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PR Basics

PR Basics: Don’t overpromise  

PR basics include a rule that you don’t promise something you may not be able to deliver. If there was one outstanding headline from last week’s UK budget it was that the Tories had broken a promise not to raise National Insurance. Chancellor, Philip Hammond announced in the budget on Wednesday measures that included a tax rise for the self-employed despite the previous manifesto promise not to do so.

PR Basics, Philip Hammond

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to have broken a manifesto promise not to increase National Insurance

According to the Guardian newspaper: ‘The Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto was unequivocal, promising four times that a Tory government would not increase National Insurance. It did not mention the self-employed and offered future chancellors no wriggle room.’

PR Basics: Avoid public U-turns if possible

For us, the PR Rule broken here is don’t say something that you might later have to backtrack on.

If we want another hugely damaging example from politics we have only to remember the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto promise to scrap tuition fees. This was an election promise made before they found themselves in a coalition with a Tory party.  Personally, I feel that makes a material difference but the electorate is much less forgiving and the tuition fees broken promise seems to have ruined the career of Nick Clegg, one of the most able politicians of his generation. Not to mention wiping out the LibDem presence in the House of Commons. 

PR Basics

Even incorrect forecasting can be damaging. During the Brexit debate in the UK, those who argued the markets would ‘punish’ the UK if Vote Leave were to win, have since been publically lambasted because their predictions did not (fully) materialise. The public often does not make the distinction between a forecast – a best guess about the future – and a firm warning of what might happen. (My mother constantly rails against the weather forecast, which she says is ‘always wrong’. No amount of me pointing out it is a ‘forecast’ and not a promise makes any difference. These people are ‘misleading’ her.)

PR Basics: Avoid any ‘hostage to fortune’ 

Businesses too can fall foul of overpromising. Way back when, I clearly remember the, to me, avoidable pressure on the Chief Executive (later Chairman) of Rentokil who had overpromised. Sir Clive Thompson was always described as the ‘self-styled Mr. 20%’. I am not sure who used the phrase first but Sir Clive was certainly not unhappy with it. He delivered something like 20% growth in Rentokil profits every year for 13 years! But when in 1999 he moved to lower the target investors took their revenge. Even as a journalist I thought Sir Clive crazy to set this near impossible target for himself. He was ‘kicked upstairs’ to Chairman and finally ousted in 2004, apparently for ‘being too obsessed with meeting short-term targets’.  It seemed he could not detach himself from the Mr. 20% label.

It is something we come across often in training. Enthusiastic executives of course have a vision they are working toward. But while talking in broad brush strokes is fine, often it does not do to share the detail of that vision with journalists. The media just love to write that people or companies have ‘missed’ their target, done a U-turn or a flip-flop.

PR Basics

Executives are often tempted to overpromise in an interview

 PR Basics: Highfalutin promises can cause negative headlines 

Good PR people always caution against this. They know that being too clear about targets or making highfalutin promises can often cause negative headlines further down the line. Here is an incomplete list of mundane things we would advise against being too definite about.

  • There will be no further job losses. Who knows there might have to be?
  • We are expecting 20% growth in sales/profits etc. You might be confident but such a public prediction turns a 10% increase into a failure.
  • We want to be number one in the market within two years. Better to say one of the leading players in the market.
  • We expect to be profitable by Q4 2018. This is a difficult one because it is the sort of information you have to share with investors and therefore it may already be in the public domain. My advice would be not to lie if asked outright – stupid if it’s already published – but if possible not draw attention to it in media interviews, and if asked be cautious about it rather than bullish. If it is a major important element of a story that won’t help but hubris is easy to spot and may lead to mischief from the journalist. All in all, this would be more of a judgment call and our advice would depend on what else you have to say.
  • Margins are set to rise to 25%. Here again being vague is the standard. Unless they are published in your annual accounts you may be best to avoid talk of margins. Again you may have an internal forecast but is there really any benefit to being specific?

