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The Art of the Quote: Sizzle with Care

The art of the quote and the power of a good one is something we at the Media Coach think about every day. But last week in Europe we had another example of someone being a bit more quotable than perhaps the man himself had predicted. Many people outside Brussels or Holland haven’t heard of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch Finance Minister who is currently President of the Eurogroup of Eurozone countries. But he got himself into hot water this week after comments he made in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper offended politicians from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

The Art of the Quote: Dutch Finance Minister in hot water 

The Art of the Quote

Dutch Finance Minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, was perhaps a bit more quotable than he had realised.

The offending quotes relate to this particular passage of the interview:

In an attempt to emphasise that being in a currency union carries responsibilities, Mr Dijsselbloem said that northern Europe had shown “solidarity” with the south during the crisis, but that solidarity comes with “duties”. “I cannot spend all my money on liqueur and women and beg for help afterwards.”

He then qualified his remarks by adding that this applies equally at a personal, national and European level.

Despite this, the response from politicians from southern European countries was swift and predictable with accusations of stereotyping, calls for Dijsselbloem’s resignation as head of the Eurogroup and the Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa going so far as to call the remarks ‘racist, xenophobic and sexist’.

The Art of the Quote: Best to avoid cultural stereotypes

If we’re dealing in cultural stereotypes then Dijsselbloem’s quote is an absolute belter, folding characteristic Dutch bluntness into a purse-lipped, highly quotable metaphor loaded with puritanical disapproval of feckless behaviour.

But it was actually out of character.  Mr Dijsselbloem has built a reputation as a calm and authoritative euro-dealmaker, who has been instrumental in the Greek debt talks and is seen as a reassuring media spokesperson who doesn’t resort to flashy imagery.  He’s due to lose his position as Dutch Finance Minister anyway (his Socialist Party recently got thumped into fifth place in the Dutch elections) but, it would be a shame to see his term as Eurogroup President (which is due to end in 2018) prematurely cut short because of one misguided quote. 

The Art of the Quote: qualifying your words after the event rarely helps

If there are any media training lessons to be drawn from this it’s that spokespeople not only need to plan and test their sizzle (deliberate quotes) in advance but also be judicious in their choice of words. Qualifying provocative comments afterwards won’t help either. It doesn’t matter that Mr Dijsselbloem’s defence was that his remarks were equally directed at himself, the point still stands that sensitive people will always react badly to comments that they perceive as primarily directed at them and this will be more likely to happen if the words play to cultural stereotypes. 

Of course we would also say that being dull and overly cautious also has its drawbacks. Namely, nobody notices what you are saying. So sizzle but sizzle with care, forethought and judgement. If you or your organisation need help crafting quotes as part of prepared messages, we at the Media Coach would be delighted to help. 

 

Photograph of Jeroen Dijsselbloem used under Creative Comms licence. 

EU doorstep interviews: 4 expert tips

EU doorstep interviews should be seen as an opportunity not a threat. Prime Ministers and Heads of State recognise the PR value of a good EU doorstep – a mini interview or statement done on the way in or out of Summits. Small countries that hold the EU’s rotating presidency, ambassadors and other officials often miss this opportunity to raise their profile and punch above their weight with an agenda setting doorstep quote. Often all it takes is a little preparation. 

EU doorstep: recognise the PR opportunity

Even for smaller meetings where ministers or ambassadors need to broker an agreement, there will almost certainly be one or two news agencies covering it as well as the Council’s host broadcaster, which will then publish footage. So advisers and spokespeople should always prepare for Council meetings in expectation that there will be some form of press waiting for them when they arrive.

EU doorstep interviews should be viewed as an opportunity.

EU doorstep interviews should be viewed as an opportunity.

EU doorstep: prepare

The EU Presidency may hold the role of agreement broker but that does not mean spokespeople should do a read out of the shopping list of tasks and processes that need to be managed (or were managed) at the meeting they will or have hosted (see the example of the Lithuanian Ambassador to the EU below). This is tedious and journalists will struggle to find something interesting they can use. Advisers and spokespeople should focus on one main message with a clear soundbite and then prepare a couple more in case they are happy to take follow-up questions.

Angela Merkel is a good model to follow. She gets out of her car, goes straight to the German cameras, does a well prepared 40-second statement and then walks straight into the meeting. EU Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans is also a good example of this kind of discipline. There is no reason why ambassadors and ministers shouldn’t do the same.

