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How to survive a TV debate 1: Cameron the smooth

Those wanting to study how to survive a TV debate could do a lot worse than dissect the performance of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a high-profile, live-grilling on Sky News. However, the headlines Cameron got after his one hour marathon by both a political correspondent out to make his name and a live audience, were universally negative. The Week ran ‘Cameron mauled by TV audience’ and most of the coverage focused on a rather rude student who accused the PM of ‘waffling’.

You can watch the whole one hour here.

How to survive a TV debate: Cameron did an excellent job

All of which seems unjust if not plain misleading. Not normally a fan of Cameron I have to say I think he did an excellent job. He was superbly well briefed, he did not get caught out by any question, from either the correspondent Faisal Islam or the audience. I am pleased to see that I am not completely alone in my assessment. Rather begrudgingly, the Chief Political Commentator for the Independent newspaper at least, agreed with me as you can read here.

How to survive a TV debate: anticipate the tough questions

For students of the PR lesson, it is important to understand that one of the tricks of the journalist is to find a damning nugget of information and then go on and on about it. If the question hasn’t been anticipated the interviewee is left struggling to confidently and credibly answer. The problem is, of course, that there are a huge number of possible ‘damning nuggets’. Faisal Islam started with the manifesto promise from 6 years ago that net migration would be reduced to tens rather than hundreds of thousands, something that the government has failed to deliver on. He moved on to the recent promise that VAT would not rise and noted that the European Court of Justice had overruled a UK law that made solar panels VAT free, suggesting that UK government did not have sovereign control over its VAT rules. He also tried to challenge the Prime Minister with the number of times that the EU Council of Ministers had over-ruled the British government. None of these were questions the Prime Minister looked surprised by or did not have a clear response to. He dismissed the last as a ‘totally spurious figure’ before Islam could actually say it.

Once the set piece political interview was over the PM faced a studio audience. The problem with responding to a public audience is they are, by definition, very diverse and you have even less idea what is coming up. Cameron faced questions about issues as unrelated to the debate as the funding of mental health and his previous pronouncements on the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Again he had clear credible arguments to all of these questions.

How to survive a TV debate: use examples

The Prime Minister not only answered questions credibly but repeatedly landed his main message, that leaving the EU would be ‘an act of economic self harm’; he used lots of examples to back up his points. He talked about why Britain sells no beef or lamb to the US (no trade deal), how the UK’s car industry currently sells all over Europe but outside the EU it would be likely to face a 10% tariff. He also explained that it is easy now for someone from Bolton making fan belts to sell them to all 28 countries, rather than outside the EU trying to meet 27 different sets of rules.

How to survive a TV debate: stay polite

When dealing with the audience he was endlessly polite. The question from the student who accused him of waffling was incoherent and much more waffly than the answer. And despite her rudeness the Prime Minister did his best to answer her.

I saw no evidence of mauling.

I do happen to agree that the missing bit from the whole Remain campaign has been an articulation of the positive vision for a better functioning EU. But this cannot be a mistake. The campaign must be polling, researching which arguments play well, and must be concluding that the positive vision piece just doesn’t work. Perhaps the EU fails in so many ways it is better to not draw attention to what it could do and could achieve.

The question remains, if the Prime Minister did such a good job why did he get negative coverage for the debate and why did it not get ‘cut through’.

The answer, I suggest, is that no one believes anything he says. This is not just Cameron’s problem. It is a problem throughout the world. Since the financial crisis of 2008 cynicism about politicians in power and anything that can be called the establishment has never been higher, at least in the countries commonly called ‘the west’. In the wider Brexit debate there is an endless call for real facts and yet every attempt to deliver serious analysis, projected numbers or explanations are dismissed as unreliable or untrue. It is difficult to see how democracy is going to adapt to this new reality.