PR Basics: There are always exceptions

As with all rules, there are exceptions. I have taken part in discussions where CEO’s or other senior bods have weighed up the pros and cons of a ‘hostage to fortune’ pledge and decided to take the risk  – because the benefits outweighed the possible costs.  That is sensible and their prerogative.

Often our role is to bolster the PR advice and ensure ‘enthusiastic’ interviewees don’t make casual public promises or forecasts without understanding this basic rule of PR: avoid a hostage to fortune comment unless there is a very good reason not to.

Don’t forget, if we can help you prepare your spokespeople for a public announcement – results, product launch or a new direction – give us a call 020 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

Photo used under Creative Commons Licence

Media training basic: don’t storm out

Interview storm out is not good.  There are no two ways about it. What people remember is the storm out and not the issue of the protest. A trained TV interviewee knows that nothing is worth the negative publicity.

In 1982 it was BBC interviewer Robin Day and Secretary of State for Defence John Nott. In 1997 it was TV presenter Clive Anderson and the Bee Gees. This summer it was Sky News presenter Mark Longhurst and journalist Owen Jones.

Interview storm out

Owen Jones stormed out of his interview with Sky

All these interviews are notable for one thing and one thing only: that part way through, the interviewees made the decision to clumsily extract the microphones from their lapels, and storm off the set.

The fact that I’m grouping them together here (and the fact that you can no doubt bring them to mind so easily) is proof that the unexpected exit of the guest is what made them stand out.

What the debate was actually about – the precise moment that the interview took the turn which led to their departure – is impossible to recall. It requires a Google search or tracking down of a YouTube video to re-establish the issues under discussion.

Media training basic: your message is your priority

And therein lies the problem: if communicating your key message is your number one priority – and in media interviews, it should always be your number one priority – the fact that you flounced off will overshadow everything you had said up until that point.

Worse still, there is the inference (however unfair it may be) that you couldn’t cope; that you’d lost the argument; that you couldn’t handle dissenting views; that the heat became so great, you had to get out of the kitchen.

Media training basic: what does the audience remember?

The audience won’t even remember which line of argument you appeared to be losing, but simply that you lost it, and perhaps escaped the confines of the studio to prevent yourself from further embarrassment.

Owen Jones was on Sky News as a guest newspaper reviewer, following the mass shooting in Orlando – the worst in American history, which left 49 people dead and 53 wounded. As the attack took place in a gay club, Jones wanted to make the point that it was a homophobic hate crime as well as terrorism and needed to be named as such.

Presenter Mark Longhurst suggested instead that it was an attack on the “freedom of people trying to enjoy themselves” on a night out. Feeling that he was unable to get his point across, Jones left.

Explaining the reason for his departure the following day, Owen Jones wrote: “It is possible for an atrocity to be more than one thing at the same time. You are not compelled to select one option or the other. Life – with both its horrors and its joys – is incredibly complicated, and we have a rich language able to capture its complexities.”

All true, of course. But you are unable to express that position if you cease to stay in the studio to say it.

Photo credit: creative commons by 2.5

 

Allsorts 23

In defence of clichés

Allsorts-23-300x211Clients often express horror and disgust at the idea of using a cliché in an interview. They feel, as serious professionals, that they should not be using what they see as trite, overused and near meaningless phrases to talk about their important issues.

Well, there are some clichés I hate and would never use but in general I find clichés very useful.

Divided team

This is a subject that divides Media Coach trainers. Some of these professional wordsmiths, whose writing skills were honed at Reuters and the BBC, are reluctant to write anything that might be seen as ‘lazy’. Others, like me, are delighted when technical people can tell their story in colloquial language.

Arrogance

A knee jerk dismissal of clichés is, for me, an arrogance of the chattering classes.  Cliché’s communicate meaning quickly and in a way that is familiar and inclined to provoke empathy. Clearly that is not true if it is your pet hate cliché (mine is ‘at the end of the day’ which I once counted 17 times in one interview on Radio 4.) But phrases such as,

‘It’s like buses, nothing for an hour then three come all at once’
or
‘Horses for courses’
or
‘There is no one size fits all’
or
‘There’s a time and place for such things’

All of these are instantly recognised in the UK and communicate meaning very quickly.

