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Trump banned unfriendly news organisations

Trump Banned Unfriendly News Organisations: Why You Should Not

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations from a White House press conference at the end of last week stepping up the ‘ante’ in the clash between the new President and the Fourth Estate. He has banned The Guardian, New York Times, Politico, CNN, BBC and Buzzfeed; all organisations apparently seen as hostile to the new order.

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations

President Donald Trump banned some news organisations from a White House briefing

Trump ban: no surprise

In some ways, it is no surprise. Trump comes from a business background and business is always much more selective about engagement with the media than politicians or administrations. How this will all play out in American politics is anybody’s guess. We are in unchartered territory.

But it does highlight the issue faced by many companies. Do they risk engaging with the media, knowing there is a possibility they will get unfriendly coverage? Or do they refuse to engage and hope little will be written or read about their company or any issues?

Business is too cautious

My own view is that business is much too cautious and much too controlling when it comes to the media. There are certainly times when it is better not to put your corporate head above the parapet but in general, the risks of media engagement are well understood and reasonably easily managed. There are of course a few exceptions.

But this is why I think business should engage more than they do.

Firstly, there is the obvious reason that editorial coverage is worth a great deal more than advertising. It tends to be read by the right people – your customers and other stakeholders will read stuff that is relevant to them. Despite the fact that fewer people pay for a newspaper these days, the efficiency of search engines and social media sharing means little is missed. Editorial coverage is also seen as more credible than advertising, and there is scope for much more sophisticated communication than in advertising.

Established relationships with journalists are useful

Secondly, it is hugely helpful to an organisation or business to have established relationships with journalists. It means that when they do want to get information ‘out there’ it can be done much more easily. It also gives the press office more options: to pick one journalist over another from a position of real knowledge, offer exclusives etc. Working relationships are essential and understood in other areas of business but undervalued in PR.

Thirdly, it is also hugely helpful to organisations to have trained and experienced spokespeople. This is particularly true if there is likely to be a crisis at some point in the future. You need a handful of people who know the game, have done a few radio and TV interviews and are not going to be phased by the process. As media trainers we are all too often asked to take people from first steps to ready for Radio 4’s Today programme in one four-hour session. Common sense will tell you that this is not ideal. 

The big win: shaping the conversation

mp banned George_Lakoff

George Lakoff has written about how the right-wing in the US has been shaping the public conversation

Finally, there is a more subtle benefit: engaging with the media provides the opportunity to, over time, shape the conversation. This requires a somewhat sophisticated longer-term media strategy but is something that can really work particularly for innovative industries – FinTech for example. There is a business benefit to softening up the public or creating expectations. This has been endlessly written about in politics. For example, the hugely readable ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ by George Lakoff. His revised and updated edition demonstrates how the right wing have played a very long game and a very successful one in shaping the debate in the US. While the democrats have mostly failed to do this. In the UK think about how Micheal O’Leary at Ryanair has shaped the debate over what we pay for when we buy an airline ticket.

Withdrawal of business from public debate has been damaging

On this last point, I would like to get on my socio-political soap box. The withdrawal of business from the public conversation over the last 30 years has been hugely damaging to British society. As a result of the apparent risks of media engagement going up in the mid-eighties and early nineties, more and more companies decided to control all conversations with journalists and in many cases turn down most interview opportunities. I know this happened because I saw it first hand as an output editor on BBC Financial World Tonight. During my time from about 1989 to 1994, it got steadily harder to find business people to talk.

[Although a few businesses did nail their colours to the mast over Scottish Independence and Brexit very few chose to be interviewed. It was deemed that the risks were too high. But my main concern is about more general everyday matters.]

Trump banned capitalism crisis

Many young people now believe business is bad for humanity

The result this withdrawal from the public conversations is that huge swathes of the under 25’s now think making money is wrong and that anyone making money is damaging the human race. Whilst the reality is, while some businesses can be exploitative – and I know a few – in general business is delivering an extraordinary level of comfort, service, interest and freedom of choice to the population.