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Cameron’s Crisis Communication Lesson

Many a good crisis communication lesson is never shared, or the various stages are not so public. But the revelation in the Panama Papers that David Cameron’s father had set up an off-shore fund and that until 2010 the Prime Minister himself had owned shares in that fund, has given us a very public case study. And the crisis communication lesson is that you need to get out in front of the story.

Crisis communication lesson

crisis communication lesson for david cameron

David Cameron has had a difficult week after ignoring basic crisis communication lesson

Crisis communications training always emphasises that you need to release all the bad stuff in one hit, as early as possible. Giving misleading statements or closing down enquiries will increase the damage if the whole story comes out later. And that is just what we saw last week. Here is a detailed blow by blow account of Cameron’s horrid week from The Guardian which is claiming the story as theirs.

Crisis communication lesson: refusing to say anything is a mistake

But the basic facts are that on Monday at a regular press briefing reporters asked Cameron’s official spokeswoman if she was aware that his father had set up an off-shore fund called Blairemore. She responded that this was a ‘private matter’. Unsurprisingly, this did not kill the story.

Crisis communication lesson: being economical with the truth is unlikely to work

On Tuesday, with the story all over the front page of the Guardian and running on all networks, Cameron answered a question with a phrase that can only be described as being economical with the truth.

‘I have no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that.’

The furore continued. On Wednesday the prime minister’s office said: ‘There are no offshore trusts or funds from which the Prime Minister, Mrs. Cameron or their children will benefit in future.’ It was not enough. The statements clearly referred to now and in the future but did not mention the past. Journalists could smell blood.

By Thursday Downing Street decided the Prime Minister would have to come clean. In an interview with Robert Peston, Political editor of ITV, Cameron explained that he had owned shares in Blairemore from 1997 until 2010, just before he became Prime Minister. When he sold them, he added, he had paid tax on the profits.

On Saturday, David Cameron felt he needed to publish full details of his tax affairs, and then chancellor George Osborne announced he would do the same. Despite considerable efforts to draw a line under the whole thing, as I write the story continues to hit the headlines and the fall out is now spreading to other members of the Tory party. The damage to Cameron, to Osborne and to the Tories is huge.

Crisis communication lesson: deflect, dismiss, deny is not recommended

The question is, had David Cameron come clean on Monday, or even before, would the damage have been less? Accepted wisdom  is yes, that after an initial splurge of coverage the world would have quickly moved on because there was no ‘sport’ in chasing the details. It is hard to be sure, and the truth is that sometimes companies and people do manage to kill a story by obfuscating. But ‘deflect, dismiss, deny’ is not a strategy recommended in any crisis communications training.

 

Here are 13  minutes of Cameron being gently grilled by Robert Peston, the crucial bit is at 3′ 20″. Overall we think Cameron handles this interview very well but the damage was done.

 

 

Photo: the Mirror via Creative Commons

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.

You can find the text of the speech here.

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.

camerons pr blunder

Cameron’s PR ‘blunder’ – no third term

CAmeron3UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments, that if re-elected in May he would not seek a third term in office in five years time, is the lead story in all the main British newspapers today and on radio and television. It was definitely a scoop for BBC’s James Landale who was conducting a ‘cosy’ behind the scenes interview in the PM’s kitchen at the time.

There are plenty of voices suggesting the Prime Minister should not have answered a question about his long-term plans so honestly. In doing so, the argument goes, he has fired the starting pistol for the next Tory leadership race, especially as he went on to name three possible successors. And he has distracted from May’s election.

For myself, this kind of political reporting is tedious in the extreme and with a complicated election on the horizon, serious economic issues at hand, not to mention plenty of international crises to talk about, I would question whether it should be a lead story. But I certainly realised as soon as I heard the comment that we were in for a media frenzy. It was predictable.

For students of PR, there is one salient lesson here. Just because something is true does not mean it is a good idea to say it to a journalist. Media training is in part about sensitizing people to issues which are commonplace, even obvious in one context but, out of context, give the journalist a story that is either damaging or distracting. Former BP CEO, Tony Hayward’s comment ‘I want my life back’ springs to mind. He wasn’t saying anything we couldn’t have guessed but saying it made a huge story.