Owned by the people

Madeleine1

Trainer Madeleine Holt believes acceptable clichés have to be in common parlance

My colleague, Madeleine Holt, says clichés are bad news unless they ‘owned by the people and routed in our history and common parlance’. She cites ‘don’t rob Peter to pay Paul’ as being a good example. She avoids, in messaging, anything that echoes known ‘spun’ phrases. So ‘Education, Education, Education’ she sees as having strong echoes of the Blair era of spin and therefore to be avoided at all costs. Similarly, we would probably all agree that ‘green shoots of recovery’ should not be used because when Norman Lamont used it he was lying, or perhaps misguided. Either way the folk memory has negative connotations.

Laura Shields in Brussels wrote a whole blog on how ‘game-changer’ was a grossly overused and now a meaningless phrase. I happen to completely disagree with her!

Oliver Wates, once a senior editorial figure in Reuters and our go-to person on written style, is inclined to wield the red pen when it comes to clichés.

Judicious

Despite the prejudices of these very clever people I will continue to advocate the judicious use of clichés and why – because I am always seeing my carefully chosen phrases in the write up of my clients interviews. Journalists are actually very predictable and rarely turn down a good cliché.

Why we all need an elevator pitch

Why we all need an elevator pitch

I have come to the conclusion that each of us who represent our business to the outside world, however that is defined, needs to have a honed and perfected elevator pitch.

What is an elevator pitch?

It is a succinct, thought-through and rehearsed explanation of what the business does.

Why do we need one?

Why we all need an elevator pitch 2

Can you describe your company in the time it takes to move between floors in an elevator?

Because the world is complicated and we all assume too often that others completely understand where we are coming from and what we do. Most people interviewed at the start of media training make daft assumptions about the knowledge of the journalist. Once this is pointed out, it is obvious but it is not just relevant for journalists. I am always using my elevator pitch when introduced to new people. I lengthen or shorten it depending on the circumstances.

What are the elements?

I think the elements are first an overview or helicopter view. ‘We sell software that helps people cut their use of paper and save money’ or ‘we provide a wide range of personal and business insurance for the UK market’ etc. Second a bit of detail e.g. size of the business, number of employees, range of contracts, key clients etc. and finally an example of a good piece of work you have done.

Do I need to include the history of the business?

I believe the history of the organisation is only relevant if it is memorable and interesting. If it was started in a cow shed in 1901 or was the brainchild of an astronaut, use it, otherwise don’t bother.

Why is the overview so important?

Because detail makes no sense to people if you don’t provide a frame for it. Once you have the frame you can hang different things on it, but you need the frame.

Why so much emphasis on numbers?

Numbers allow people to understand scale, whether that’s scale of an operation, scale of the growth, scale of the potential market. Without scale, people are left wondering or guessing.

Do you really need examples?

Never miss the examples, they are always the things people will remember after they forget the overview and the numbers.

Warning! Do not try to be all things to all people!

Sounds daft but this is such a common mistake. A story I often tell from the early 2000’s when I was media training a start-up in the dot-com boom.

Me: ‘What is your website for?’
CEO: (aged 22): ‘It’s for all sorts of things, all sorts.’
Me: ‘Okay, what sort of people do you envisage visiting your website?’
CEO: ‘All sorts of people’
Me: ‘So, what might prompt them to visit the site?’
CEO: ‘Oh, all sorts of things!’

I left after three hours none the wiser what this company planned to do (of course, it is possible they didn’t know either which is a different problem.) Much better to give an idea and then layer in further information later if you get the chance.

Warning! Avoid positive bland!

This is another major problem. People think it is impressive to say ‘we provide a great service for our customers’, ‘we help clients become more efficient’, ‘we help make staff more productive’. No detail and only positives means it is unconvincing propaganda. You might as well not bother.