So, why are businesses in general so reluctant to talk about their successes in the media? Well occasionally they do but when you think what a huge role business is playing in the life and development of the country, business is vastly under-represented.

If you would like to get more media coverage for your organisation we can of course help by training your spokespeople or helping develop your messages. So do pick up the phone (020 7099 2212) . Your country needs you!

Shaping the conversation: further reading

A good introduction to ‘shaping public conversations’ from a poverty action group in the US.

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

Key Messages are magic

Key Messages are magic: you almost certainly need some

Key messages are something that when I was a journalist I would have scoffed at. I remember the BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys saying that anyone who says you need three key messages to do a radio interview is talking rubbish. Now with more than 10 years media and presentation training experience, I am confident in saying he is utterly and completely wrong.

Key Messages are magic

A few hours with a trained journalist could save you days of frustrating email negotiation

Key Messages helped George

To illustrate let me introduce someone we will call George. George is an old friend of my family. I have known him since he was 12 and he is now in his late 20s. He is ferociously bright with a brain that is capable of holding huge amounts of detailed and diverse information. He has encyclopedic knowledge of geography, global politics and the railways of Europe (!). But when he went for his dream-job interview, he lost out. They gave him very specific feedback; he had bombarded them with too much information and too much detail and they had not fully followed his arguments. (My interpretation is they were not sure if they were dealing with a genius or a nutcase.)  So he came to spend an afternoon with me and we sorted out his messages: how he would describe his professional skills and how projects he had completed in other jobs were evidence of his knowledge and ability.

I see myself as a …

What I feel I would bring to this organisation is…

Etc…

We also worked out what he was going to say, if asked, about a ‘hole’ in his CV. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation but it was complicated.

And then we rehearsed.  Which is exactly what we do in Media Training.

Key Messages organise thoughts

It is understandable that John Humphrys would not see the necessity for this sort of preparation for either a job or a media interview.  After a lifetime as a journalist and broadcaster, Humphrys and his ilk need only to think about something to be able to articulate it as a simple argument. It is their professional skill. (Interestingly, journalists rarely recognise this as a skill. They assume everyone can do it despite daily evidence to the contrary.)

Let’s take another example. Imagine someone has spent the last five years managing clients and designing an ‘end to end process solution’ for automating the work of people who pick the items for your on-line order in a vast warehouse. What are the chances of that person being able to articulate the advantages of 3D barcodes or warehouse management software in simple language?

Absolutely zero.

This does not mean that particular professional is inadequate.  It just reminds us that experts often find it hard to articulate a helicopter view. Under questioning they often get lost in the detail and led down blind and unhelpful intellectual by-ways.

Key Messages are useful everywhere

I recently facilitated a meeting helping draw up the talking points for a new international strategy for tackling a specific set of problems in emerging economies. It sounds a long way from media and presentation training but actually is remarkably closely related.

This gutting of a detailed strategy document to identify a few easy-to-grasp core ideas is a task regularly faced in many different forms by all sorts of teams in business. But it can take weeks. Putting all stakeholders together with a former journalist will save hours if not days of frustrating email negotiation.

Back to George. I am delighted to report that George got the next job he applied for and is now being offered a promotion and a new role in another European country. Well done George. And another triumph for the magic of messaging.

If you know people who need help sorting out their messages give us a call.

 

Key Messages: online articles

There are plenty of online articles explaining the basics of key messaging. Here are a few:

Trade Association Business People

Trade Associations: Breaking Bland

Trade Associations have a structural problem when it comes to PR. Getting timely agreement to say anything that is not just bland.

I once e-mailed a Brussels journalist friend to compliment his choice of quote from a trade association in an article he had written about a controversial European Commission ruling.

Trade Associations Brussels

There are hundreds of trade associations in Brussels that struggle to get their voice heard

In response he wrote:

‘Their press stuff is rubbish. I harvested it from their submission to the Commission consultation, which no one expects a journalist to read. I was just fed up by the bland stuff all these groups spoon feed us’.