Assuming Cameron did not plan to make this announcement about ‘no third term’ his PR team will have been wringing their hands because they lost control of the news cycle. They would not have been prepared for this media frenzy, the lines would not have been in place and they will have had to rush around to find Tory Grandees to wheel out and explain that the Prime Minister was not being disrespectful to the electorate, was not assuming he would win the next election, and is indeed focused on the next election and not his personal future.  And, of course, while the media is talking about Cameron’s ‘blunder’ they are not talking about whatever it was the election machine had in mind for these two days.

All this ‘damage’ because the Prime Minister truthfully answered a question put to him. The lesson is that in all interviews one has to be disciplined. Relaxing into a chat with a journalist is a recipe for an unexpected headline.

However, just to be mischievous, it is worth remembering that David Cameron was a PR man and he has been Prime Minister for almost 5 years. He knows how the British media works. So actually perhaps it wasn’t a blunder at all. Perhaps he wanted a 24-hour news-fest that constantly repeats the possible assumption that the next election is a forgone conclusion.  I am not sure this has been damaging for Cameron at all. It may, in fact, have been a PR coup.

 

 

 

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An irresistible metaphor

Media Coach trainers spend a great deal of time trying to persuade serious business people to use metaphor. Metaphor makes simple ideas more fun and more memorable – or to use our jargon ‘stickier’. A ‘sticky’ message is the best sort!

Cameron’s ‘purred’ metaphor was catnip for journalists

David Cameron’s private and embarrassing use of the word ‘purred’ in the same sentence as ‘the Queen’ was very unfortunate but for us shows the huge power of a good metaphor. If he had just said ‘she was very happy’ in his aside to Micheal Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York, it might still have been reported, but the number of column inches and the amount of airtime would have been a great deal less.

This is the power of metaphor. Don’t use them by accident, use them consciously to supercharge your message.

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UK floods: Cameron’s press conference was straight out of the crisis communications handbook

David Cameron gave a text book crisis management press conference this afternoon.

Faced  with severe floods in the south west of the UK, ministers and technocrats falling over one another to pin the blame on anyone but themselves, and angry members of the public, he called his first Downing Street press conference for 238 days.

Cameron has learnt his lessons from the phone hacking scandal and has become better at appearing masterful in an emergency.

Here are five things he did which could serve as a checklist to others who might need to show leadership in a crisis.

David Cameron held emergency press conference on the floods

1. Cancel any plans (i.e. a forthcoming trip to the Middle East in Cameron’s case) to show actions speak louder than words and that nothing is more important than fighting the floods.

2. Say: ‘Nothing is more important than fighting the floods’ during the press conference (in case people didn’t get that you were taking it seriously).

3. Start the press conference with what you can say: in this case with the numbers of homes that have been flooded and then onto what’s being done to tackle the problem. So for example, we learned that by the end of Tuesday, 1,600 service men and women will have been deployed around the country with many more on call. This kind of approach is valuable because it feeds the media and social media voids, as well as making the speaker look and sound in control. It also allows you to do a lot of talking up front which puts you on the offensive rather than defensive with the journalists.

4. Keep your soundbites clear and simple. To shamelessly borrow from Tony Blair: ‘Now is not the time for soundbites.’ So from Cameron we got: ‘Things may well get worse before they get better’ and ‘Money is no object’.

5.  Refuse to be drawn on the politics (internal or external). Cameron did not commit to questions about squabbling ministers or questions about whether climate change was the cause of the flooding. Instead he focused on what the Government was doing to manage the crisis and that it was evident the extreme weather was a problem.

I expect the journalists will be all over the press conference looking for signs of inconsistency or sensationalism. But from a media trainer’s perspective this was disciplined, clear and a job well done.