Campaign Message Box Explained

protestor_originalThink campaign “message box”. The message game is played on a field where you turn your opponent’s strength into their weakness, and they try to turn their weaknesses into strengths. This wordplay of opposites is a message box at work, where some of the most memorable and sticky ideas come from. Deconstruct the most effective positioning in today’s communications, and you see message boxes everywhere.

Messages shape the way we think about people, products and policy.

  • 7-Up, the un-cola.
  • Avis, we try harder.


The 2008 Democratic primary is a perfect example of the message box at work. Candidates use the technique as a dance card to script the conversation with the voters and block out the debate.

A campaign message box lets them see around corners to anticipate what the other will say, and make plans to shift back to their positive message…or land the most biting response.

If you stay in your box, you win. If you are in their box, you lose. So you steer the conversation in a way that helps you tell the winning story. You do this leveraging your schedule, your visuals and your words. Punch with a negative. Pivot back to positive turf. And stay on message.

She is vetted, while he is untrustworthy. Meanwhile, he is a uniter while she polarizes and is plagued by the memory of scandals past. He says it is time for a change, that he is tired of the same DC games. She claims she is a battle-hardened fighter while he has his head in the clouds.

The 2004 presidential campaign message box illustrates another message dual. On leadership, from John Kerry’s point of view, he was “responsible” while George W. Bush was “stubborn”. From Bush’s point of view, he was “resolute” while Kerry was a “flip flopper”.

Four corners on the topic of leadership. What you hear and believe depends on where you stand.

Four corners are also found in the conversation on security and America’s global role in the 2004 race. Either Kerry personified courage while Bush was reckless, or Bush made America safer while Kerry put the nation in danger. Regarding our nation’s standing in the world, Kerry’s people called Bush a bully, while they promised America will be respected in the world. Bush said he offered freedom, while Kerry preached fear.

This is the nature of America’s conversation about these elections. The candidates aim their public events and paid advertising to woo us to their message. They define themselves in contrast with the competition.


Communicators often create memorable messages. But sometimes they fail because they forget what a message is, and what it is not. Message is a brief, value-based statement, aimed at a targeted audience that captures a positive concept. Message is not instructions, nor is it about process, facts, or issues.

A message is not “schools”, it is “learning”. It is not “crime”, it is “safety”. Notice how the value-based words convey emotion that packs a punch and stays with you, while the “issue” word leaves you stale. Facts can support a message, or illustrate it, but should never headline what you have to say. And process discussions are death to message campaigns. Feel your eyes glaze over noodling “how a bill becomes a law”?

When you use your best words and phrases to build a message box, you take good value-based language one step further. This box gives you a dance-card that frames the debate. Think of a four corner grid that lays out where you are versus the competition. All tussles use these four corners.

  • In one corner is your positive message: what do you say about yourself.
  • Next to it is your negative message: what you say about the competition.
  • Below is what your opponent says about themselves: their positive.
  • Finally there is what your opponent says about you: their negative.

As a media adviser, your job is to develop a message, and then stay on your turf – in your positive box! – and relegate your opponent to a negative box. Faced with a choice in tactics, as you engage your opponent and the target audience, the aim is persuasion. What if they attack your weakness? Winners counterattack, with one of theirs, and then bridge the conversation back to sell their own positive idea.


It is a simple four-step process to surface your gems with a value-based message box.

  1. First, select your primary text that you will deconstruct.
  2. Then circle and identify all the words that have impact and possibility for your message box.
  3. With your options visible, label each word or phrase as a positive, or a negative idea.
  4. Finally, get ruthlessly selective: pick the three most important ideas, looking for pairs that contrast. These choices go in different corners of your box, and you have it.

Understand the priority messages you need to deliver and also anticipate what the competition has to say. The words and phrases you select narrow to three at most. It is vital to be clear, concise and present your listener with contrasts and “choice”.

This technique is a powerful addition to any communicator’s toolkit. Whether you call it a media relations message box or a campaign message box, it works because it delivers expression that shines. A message box helps media relations because you break through the clutter so your message is not only heard, it persuades.