Trade Associations: hampered by structural challenges

And herein lies the problem particularly here in Brussels. Hampered by structural challenges including speed and disagreement among members, most Trade Associations struggle to deliver something clear, credible and concrete in a timely fashion. However, the final diluted version is often unusable for journalists, meaning they either ignore it or, as in the case above, go digging around for something juicier elsewhere.

Trade Associations Business people

Journalists get frustrated with bland comments cobbled together by committee.

Below are some tips from my own workshops and clients on how trade associations (both at a national and EU level) can get agreement on sticky’ media messages.

Trade Associations: insider tips from Media Coach workshops

Be strategic
Sounds like a no-brainer. It’s not. If you want to make an impact with your message then the person doing communication at the trade association needs to be empowered by the Secretary General to act strategically, and not just be a service provider for colleagues who want a fact sheet printed.

Get the board involved early
Work with visionary board members to identify broad socio-economic issues that go beyond narrow sectoral interests and disagreements over positions. Invite them to take part in dedicated messaging sessions and get them to own and sell the outcome to their peers.

Think big
This may be controversial but I would try to avoid messaging positions/narrow reactions to legislative changes. It’s boring, technical and usually ends up having to be watered down to mask internal divisions.  You may be the two people Euro Widget Association but you should still try to aim big, inclusive and visionary and to link the messages to bigger issues that have a societal dimension. As Simon Sinek argues in his Golden Circles talk, the most successful communicators are those who can explain at a very fundamental level of ‘why’ they do what they do and why it matters.

Don’t confuse being interesting with being provocative.

A good message is clear, succinct and uses language, numbers and examples in interesting ways. This does not mean resorting to hyperbole. As EurActiv journalist James Crisp noted in a recent blog: if a piece of legislation is likely to be damaging, then use the word damaging. But if it’s not going to destroy the sector, then don’t say that it will. No one will believe you and you’ll look silly.

These are just some thoughts.

What’s worked for you?

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines: do not criticise using a metaphor, interesting or flowery language. [If you are a student of The Media Coach we would say don’t ‘sizzle’ on the negative.]

The firestorm that surrounded the comments from Ofsted chairman David Hoare, about the Isle of Wight ‘ghetto’ with ‘inbreeding’ caused a deep sigh from me. When will they learn!

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines: be cautious in your language

Here is a man who is in public life, and has been chairman of Ofsted, the school’s regulator, for two years. Before that, he had 30 years in business and was a trustee of the Academies Enterprise Trust which runs 60 schools. Why does he not know that, unless you want headlines, you should be very cautious in your language when you are being negative.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: journalists love criticism

Journalists love criticism. They live in a world of black and white, heroes and villains, goodies and baddies. They love to report conflict. They love it so much that they often manufacture it. If they don’t actually make it up, they will certainly fan the flames of even a tiny spark in the hope that it will become a two-week long conflagration.

When I was a local radio reporter at the beginning of my journalistic career I worked out quickly the way to deal with a boring interviewee; persuade them to criticise someone or somebody. I had a list: the council, the public, the government or the landlord. Any one of these would give me a headline. Teacher slams councillor, Norfolk councillor blames the government, Norfolk landlord criticised, etc. Usually it didn’t work, interviewees saw the danger and declined to be led into controversy. I can’t remember but perhaps occasionally it did because I went on trying.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: don’t play with fire

And that is my point. How can these senior people not see that they are playing with fire.

Last week I blogged about how Kevin Roberts of Saatchi and Saatchi aggravated his first crime (suggesting women in advertising lacked ambition) by criticising a well-known campaigner Cindy Gallop.

Here are a bunch of other people who have criticised without thought and had to apologise:

Boris Johnson accused Liverpool of wallowing in disproportionate grief for Ken Bigley who was killed in Iraq.

Ken Livingstone had to apologise after suggesting North Durham MP Kevan Jones, needed psychiatric help and was “obviously depressed and disturbed”.

Michael Gove was forced to apologise for comparing pro-EU experts to Nazi propagandists.

Labour MP Pat Glass had to apologise after calling voter a “horrible racist”.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: check the mic is off

There is a whole other category of gaffes made when the perpetrator thought they were in private but their comments were caught on microphone.