EU doorstep: rehearse

Usually, spokespeople do an EU Council doorstep in English and one in their mother tongue. All spokespeople should rehearse, particularly if they are not completely confident in English. One way to manage this could be for PR advisers or aides to do a quick run through of the main messages/reactives in the car on the journey to Council (or just before if the PRs aren’t going as well). Switching to English at the beginning of the journey would be even better because the ambassador or minister will be ‘warmed up’ by the time they get to Council and won’t have to consciously change languages when they get out of the car and see the waiting media.

EU doorstep: behave confidently

Confidence is key to a good doorstep. A lot of the time inexperienced spokespeople are caught off guard and look slightly surprised and suspicious when they see TV cameras and press waiting for them at the back of the Council.  This is then picked up on camera and doesn’t do anything to give the impression of authority. Advisers should give spokespeople a steer on what to expect and between them, the spokesperson and aides should decide if they plan to take follow up questions.

The spokesperson should then get out of the car (or leaving the building) in a decisive manner, stand with firm body language and focus their eye contact on one particular journalist. This will look far more authoritative than a shifting gaze. If they have planned to take a couple of follow up questions they should take them before ending the exchange gracefully but firmly and moving inside.

There is a technique to this. David Cameron was roundly mocked for stalking off the minute he had finished speaking and not even saying ‘Thank you’ or ‘That’s all for now’. He probably thought it looked powerful and decisive but most journalists and PR consultants I speak to think he came across as afraid to be challenged.

So there is a lot that spokespeople and advisers can do to deliver a good doorstep. And done well, the journalists will be grateful because they’ve got something interesting and colourful and PR advisers will be happy because their spokesperson has been quotable and in control.

Here in Brussels I train officials and politicians to handle doorsteps and other media opportunities. If you think you or your spokespeople are missing out why not get in touch and discuss how I can help.

EU Doorstep: advice from elsewhere

Politicians and officials are not alone in facing doorstep or ambush interviews. Here are some tips from elsewhere that apply more widely.

This one from a PR company  gives tops for dealing with aggressive and persistent ambush interviewers.

Here is some advice to would be journalists on how to do an ambush interview. Its included here as it is good to understand what happens in the mind of the doorstepped. In the same theme here is the BBC’s guidelines to staff on the rules of doorstepping.

Here is a very old article from PR week on the subject. I guess not much has changed except the removal from public life of Max Clifford!

Post-truth era

Post-Truth era: weaponising numbers!

Post-Truth era communications hold a particular challenge for companies whose marketing is based on some form of science or data. How should companies communicate in the Post-Truth era, particularly when it comes to the use of numbers?

For a re-cap of how Lindsay and I view ‘Post-Truth’ please see our previous posts here and here.

Post-Truth Era communications: case study

Post-truth era

As a case study, let’s look at the most famous Post-Truth number; the £350 million a week that the Vote Leave campaign continued to claim the UK sends to Brussels even after it was debunked as ‘misleading’ by the UK Statistics Authority. 

Here are some lessons for communicators.

Post-Truth numbers are not about factual accuracy

It didn’t matter and it didn’t hurt the Leave Campaign that the £350mn figure wasn’t true. By keeping it out there, the campaign intended to create confusion and crowd out Remain messages and arguments. Like its larger cousin (fully fledged fake news articles), the £350mn figure is part of a broad family of misinformation that is designed to muddy the waters. The Russians even have a military term for it- maskirovka.

Post-Truth numbers are about forcing opponents onto the defensive

In his 2004 book Don’t Think of An Elephant, cognitive linguist George Lakoff argued that conservatives are much better at winning arguments than liberals because they use powerful language to frame their ideas (e.g. ‘tax is theft’) and then force their opponents to argue on that territory (as opposed to the ‘tax is investment’ argument ). The £350mn is the numerical equivalent of a linguistic frame. It forced the Remain campaign to come out and argue that the number wasn’t true, which kept the conversation going and also kept the idea that it might be alive in people’s heads.

Post-Truth numbers link to a powerful organising story

The £350mn figure evoked powerful images associated with the deeply embedded Eurosceptic tropes of waste and a lack of financial control. Throw in the NHS (the ultimate British identity meme*) and the figure goes from being an example of hard data to an expression of the powerful and simple story.