Warning! Do not use the org chart unless you have a diagram!

People are tempted to explain how many division and subdivisions there are in the company. This really will bore the pants off anybody and is difficult to hold in your head unless it is very simple (e.g. two divisions, one UK and one European focused) or you happen to have a diagram to hand.

We ran a competition at a conference (ECS 2015) last year asking people to do their elevator pitch to camera. We called it the Message in a Minute challenge. Even PR professionals found it remarkably difficult to do it well. Here is an example from our trained friend: how do you think she did?

trump Mike Licht CC by 2.0

Shock horror: simple language reaches people

trump-Mike-Licht-CC-by-2.0

Academic research shows Donald Trump uses grammar of 11 year olds

The news that a bunch of academics, after long hard study, have shown that Donald Trump, Republican front runner for the nomination as US President, uses the simplest language of all the presidential hopefuls is a gift for mocking headline writers. But it is no surprise to me.

I love the company of intelligent people. I enjoy interesting and diverse conversation. But honestly; do I like it if I feel people are using long words or long sentences that I’m not sure I understand? [My son is very good at this!] I am sure a psychologist would have a fancy term for it, but it makes me feel small. It also makes me feel that the clever person is ‘not one of us’.  In fact, it is clear that sometimes the clever person is deliberately using language to make the point that he or she is not one of us but in fact much cleverer!

Why do I draw attention to this? Because the 101 of media and presentation training is to speak in layman’s language as much as possible (I often say colloquial language but don’t want to fall foul of my own rules).

[In crisis media communications, we teach that being colloquial, not sounding like you have just swallowed some procedural handbook, is pretty essential to winning the sympathy of your audience.]

Usually, when we point out that jargon, acronyms and conceptual language (think access, product, solution) should be replaced by more down-to-earth phrases, people get the point quite quickly. But one in ten, on my reckoning, will push back with one of three resistance lines:  perhaps ‘ I want to speak to the FT not the Sun’, or ‘What will my colleagues think’ or ‘Isn’t this just dumbing down?’

The reality is that if you want to speak to a non-specialist audience, and I would include here most external stakeholders, they will hear you, understand you, and feel more sympathetic towards your argument, if you make the message simple. It needs to be instantly understandable. You do not need to add arrogance, aggression or rudeness (à la Trump).  You just need to talk the way you would talk to your Mum or an intelligent 14-year-old. It is fine to introduce some technical terms in, say, a business presentation or interview, but just make sure you explain them.

Being able to tell a story simply is an amazing gift. The world would be a better place if more people could do it.

Simple language is far from the whole story. Donald Trump is not a good guy, or fit for President, because he uses simple language. But those of us scratching our heads and asking why he is still in the race, should try and learn what we can from his extraordinary and rather frightening success.

Photo credit: Mike Licht CC by 2.0

Seven things every press officer should have to hand

Seven things every press officer should have to hand

The lull of New Year is a good time to take stock and get organised for the months ahead. We work with many large multi-faceted press offices which have systems and procedures galore. But we also often come across the odd poor marketing person who has had PR added to their job description without ceremony, briefing or training. And there are plenty of one-man-band press officers who have never worked in the large organisations. If you recognise yourself here, this article is for you. These are the seven things I think all press officers need to hand.

Many people have PR responsibilities dumped on them without training or support

1. Media List
Sounds basic but is often missing. As a proactive PR you will need an up-to-date list of all your relevant journalists. You might want to add other useful information such as how they like to be contacted: phone, email, twitter or (heaven help us) fax machine. You might want to add their publication or deadline dates or times as it is well worth avoiding these if you want to get their attention.

2. Spokesperson List
You will also need a list of your company spokespeople, and their out-of-hours contact numbers. Notes on anything relevant, such as what they can’t or don’t want to talk about and what their family responsibilities are, will all save time if you need someone in a hurry. You might also want to make a note of when they were last media trained!

