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Legs-it distraction: what women should wear

Legs-it: what should women leaders wear?

Legs-it was the clever caption on The Daily Mail front page photo of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon showing a lot of leg last week. An article that prompted a great deal of coverage. As was widely noted at the time, the picture and cheeky headline received a great deal more attention than the substance of these powerful women’s frosty meeting or the issues surrounding it.

 

Legs-it distraction: what women should wear

 

Legs-it prompted a storm of twitter protest

As well as mainstream media there was a storm of Twitter protest with a lot of big names weighing in. From a journalists point of view it is all good clean fun and it will certainly have helped to sell newspapers.
 
Legs-it distraction: what women should wear
Among the more intelligent and thoughtful comments there was this from Jo Ellison at the FT – generally bemoaning the obsession with any woman’s physical assets, whilst bizarrely arguing that studying and commenting on their clothes is helpful and legitimate. That article led me to a much more interesting FT piece by novelist Joanna Trollope, on how women in the city no longer dressed in a modified masculine style and how the tech revolution has fuelled a fashion revolution in the corridors of power.
 

Legs-it PR lessons

There are a couple of PR lessons that jumped out at me from the legs-it furore.

First, I think short skirts are a nightmare in any context involving cameras and sitting down. I don’t mean just mini-skirts but even on-the-knee skirts will ride up when you sit.
 
It’s okay at a wedding when almost all shots will be whilst standing. But – as this picture demonstrates – once a woman sits the dominant visual element is the legs. (Flesh coloured legs are to my mind much more distracting than the coloured tights favoured by many younger women.) So among all the much more important affairs of business it is worth giving these things a thought. This is not a huge ask because almost all female leaders think about appropriate dress code every day. There are a huge range of risks and sensitivities that have to be navigated and it is all part of the job. It had not occurred to me until I was reading about this but Angela Merkel always wears trousers, apparently deliberately avoiding the sort of distraction evidenced by May and Sturgeon. Hillary Clinton is another powerful woman who, years ago, took on board the practicality of trousers and became queen of the pantsuit. 
 
Secondly, I would point out that, to get this shot, the cameraman would have had to stoop quite low, literally as well as figuratively. If you were the PR minder, you should have been thinking about that. Minders can and do step in although this is another fraught area as you don’t want to become part of the story.
 
Of course, serious professional women should not be judged on what they wear or the shape of their legs. It is a nonsense and sexist. But I am inclined to think boys will be boys and journalists will be journalists and we don’t have to condone it to want to avoid the situation in the first place.
 
So here are my takeaways:
  • As ever, what you wear and how you look should be controlled to ensure it is not a distraction. No dangly earrings, no flamboyant jewelry, no crazy shoes and men should avoid hilarious ties or bright socks.
  • Serious women might consider avoiding knee length skirts if they are going to be filmed or photographed sitting down. Men should avoid short socks that will show too much hairy leg between sock and trouser when sitting down.
  • If you are the PR man or woman – think about controlling the shot. What is in front, what is behind and what is the angle of the cameras.
In the end this is the sort of story that is tomorrow’s chip-paper as used to be said. But remember the media – even at their worst – really only reflect the society we live in. So while Guardian and FT readers will be genuinely exercised by the substance of the niftily named indyref2, an awful lot of others would have been thinking what a lot of leg! And that is a distraction from the important bit of the story.
Hilary Benn s Impassioned Speech Ahead Of Syria Airstrikes Vote YouTube

A great speech dissected

The speech of the week in the UK was without doubt the one by the shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn in parliament in favour of air strikes in Syria.

He spoke for just under 15 minutes:  here is a sample of the reaction to what he said:

Reaction

The Telegraph called it ‘spine-tingling’ and ‘inspiring’. The Guardian found it ‘riveting’. The Daily Mail said it was ‘electric’ and ‘one of the great Commons speeches’. Huffington Post said it was ‘eloquent and poetic’. And perhaps most telling of all, Philip Hammond, Britain’s Foreign Secretary – the man who sits opposite Benn on the political benches – called it ‘one of the truly great speeches in parliamentary history’.

So for us students of effective communication it is worth analysing why this speech had such impact, both in parliament and across the nation.

Not a rabble rouser

The first thing I would observe is that the speech is inclusive. This is not a rabble rouser. Instead Benn carefully builds affinity with his key audiences.

He does this first by giving the Prime Minister a very strong telling-off for insulting Jeremy Corbyn and suggesting he was a ‘terrorist sympathiser’. Benn restates his respect for his boss, saying he is not a terrorist sympathiser but  an ‘honest, principled, decent, good man’.  This establishes the fact that although Benn is going to disagree with Corbyn and side with the Conservative government, he is not changing sides and the issue is not personal.

Then, in a rather long-winded way, he makes reference to other speakers in the debate, praising contributions from both sides of the argument. More evidence of inclusiveness.

Key Message 

His key message comes at about five minutes in: ‘I believe that we have a moral and a practical duty to extend the action we are already taking in Iraq to Syria’.

Tower of Logic

This is followed by a fairly detailed and very logical look at whether the proposed military action is legal. This is tedious but a crucial foundation of his argument as many in the House of Commons today question whether Britain’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq was legal. ‘Proving’ that airstrikes in Syria would be legal is the first brick in the tower of logic Benn seeks to build through the speech.

Emotional appeal 

After the legal question he shakes things up with an emotional appeal. As he expresses horror at the actions of ISIL (or Da’esh), we get to a very powerful part of the speech. Benn uses three ‘colourful’ examples first:

– Four gay men thrown from the fifth storey of a building.

– The beheading of the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra.

– And the mass graves of Yazidi women killed because they were judged too old to be sold for sex.

Having delivered the ‘colour’ he then delivers the numbers – people killed by Da’esh:

– 30 British tourists in Tunisia

– 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane

– 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc

– 130 people in Paris

…ending this section ‘they could have been our children’. (Note the ‘our’; not ‘your’ or ‘anyone’s’, or ‘British’.) People who have worked with us know that we always look to build in both colour and numbers to our client’s arguments.

Benn then continued to take on, one by one, the other key pillars of the debate: why Britain should not stand aside; why the argument that ‘air strikes achieve nothing’ is wrong, and how Britain could both continue to work for peace in Syria and send bombing forays against Da’esh. Each step was clear and logical, building brick by brick the case for extended military action.

Fascists and contempt

The final few minutes of the speech are the most powerful. Much of the comment has focused on Benn’s evocation of the Second World War fight against Fascists.

‘Here we are faced by Fascists…’ he says. It is strong but I was more struck by his repeated use of the word ‘contempt’. Somehow it was this that, in the moment, stiffened my sinews and evoked my disgust.

‘They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt.’

Benn finishes the speech with a short, staccato rallying cry, couched in simple, colloquial language.

And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria.’

Rhetoric can change history

Expert rhetoric does not mean the argument is right. But those of us spending our lives trying to find the right words, the right analogies and the right tone to build arguments must pause and reflect when someone hits the mark as Hilary Benn did last week. It is also a reminder of the power of rhetoric. This speech probably did not change the outcome of the debate but it may well have changed the trajectory of Hilary Benn’s career and the future of the Labour party.