Post-Truth Era communications

Paul Stephenson was Communications Director of the successful Vote Leave campaign. 

All three of these ideas are on the record in a recent article by Paul Stephenson, the Communications Director for Vote Leave:

“Of course, our campaign claim of the now infamous £350 million a week that Britain sends to the EU was not completely accurate … The Remain campaign couldn’t stand it. They constantly tried to rubbish these official statistics and accused us of ‘lying.’ These attacks were entirely counterproductive for them; it kept the debate focused on an area where we were strong: just how many hundreds of millions of pounds the U.K. gives the EU every week.”

So, the question still remains as to whether companies should engage in these kinds of tactics.

And quite simply the answer is no.

Donald Trump isn’t even in office and Brexit hasn’t yet happened, so no one knows what, if any, price will be paid by the members of the public who did believe what they were saying.  But organisations that have shareholders and/or regulatory constraints will almost certainly get clobbered for putting bad information into the public domain.

Post-Truth era communications: a commercial case study

Equally damaging is withholding information that could contradict the powerful story which a company uses to justify its ‘social licence’. Like many others, I have been gripped by the downfall of Theranos, the ‘revolutionary’ US blood testing company founded by Elizabeth Holmes, a 19 year old Stanford dropout who managed to convince the stalwarts of Corporate America (including Rupert Murdoch and Henry Kissinger) to either invest or be on her board. Worth an estimated $9bn by the age of 32, Holmes’ built the notoriously secretive company’s brand on an emotion-drenched-story which lacked the transparent data to support it. The image was shattered when the Wall Street Journal started digging around for numbers and discovered that the supposedly ground breaking blood testing technology was in fact deeply flawed.

Companies are right to see storytelling and emotion/issue based campaigning as a way of engaging the public around the issues they care about. And planting memes and tropes* over a period of years can be incredibly helpful for shaping public opinion around core images and ideas (particularly if supported by a willing media).

But when it comes to hard numbers they should never weaponise them. Handled badly they can go off on in the wrong hands and cause injury, not just to the public but also to the user.

For the record here are a couple of definitions:

*A meme is an element of culture (it can be a video, an institution, or a type of behaviour) that is shared, copied or mimicked by lots of people.

A trope is a figure of speech, a metaphor and sometimes a cliché. It’s a shorthand for something the audience will instantly recognise. It has a slightly different meaning in politics, literature and TV drama.

As those of you that read this blog regularly will know, the Media Coach team don’t just teach people where to look and what to wear on TV. We offer a broad range of bespoke media and presentation training workshops and message building sessions – all run by  experienced communications professionals. If you need help building or refining messages just give us a call. 

Eddie Mair Media Training basics: don't shoot the messenger

Media Training basics: don’t shoot the messenger

Media training basics include understanding that interviews with journalists are an opportunity rather than a threat.

Sure, there are potential pitfalls and problems that you might encounter in the course of the conversation, but the key point to realise is that you have been selected as an opinion leader, with a chance to influence what others think.

With this in mind, it would be madness to criticise the very broadcaster that is providing you with the interview opportunity. Nevertheless, a surprising number of interviewees seem to forget or ignore this and waste time shooting the messenger.

Media Training basics: case study

Media Training Basics Don't Shoot the Messenger

Peter Bone MP used an interview on BBC Radio 4 PM programme to criticise the ‘pro-EU’ stance of the BBC

Take Peter Bone, for example – a politician since 1977 and an MP since 2005. The Conservative member for Wellingborough is a prominent Eurosceptic and has been through countless interactions with the media. He was invited onto a recent edition of Radio 4’s PM programme to discuss comments made by Brexit secretary David Davis that day, suggesting the government was not ruling out paying into the Brussels budget in exchange for access to the single market.

Presenter Eddie Mair asked Mr Bone what he thought of what had been said – a gentle, easy opening question that should have provided him with an opportunity to say almost anything he liked on the subject.

Media Training basics: why waste easy questions?

But within his first answer, Mr Bone had dismissed the story as people “clutching at straws” who were “desperate for any news”. This is never a good tactic. Journalists hate being told what constitutes a story – and from the listeners’ point of view, it’s reasonable to assume that anyone agreeing to be interviewed believes there is something to talk about.

