Like a house of cards, a marketing message takes a long, painstaking time to build up--yet only moments to knock down.

Sometimes, all it takes is a one little piece of thoughtless communication that contradicts your marketing message. Before you know it, your company is being ridiculed in 90-point caps across the newspapers and becomes cyberbitch of the month across all your industries' most influential newsgroups and discussion lists.

Message neatly massacred. Brand duly blitzkrieged.

A gem of a problem

This is an extreme example, but some years ago a British retail jewelry magnate named Gerald Ratner made a joking yet derisive comment about his company's products during an after-dinner speech.

The press picked it up. And by the next day, customers nationwide were deeply offended. Within a week, business in all of his retail outlets (there was a Ratner's on nearly every British "High Street") had dried up to mere shadows of their former sales figures.

Ratner's stock values similarly dried up after another few days. Eventually, so did Ratner. And all for a few ill-chosen words.

Little things matter

Of course, the boss is highly accountable. His comments carry far more weight that those uttered by a disgruntled young Marvin in Customer Service. If Marvin does it the damage may only be a trickle rather than a stream, but trickles can be an expensive pain. (Remember the last time you had a leaking pipe at home?)

Even so, Marvin writing or saying something offhanded/snooty/too friendly/too formal/illiterate/etcetera can make your marketing message look embarrassingly one-dimensional and fatuous. And luck being what it is--Marvin only does it once, but he'll do it to your most important customer.

"We try harder" (sorry, Avis) wouldn't ring very true if you're five minutes late to pick up a desperately-needed rental car and you find a note on the door saying "Gone home, try tomorow (sic)." One--that's not trying harder. And two-–spelling matters, because it reflects on your company's credibility.

What you can do

So, how do you ensure consistency throughout the organization and avoid human nature's natural propensity for rather romantic interpretations of your marketing message?

Here are some suggestions.

1. Above all else, remember that message consistency is not just about using the company letterhead or email sig file. The message has to work for everyone in the organization and be a part of their psyche. They have to believe, so give them something they can believe.

2. Appoint someone--the right someone--as message consistency champion. The consistency champion must be not only someone with the ability to ensure consistency of message across departments, but also someone who has the corporate grunt to make it happen.

3. Train, train, train and share information. Don't bamboozle your staff with marketing-speak. Talk to them in real terms, because they're real people. Work out how the various groups and departments should implement the marketing messages in what they do and show them how to do it. Don't leave it to them. They don't get paid to be creative. You do.

4. You should ensure that people who understand marketing messages at a spoken level can also write them down. Often they can't make the switch between spoken and written. Training in business writing helps overcome the problem (see below).

5. In a larger company create a communications "manual" that lays down how messages should be interpreted and implemented across all departments who put out company messages. And please, make sure everyone can relate to it. No corporate cotton wool or BS.

6. Ensure that any tweaks or changes you make to marketing messages are properly and fully communicated to every department who needs to know--not just the marketing department.

7. When recruiting employees who will be communicating with people outside the company (inside's important, too) find out if the "good communication skills" on their resumé means just that--not simply that they tell good jokes after a few beers.

8. Invest in some basic training in business writing skills for ALL employees who will write stuff, even internally. That can include secretaries, technical people, despatch/delivery/logistics staff, accounts/credit controllers, HR staffers, trainers, sales and after sales people, etc. The right kind of business writing training won't just teach them how to write for written or spoken communication messages. It will also help them organize their thoughts so your messages work across everything they issue. Bear that in mind when you're selecting courses, books, and so on.

And if you follow all of the above?

Well, it may not mean your house of cards is set in concrete.

But it'll stand up to much stronger winds than the company whose sales people imply one message and whose delivery people imply another one and whose technical support people imply yet another.

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Suzan St Maur ( writes extensively on marketing and business communications and is the author of the widely acclaimed Powerwriting.