support—no more. Sustainability achievements need context to be meaningful and credible, and benefits claims should be true in real-world situations.

3. Rigorous adherence to facts (no fudging) is fundamental

Accuracy requires sticking to the truth, of course, but also taking care not to cherry-pick information in a way that creates a false impression. The best way to avoid this overreach trap is to fact check every claim, and then check it again.

If your PR team doesn’t do this, you run the risk of being publicly called out. Trust is valuable, and it’s  difficult to regain once lost. If a claim feels dodgy, communicators should trust their gut, ditch the questionable language and move on.

4. Don’t succumb to the curse of knowledge

Experts easily fall into the trap of knowing so much about their field that they have trouble sharing what they know with non-experts. Their message ends up so larded with jargon and technicalities, audiences miss the point—and may think the obfuscation is intentional.

It doesn’t matter how innovative your solution or product is if the people it’s designed for don’t understand how or why it works. A details-obsessed PR team can help ensure that your messaging is both factual and accessible. Audiences reward straight talk, and brand communications that are clear and concise sound trustworthy.

If you’re working with a PR team that accepts everything you say at face value, consider whether you’re getting the message testing you deserve. While their acceptance may save you time and headaches in the short-term, your brand could suffer in the long run.

Conversely, PR teams that ask the same question three different ways and triple check your statistics and findings may occasionally be annoying. But they’re working hard to help you avoid the overreach trap and make sure your claims stand up to your audience’s—and the media’s—eagle eye.

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