Then when Eddie Mair pushed him a little harder (“forgive us for listening to what government ministers say and trying to interpret them on behalf of the listeners”), Mr Bone responded, “It is the BBC, of course, and I know you’re terribly, terribly pro-EU.”

Suddenly the debate switched from discussing access to the EU single market to the manner in which the BBC was covering the issue:

Media Training Basics Don't Shoot the Messenger

Eddie Mair is a very experienced BBC presenter.

Peter Bone:  “There you see – there we go again: BBC – pro-EU hat on, you just can’t see reality…”

Eddie Mair:   “Is it easier to bash the BBC than to deal with the question?”

Peter Bone:  “I don’t have to bash the BBC because it’s unmitigating (sic) pro-EU…. I mean, it’s just the way you start these reports…”

Eddie Mair:   “Have you seen reports in The Telegraph posing the same questions?”

You can hear the interview here until the end of December 2016

Listeners on both sides of the debate will resent this approach – especially as the only other interviewee on the subject was fellow-Brexiteer Mark Littlewood, the Director General of the free-market think tank The Institute of Economic Affairs. What’s more, soundbites introducing the article had come from Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Nigel Farage, David Davis and Ian Duncan Smith – not a Remainer in sight.

Bone should have known better and kept his powder dry. When landing a key message should be your strategic purpose, it’s a waste of ammunition to target the media instead. Doing so frustrates interviewers who spend time dodging the bullets, and alienates the audience who are left wondering what the battle was all about.

Expecting a radio interview opportunity to come up in the near future? I and the team of trainers at The Media Coach have years of broadcast news experience; we can prepare you for a radio or TV interview and ensure you avoid making such basic mistakes.  

Photos used under creative comms licence

Brexit referendum: reflections on the campaign

The Brexit referendum campaign will be studied for decades to come for what it tells us about political campaigning in the social media age. There are so many themes and lessons worth exploring from the Brexit referendum that it is a bit overwhelming. The establishment versus the radicals, the young versus the old, the use of language, the missuses of facts and numbers, the lack of positive vision from either side…I could go on. The one that rises to the top today for me is a phenomenon that has been dubbed the ‘post-truth era.

Brexit referendum: post-truth era

In many ways I am a spin-doctor. I help people make clear, understandable, convincing arguments. And I believe in a complicated world, when often the experts in corporations and organisations have lost the ability to speak in plain English, mine is a useful role. But one of the absolute tenets is ‘don’t lie’. (Another is, by the way, don’t personally attack your opponents, stick to the argument.)

What I saw in the referendum was one side putting time and money and thought into clear reasoned honest arguments and the other dismissing every reasoned argument with a flourish. Nick Cohen in the Guardian wrote this weekend a scathing piece about the attitude to truth of the two ex-journalists who led the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. I have in the past been impressed with Boris Johnson as a communicator but my admiration waned after he was called before the Treasury select committee in March this year and so much of what he had said during the Brexit campaign was revealed as half-truths by the ‘dry as dust’ chairman Andrew Tyrie.

Brexit referendum: the lies

One lie that stands at the centre of the Brexit campaign was that £350m a week was being sent to the EU. It was disproved repeatedly in articles like this one but it was still being used right up to the end.

The bigger lie, the one that will define the next few years in British politics, is the one about immigration. The Brexit campaign has been fuelled by the public’s desire to ‘take back control of our borders’ and this Newsnight interview with MEP Daniel Hannan shows just how unlikely the ‘leave’ voting public are to get what they think they voted for.

 

The Remain side have been accused of lying too, particularly about their warnings of the economic consequences of ‘what could happen’. I did not agree with everything they said but I can’t find one outright lie that I can point to.

However, perhaps the most sinister exchange of the whole campaign came in a Michael Gove interview with Faisal Islam on Sky News. It was put to Gove that “the leaders of the US, India, China, Australia, every single one of our allies, the Bank of England, the IFS, IMF, the CBI, five former NATO secretary generals and the chief executive of the NHS” were all against Britain’s exit. The response was: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”.

Encouraged by such talk, we now have a large proportion of the population who feel they are lied to all the time and are therefore disinclined to believe anything the establishment or mainstream politicians tell them.