Economist Style Guide is the gold standard

3. Style Guide
Some organisations will have a style guide. If yours doesn’t you may want to create one to ensure all external written communications are standardised. The style guide will lay out such things as which terms need to be capitalised, whether you use British English or American English spellings and how you use names e.g. first and second name on first outing but just surname on second.  If you don’t know where to start you could do worse than browse the Economist Style Guide which is the gold standard. If you are starting from scratch don’t assume it has to be complicated: start with the obvious and add to it over time.

4. Jargon Buster
We think every organisation needs this and we have drawn them up ourselves for one or two clients. Jargon is the bane of a journalist’s life and if you can do the work to translate your internal jargon you will win better coverage. It is very hard for spokespeople to come up with alternative colloquial phrases during an interview. Much easier, if the PR person suggests some considered options as part of the interview preparation.

5. Events Calendar
We all have diaries and calendars of course but you might want to create one specifically for internal and relevant external events. Launch dates, executive board meetings, trade shows etc. are all relevant to the timing of press releases and other PR events. So are the introduction of new regulations or the launch of a rival company. It is much easier to plan if you have these all laid out on one at-a-glance calendar.

6. Prepared Reactive Lines
Most organisations have the negative questions that spokespeople dread coming up in an interview.  Often they will relate to issues that go back years. It is essential for the press office to know what the line is on all these issues and useful to capture these reactive lines in a document. Updates will be necessary at frequent intervals but it is much quicker to update than to start from scratch.

Consider drawing up a Crisis Comms Plan

7. Crisis Comms Plan
Crisis Communications Plans come in all shapes and sizes. You can hire the big PR agencies to provide a ‘risk audit’ of your organisation and then, at some expense, provide detailed plans for each eventuality. This is probably way over the top for most organisations. But a couple of hours spent identifying the awful or disruptive things that could happen and then working out the PR strategy could be useful. If you put it in writing and get senior management sign-off this will save you time if something does happen; rather than waiting for decisions you will be able to swing into action.

Let me know what I have missed. Wishing you all a safe and prosperous 2016 from The Media Coach Team

 

 

public-speaking

How to banish nerves from public speaking

At the start of my career I worked with a well-known and popular broadcast journalist with a ton of experience in presenting live TV.  He was confident, energetic and highly skilled at building empathetic connections with interviewees in a short space of time.

He was also crippled by nerves and once told me how he used to experience acute attacks of butterflies and adrenaline surges just before the lights went down and the cameras came on at the start of 3 hours of live TV. His description was so intense that it amazed me that people watching from home weren’t able to see what he was going through. It also made me think he was a fool for working in live TV if he still couldn’t handle his physical responses and stress after 15 years in the business.

Of course, what I later learned was that riding the adrenaline was his ‘thing’. But the broader point here is that people who get nervous about public speaking or media interviews often assume that those they consider to be good don’t suffer at all.  But that often isn’t true. Many good speakers get nervous – they just have strategies for helping them cope with stage fright.

Here are a few tips that our clients have often told us they find helpful for managing public speaking or media interview nerves.

1. Manage your expectations of yourself

Accept that that your personal experience of discomfort is not the same as the audience’s view of your performance. You might be dying inside but there is often no correlation between how you feel and what an audience (live or TV) sees.  And don’t forget that a bit of nervousness can sometimes endear the speaker to the audience, provided it doesn’t get in the way of what they are saying.

Nerves are one of the most common issues people have with public speaking

Not comfortable with speaking into microphones or to cameras? You aren’t alone. Many seasoned speakers don’t like the podium, or staring down the barrel of a massive broadcast camera. However, they are good at accepting the artifice and managing their response to it.  Practising regularly on camera can also help, partly because it gets people into the habit of treating speaking as a workable skill, while reassuring many that they aren’t as bad as feared.

2. Preparation includes practice

Preparation of message houses, PowerPoints or speaking notes is not complete unless you have rehearsed your prepared material aloud several times and got your tongue familiar with what you want to say. Trust me, it will help the nerves enormously. Particularly if you are not going to be speaking in your mother tongue.