There was the one that contributed to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown losing an election, when he called a Rochdale pensioner ‘that bigoted woman’.

A famous one from long ago, well 1993, was ‘those bastards in the cabinet’, an unguarded remark from the then Prime Minister John Majorabout three of his colleagues.

Another Prime Minister, David Cameron, was caught on mic telling the Queen that Afghanistan and Nigeria were two of the most corrupt countries in the world. 

This was shortly followed by the Queen being caught on camera saying the Chinese officials had been very rude’ to the British Ambassador during an earlier state visit. 

I cannot really write about gaffes without mentioning Prince Philip, who has a whole file for which he has never apologised. But then he is married to the Queen.

 

Why do executives need media training? Kevin Roberts

Why do executives need media training?

Why do executives need media training? Because they need to be reminded of the dangers of media interviews on a fairly regular basis. If not they can do something stupid that damages the brand and themselves as Kevin Roberts, executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi did last week.

Why do executives need media training?

Kevin Roberts

I had the privilege of making a documentary on Roberts for Bloomberg television many years ago and of all the programmes I did, this was the one I enjoyed most. Roberts was an extremely interesting man and I am personally saddened to see a thoughtless interview cause him so much trouble.

Roberts decided to be outspoken and provocative in an interview with Business Insider. You can read the article here. In it, Roberts claims the issue of equality for women in the advertising industry, unlike in financial services and elsewhere, is over.

Roughly half of the people working in the industry are women. However, while they are well represented they tend not to hold the top jobs. The CEOs of all six major advertising agencies are men. Also, there have recently been allegations of sexism at the top of another agency, J Walter Thompson.

When this was put to Roberts he gave some highly quotable comments about women choosing not to go for the top jobs because they were happy where they were.

Why do executives need media training? Criticising others is bound to get you quoted

He did not stop at explaining his view that women had ‘arrived’ but were choosing not to take the top jobs. He went on to personally criticise a well-known campaigner from the industry, Cindy Gallop, saying she had ‘problems’ and was ‘making up a lot of the stuff’ thereby ensuring that Gallop and her supporters would hit back. Here is a report from The Drum about the response to the Business Insider story.

Why do executives need media training?

Cindy Gallop

Roberts was immediately suspended from his job. He may be the executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi but the agency is owned by the French giant Publicis, and the board moved swiftly to distance itself from Roberts and his comments.

For the record, Saatchi and Saatchi employ 65% women and recently promoted a woman, Kate Stanners, to Global Chief Creative Officer. Stanners appeared on the Today programme on Monday, to contradict her boss and explain that women in advertising were just as ambitious as the men.

Why do executives need media training? Interviews can get hijacked

Who knows why Roberts decided to sound-off about this particularly delicate subject. From a media trainer’s point of view, reading the write up of the interview,  it is clear there was little preparation on this point and no caution or careful messaging. In my experience diversity, race and gender issues, are amongst the most difficult to talk about publicly because so much can be open to misinterpretation or quoting out of context. It is not clear from the story, but I doubt this issue was the stated focus of the interview. I suspect it was a planned hijack by the journalist Lara O’Reilly. She seemed to have gone in with her facts and numbers to hand. From a journalistic point of view, she did a great job and got a real scoop, as well as a scalp. Kevin Roberts seems unlikely to keep his job. [Update: he resigned on 3rd August.]

Photo credits: Kevin Roberts from YouTube. Cindy Gallop used under Creative Comms Licence.

Andrea Leadsom you need media training

Andrea Leadsom: you need media training

Andrea Leadsom is a classic example of a smart, sensible, ambitious person who thought that the world does not need ‘spin’.

andrea leadsom you need media training

Andrea Leadsom needs media training.

Like so many before her she apparently felt she should speak to the press in an open, straightforward way; honestly answering questions as they are put. It sounds perfectly reasonable. The problem is it doesn’t work. I have already pointed out in last week’s blog post that Leadsom was naive in her interview with Andrew Marr, who bounced her into a commitment to release her tax returns.