Add to this the power of social media where any piece of information that strikes a chord will be repeated and recycled. To quote Jim Murphy in the New Statesman last year ‘in these emotion-fuelled insurgencies, peer-to-peer social media is increasingly the broadcaster of choice’.

And this is the nightmare vision of the post-truth era – outlined in a 2004 book by Ralph Keyes: The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. The summary states: ‘post truthfulness builds a fragile social edifice based on wariness, it erodes the foundation of trust that underlies any healthy civilization.’ Keyes wrote in 2004 ‘We are perilously close to the point’. I think we can safely say in the UK, in 2016, that point arrived.

 

 

Message-building-brexit-shows-how-quotes-are-crafted-image

Message building and the art of the quote

Message building is an art not a science but one of the key elements is being able to find quotable language. For students of message building and the crafted quote (or ‘sizzle’ as we call it), the Brexit referendum in the UK is proving a wonderful real-time case study.

Message building brexit shows how quotes are crafted

The UK is in the middle of a campaign about whether to stay or leave the EU

Message building is art not science

Coming up with great quotes day after day must be keeping the spin-doctors and speech writers very busy but here are a few of our favourites.

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer
Brexit would cause ‘profound economic shock’.

Chris Grayling, Cabinet Minister
‘The Commission’s locker is full of new ideas and new plans. If we vote to remain, the door of that locker will be opened wide the day after.’

David Cameron, UK Prime Minister
Brexit would be the ‘gamble of the century’.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
‘Let us say knickers to the pessimists and the merchants of gloom’.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party
Corbyn warned that a Conservative government would take the opportunity of Brexit to slash protection for workers, in a ‘bonfire of rights’.

William Keegan, Guardian writer
Brexit would be ‘a messy divorce and very hard on the children’.

Stephan Crabb, Cabinet Minister
Brexit would amount to an ‘act of self-harm’

Message building with numbers

Gisela Stuart, Co-Chair of Vote Leave
‘Every week we send £350m to Brussels. I’d rather that we control how to spend that money, and if I had that control I would spend it on the NHS.’ Note that here Stuart goes for the numbers rather than the quotable language. The Leave campaign has had a lot of success with the £350m a week figure; even though it has been debunked several times (as here), it continues to be used repeatedly.

Message building: use judgement and caution in crafting the quote

Boris Johnson
Earlier he used the quote that leaving the EU would be ‘like a prisoner escaping jail’. Boris also often uses expletives that others in public life avoid as here in the Express. He is one of the most quotable politicians but it has got him into deep trouble in the past. He once had to apologise to the whole of Liverpool after accusing them of ‘wallowing in grief’ over the death of a local man beheaded by militants in Iraq. Nowadays, he is more disciplined and uses his flowery language to more strategic political effect.

George Osborne
The Chancellor has also dubbed Pro-Brexit advocates as ‘economically illiterate’. Earlier he said leaving the EU would be ‘political arson’. We are watching Osborne closely. He used to be an unimpressive media performer but, presumably as part of his preparation to be a contender for Prime Minister, he has put a lot of effort into improving his communication skills. He is much better at the crafted quote than his boss and ex PR man David Cameron.

IMF
This august body claimed the UK’s exit from EU could cause ‘severe regional and global damage’. Here we see a ‘serious’ international organisation being cautious with its language but as a result most people will have missed their important intervention.

Aaron Banks, Leave campaigner
‘Freedom has never been so cheap’. He was commentating on the Stay campaigns figure that the cost of leaving the EU would amount to 21p per household per day.

Metaphors widely used in message building

Put them all together like this and firstly you can see how spin doctors love metaphor and simile. Second, it looks idiotic and superficial but remember these phrases were just one element in a wider interview or speech. It is the element designed to be quoted by the journalists. These phrases are the sign-posts in the argument. There is plenty of detail out there to substantiate the headlines. While the quotes may annoy the academically minded purists we should not kid ourselves that people would choose, without them, to wade through the IMF or Treasury reports on impact of staying or going.

Learn to craft a good quote and as a PR or speech writer you will go far.

Message building and The Media Coach

We run message building workshops to help organisations plan external communications. We also have a twitter account @mediasizzle that just picks up examples of quotable language.

Image used under Creative Comms Licence credit “Descrier” descrier.co.uk

getting media interview basics right

Remember to get the basics right

You’d think that being the chairman of a high-profile group campaigning for Britain to stay in Europe would at least require you to remember the name of the organisation concerned.