3. Get familiar with your environment

Clearly, you aren’t going to be able to walk into a live broadcast studio and conduct your own pre-interview audit but you and your PR team can do as much due diligence as possible on what to expect in terms of technology and interview flow.  Likewise, if you are speaking at a conference or an event, it’s worth getting into the room early to see what the room layout will be like and where the podium or desk is. If you can rehearse your opening points even better.

4. Centre yourself

Everyone is jumping on the mindfulness band wagon these days but many people do find it enormously helpful for centering themselves, putting things into perspective and remaining calm. As a keen but poor runner I can also add that doing several mental run-throughs of the Brussels 20km route ahead of last year’s race helped me enormously when it came to not giving up on the final nasty uphill stretch. This may sound touchy-feely but anyone who has seen me run and done the 20km will know what I am talking about.

5. Fake it

Seriously. Lots of people worry about being in the ‘zone’ when it comes to public speaking or an interview. And while I do agree that taking a few minutes ahead of time to get into ‘performance mode’ can be helpful, I also think that a good way to create confidence is to fake it.

And who knows, you might even get so caught up in your performance that you find yourself enjoying it…

What tips work for you?

Paxman

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

The tricks journalists use in an aggressive interview are small in number and well known; and in reality, really aggressive interviews are rare. But if you think your spokesperson or you could be facing aggression here is a checklist of things to do or think about.

1. Rehearse your messages 
As with all interviews there is a need for rehearsed, thought through messages. Always ensure there is something credible to say.

2. Tough questions 
Once you have your messages, work out what the tough questions are likely to be. Politicians and even senior bosses are in a much more difficult position than most because they can often be legitimately asked about a very wide range of subjects. For most others the scope is more limited and anything outside the scope can be ‘closed down’ by simply explaining you are not the right person to answer the question.Top tips for aggressive interviews

3. Work out the answers!
Now you have worked out the tough questions, work out the answers but keep them as short as possible. These are called ‘reactive lines’ and are different to your messages. You don’t offer a reactive line unless asked the question.

4. Don’t lie
The hardest ‘reactive lines’ are the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie. In my experience there is always a way but it can take a few minutes to work it out. However tempting it is, never ever lie.

5. Beware the rabbit-punch
Beware the ‘rabbit punch’ question: a tough destabilising first question, often unexpectedly personal. It’s a technique that was often used by the now retired UK journalist, Jeremy Paxman. A couple of his classics: to politician and former cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe ‘Were you a little in love with Michael Howard?’ To the Iranian ambassador ‘Sir, your country is lying to us isn’t it’. To deal with this you need to respond briefly and if appropriate with wit and then move on to saying something credible and relevant.

Newsnights Jeremy Paxman perfected the 'rabbit-punch' question

Now retired, Jeremy Paxman perfected the ‘rabbit-punch’ question

6. Slow down
If the questions get tough, slow down your answers, it will give you more thinking time.

7. Avoid jargon 
Do not start using jargon and technical language; you will immediately loose the sympathy of the audience.

8. Be reasonable
Stay reasonable, even if the journalist isn’t, and be humble.

9. Say sorry 
If you have made a mistake admit it and say sorry.

10. Don’t say ”you’re wrong”
Don’t fight with the journalist. It’s better not to say ‘you’ at all i.e. don’t say, ‘you are wrong’, ‘I don’t know where you got that number from’, ‘you guys are all the same’, etc. If you make it personal the journalist is likely to increase their aggression. Your job is to stay reasonable and professional. In this recent Sky News interview Kay Burley uses that classic question, ‘if nothing was wrong before, why are you fixing it’. Note that Nick Varney, the CEO of Merlin Entertainment, the owners of Alton Towers, never loses his cool.

Belgian PM strikes the right chord with live interview from Charlie Hebdo demonstration

Belgian PM strikes the right chord with live interview from Charlie Hebdo demonstration

In the digital age, how physically accessible should senior politicians make themselves to a public that is more turned off and cynical  than ever about the way politics functions?