You’d think.

But as Lord Rose, chairman of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group discovered in an interview with Sky News, even such obvious details can slip from the mind in the heat of the moment.

“I’m Stuart Rose and I’m the chairman of Ocado,” he started telling political editor Faisal Islam before realising that whilst true, that role was not relevant to the interview that was about to follow.

“Sorry – chairman Stay in Britain… Better in Britain campaign,” he stuttered, before trying to clear the decks with “Right, start again!”

Sadly, the next two versions were no better.

“I’m Stuart Rose and I’m the chairman of the Better in Britain campaign…er… Better Stay in Britain campaign.”

Four attempts, none of them correct. Not only embarrassing, but also a mistake which went onto overshadow his key message – the claim that the EU brings in an additional £670,000 a year for the average British business importing or exporting goods within the union. Very few of the media reports which followed that interview made mention of his key statistic, and chose to highlight his opening errors instead.

A mistake like that matters. If the chairman of an organisation can’t remember what it’s called, why should anybody else? And with a plethora of different pressure groups campaigning variously to stay in or leave the European Union, yours needs to stand out.

So how can you make sure you don’t forget something so fundamental?

The key is good old-fashioned practice. As well as going through possible interview scenarios in advance, something called ‘tongue-memory’ comes into play, making it easier to remember those words and phrases which have actually been uttered out loud beforehand.

You should also seize any useful mnemonics available out there. The more unusual, the better – and as far as Lord Rose was concerned, he had already been offered a helping hand by his rivals.

Eurosceptic campaigners positively enjoy referring to the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group as ‘BSE’ for short – the unfortunate acronym also standing for Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, which led to the EU banning British beef in the 1990s.

All he had to do was take their acronym on board, and use it to spell out the correct order of the letters beginning the words in his group’s name.

Simple, dramatic and effective – and even more powerful because it uses an intended insult from the very people opposing you, to help you on your way.

16486626570_248f28ccbe_m-e1445955335673

Farage reminds us the ‘frame’ of an argument is crucial

Much of our work with clients focuses on building key messages and developing the techniques to say them powerfully, along with presenting the evidence to make sure they are clear, credible and memorable.
However, we also concentrate on the use of language – not only getting rid of jargon, but also demonstrating how it can play a significant part in framing what the participants of any debate are talking about.

Farage accuses BBC of ‘dishonesty’ in the way it uses word ‘Europe’

BBC accused of ‘dishonesty’

This was something that came to the fore last week when Ukip leader Nigel Farage accused the BBC of “dishonesty” in its reporting of the referendum on staying in the EU.

His complaint was that the broadcaster was using “Europe” as shorthand in discussions about the forthcoming vote, saying that to do so benefits the ‘In’ campaign. His point was that the phrase ‘European Union’ can be something of a toxic label for voters, so using ‘Europe’ instead can help soften the blow for those in the pro-EU camp.

Europe not EU

Private polling suggests Farage is right: voters seem to have less of an issue with the name of the land mass than the political organisation. It’s no doubt why ‘In’ campaign leader Stuart Rose repeatedly used the word ‘Europe’ in his launch address. It’s also explains why an email from pro-EU campaigner Laura Sandys called on supporters of Britain remaining a member to “always talk about Europe rather than EU”.

Importance of language

Whether you agree with Mr Farage’s opinions or not, the very fact that an individual phrase has become the subject of contention indicates just how important language is in shaping what is being discussed.

Less experienced interviewees than Mr Farage may not find it as easy to spot how the terms of reference can influence the issues under discussion. In short, to see the whole picture clearly, it’s important to check the frame.

Brexit-Creative-Commons-Kevin-Friery

3 Stories the UK’s Pro-EU lobby should tell

The Pro-EU lobby in the UK lacks a great story

We’re less than three weeks into the shadow UK-EU referendum campaign and already companies and business groups have started drip feeding negative warnings about vague threats to jobs and growth into the public debate.

Airbus, JCB and Vodafone are just three of the big names adding their two cents but precisely, who these warnings are aimed at is beyond me given that negative campaigning went down like a lead balloon in Scotland.

None of these arguments are wrong but we need something more to get inspired. Even the most casual observer knows that a large chunk of the UK in EU discussion is about British identity and that ‘red tape’, ‘renegotiation’ and ‘Brussels decides’ are often trigger words to fire people up about the fear of British identity under threat.

They are also side lining the much bigger story about the EU and Britain. In her book ‘Acts of Union and Disunion’, the historian Linda Colley argues that throughout history British identity has periodically organised itself around a series of ‘constitutive stories’ that include liberty, monarchy, the sea, constitutional superiority, islands and (at times) Europe.  These stories have been particularly helpful during times of external pressure because they give the often fractious group of different nations a common identity to converge around.

Eurosceptics are great at exploiting these ideas which is why any campaign (and I use this term in the loosest sense) for staying in the EU needs to pitch its battle lines firmly around these areas.  This means looking at identity and beyond jobs, growth, reform, regulation, renegotiation, the national interest, immigration or, shock horror, caps on mobile phone roaming charges.

Fortunately, the signs are that the pro-camp is starting to see that economic arguments alone won’t be enough. Any successful pro-EU campaign needs to re-claim and re-frame these ideas by coming up with a better set of stories about why being British means being at the heart of the EU. It doesn’t mean its leaders need to chuck their studies about British jobs and influence out of the window. But it does mean understanding that people need more than a set of data and scaremongering soundbites about loss of growth and trade to get excited.

Whether we’ll get this kind of approach is debatable, particularly given the less than inspiring line up of big names tasked with leading the referendum discussion.

But I do think we need to see three kinds of identity-based stories doing the rounds.  I don’t claim to have them all fleshed out but they broadly fall into stories that address the questions – what do I want for me/my family, what kind of country do I want to live in, and what kind of world do I want to live in?
The first story needs to address the issue of ‘small values’ i.e. one that addresses what being in the EU means to people at an individual and familial level. This could be very much tied to the ambition and aspiration (whatever that means) agenda that everyone seems to be getting excited about in Westminster. If we are to believe that Britain is a place that rewards hard work then being part of the club that shapes the rules of the world’s biggest single market of 500 million people is essential. If people are personally ambitious then they need to feel personally invested in the club that is the gateway to that prosperity.  And they need to be able to explain that to other people they know.

Then we need one on big values i.e. what kind of country do I want to live in?  This story is the counterpoint to the perennial ‘red tape’ argument put out by businesses and addresses a lot of the good things that Brits want in their lives – such as holidays, better environmental and energy efficiency standards for fighting climate change and energy dependence and more control over working hours.

And finally we need one about Britain’s place in the world through the EU. And this is the one about taking a lead and setting common standards on climate change, equal pay, human rights energy security, scientific research and Russia. It’s partly about influence but it’s equally about pragmatism and also understanding why being part of a bigger group is key for economies of scale as well as influence.

Reclaiming and mastering the narrative for the pro-EU camp will be hard but essential not least because it’s starting on the back foot. It will require pushing back against the common garden way of talking about and framing the EU and making British people feel as though they are making an active, deliberate and inclusive choice about being British when they choose to be in the EU.

Will these tales be enough? Possibly not.  But Britain’s membership of the EU is about more than the national interest. It’s about our national identity and a vision we can and should be proud to be part of. Those who support it must make their voice heard and must not get side tracked by arguments over reform and re-negotiation.

In short, we must hear the kind of stories that show how the success and values of all Britons – not just Britain – have built and are built through Europe.


                                                                               

eu commissioner hearings scorecard

EU Commissioner Hearings Scorecard

In Brussels over the coming week, the new EU Commissioners (technically Commissioner-designates) are presenting themselves to the European Parliament. I’m working with other communications consultants in Belgium to ‘live blog’ the hearings and assess how each of them does.

We decided to do this project partly because the EU’s standing is at an all time low and partly because President Juncker has promised to make his Commissioners more accessible to the media and ordinary Europeans. So this is our first chance to see just how much of the common touch they really have.

Of course, we will be looking at the usual stuff as well – i.e. knowledge of the brief, EU affairs, credibility etc. But this is the Brussels Bubble’s bread and butter (try saying that after a few drinks) and we want to measure the candidates’ impact (or potential impact) outside this sphere. So we will also be ranking them for energy, enthusiasm, vision and basic likeability.

If you would like to follow the assessments click here.