Depending on your viewpoint, social media has or hasn’t aided the democratisation of politics. But what is clear is that in many cases it has not actually brought government ministers closer to their electorate or humanised them. It’s just  given them another platform from which to tweet pictures of highly engineered ‘meet the public’ photo opportunities, while simultaneously making them more attackable online.

Belgian PM Charles Michel doing a live interview among the crowd outside the European Parliament

So that’s why I was surprised and impressed to see the new Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel doing a live TV interview in the crowd that had turned up  in the square outside the European Parliament  to show support in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.  His appearance had echoes of last year when Belgian ministers were also seen on the streets following the  fatal shootings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

It was a simple but well-judged gesture and  (judging by the reaction on Twitter) one that clearly chimed much better with the public mood than a controlled statement delivered from in/outside the PM’s offices might have been.

As a Brit living abroad and already bored by the 4 month electoral campaign that has just kicked off in the UK I wonder whether there are media lessons that the political leaders there could learn from this.

Of course,  Brussels is a much smaller city than London, so nipping down the road to do a spontaneous interview isn’t quite as straight forward for David Cameron as it would be for Charles Michel. And, leaving aside the not exactly minor issue of security, there are also risks to your credibility in making yourself too accessible and not statesmanlike enough (not to mention the possibility of it going wrong and being pelted with eggs by disgruntled members of the public).

But so rarely do we get to see our politicians against a backdrop of ordinary people (where the latter aren’t being manipulated or used as photo props) that when we do get the opportunity, it’s a breath of much needed fresh air.  But it’s a shame that it takes a tragedy to make it happen.

 

sleeping-audience

The words you think make you interesting to journalists are anything but

Interviewees overuse certain phrases which devalue them for journalists

When, if ever, is it acceptable to describe something as a ‘game-changer’ to a journalist?

One exception might be when a multibillion dollar tech company suffers a shock defeat in a court case which has landmark implications for the rest of the sector. That’s probably acceptable. Just about. But only because it’s probably an accurate reflection of the facts, and spoken by a lawyer, which means he will have chosen his words with precision.

However, I was still disappointed that I couldn’t find a better quote in this morning’s FT when reading about the Google data-privacy verdict. Not with the journalists, but with the people giving them the quotes. If the hacks had to resort to ‘game-changer’ for the quote then we truly are in a sorry state when it comes to word smithery.

There is a pervasive trend for media spokespeople to use phrases and soundbites that they think make them sound as though they are being interesting and profound when they are being anything but. In media training we call it ‘ positive-bland’ and it refers to people who use language incorrectly, or pick phrases that are so dull or overused so that they become meaningless, if not vacuous during interviews. This is not the same as using jargon, which carries its own evils, but positive-bland can flirt dangerously close to management-speak.

Game-changer is, indeed, a guilty culprit in the lexicon of positive-bland. Other usual suspects include ‘passionate’, ‘innovative’, ‘tragedy’ (really: when was it a tragedy that a football club fired its manager?) and ‘it’s all about the customer-experience’. PRs should also take note when trying to pitch to journalists. As one journalist friend mournfully notes, the most overused pitch phrases are ‘exclusive’, ‘unique’ and ‘I’ve got a scoop for you’. Invariably, they haven’t.

When crafting soundbites, it is important to pick words that are not only creative and fresh but also accurate. Otherwise, if everything is a ‘tragedy’ or ‘game-changer’, how are people going to take you seriously or find you interesting enough to quote? This was particularly evident during the financial crisis when certain prominent business journalists got very overexcited when Northern Rock went bust. But when the big American banks started going under six months later they had no way to capture the seriousness of what was happening because they had already used up all their superlatives.

If you are happy to use boring yet hyperbolic phrases that make journalists roll their eyes, then carry on being bland. Or you could spend ten minutes thinking of some different words that set you and your organisation apart. It might be an incredibly useful, if not game-changing, shift in approach. But it almost certainly won’t be a ‘paradigm shift’.