Andrea Leadsom: evidence of naivety

That she has now quit the race after a row over her interview with Rachel Sylvester of The Times is more evidence of her naivety.

Here is a transcript of the relevant bit of what she said, as published by The Times and republished on the Conservatives own website.

Andrea Leadsom: In terms of the country I think I absolutely understand how the economy works and can really focus on turning it around. In terms of personal qualities I see myself as one an optimist and two a huge member of a huge family and that’s important, my kids are a huge part of my life, my sisters my two brothers who are half brothers my mum and step dad’s sons who are very close, huge part of a family so very grounded and normal, enormously optimistic. 

Sylvester: Does your family inform your politics? 

Leadsom: Oh, totally.

Sylvester: During the euro debates, you said several times ‘as a mum’ . Do you feel like a mum in politics? 

Leadsom: Yes.

Sylvester: Why and how? 

Leadsom: So, really carefully, because I am sure, I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’, because I think that would be really horrible but, genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake. She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people. But I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next. So it really keeps you focussed on what are you really saying, because what it means is you don’t want a downturn but never mind, ten years hence it will all be fine, my children will be starting their lives in that next ten years so I have a real stake in the next year, the next two.”

Here is how Sylvester wrote it up:

andrea leadsom times article motherhood

 

Leadsom says she was disgusted by this write-up. Here is her statement on the report.

Andrea Leadsom: her complaints

Leadsom complained about two things.

  • She says she told Rachel Sylvester repeatedly, that she did not want to make her family an issue in the campaign and yet the journalist did.

The Media Coach’s view: It’s no good telling a journalist you do not want to focus on something, speak about something or make something an issue if you then go on to talk about it! The quotes are still quotes.

  • She is ‘disgusted’ that Sylvester, or the sub-editor, made the motherhood comments the headline of the story. Yet everyone knows the interviewee has no control over which bit of an interview is given the most prominence and which the least.

The Media Coach’s view: If you don’t want it as a headline don’t say it. If you don’t want it quoted, don’t say it. In an interview you are not briefing an advertising agency, you are talking to an independent journalist.

For the record, we should note that Leadsom apologised to Theresa May for the comments.

I recently had a heated conversation with a friend who explained she hated Tony Blair because every time he spoke you could tell he was really thinking about his words, which ‘proved’ he wasn’t genuine. Personally, I would prefer a Prime Minister who thought carefully about what they were saying before speaking in public, or in private for that matter. This does not mean they are not genuine, it just means they do not trust that their ‘stream of consciousness’ will give them the wisest choice of words.

The Media Coach verdict on Andrea Leadsom: this level of naivety means she was not ready to be Prime Minister, a conclusion she seemed to have reached for herself.

(A version of this article was published as a LinkedIn post.)

 

 

How to survive a TV debate, Michael Gove

How to survive a TV debate 2: Gove the fearless

Students of how to survive a TV debate would learn rather different lessons from watching Michael Gove, a leading spokesperson for the UK’s EU Leave campaign, compared to the first debate in the series with Prime Minister David Cameron.

You can watch the full one hour debate here.

How to survive a TV debate: good humour and grace under fire

This was another polished performance, full of good humour and an ability to handle aggressive questioning with toughness, but also good grace and prepared lines. But where the Prime Minister apparently answered questions, Michael Gove sought to move the debate onto different grounds. This is what you do when you have less facts and less third-party endorsements than the opposition. Gove rarely responded directly to questions whilst waiting for the opportunity to land his message: he went from question to message in a heartbeat.

Here is an example.
How many independent economic authorities share your dream of Britain outside the EU? Can you name a single one?
If you are talking about the economic authorities that have already weighed into the debate, they are people who have been wrong in the past and who didn’t predict the global crash in 2008…I prefer to take the views of business people …

Michael Gove repeatedly landed his messages. Here are the ones I spotted with links to other commentators who saw what I did.

How to survive a TV debate: deploy metaphors

One of the best lines of the debate came from a member of the audience. He argued ‘You are asking us to vote for a divorce and sort out the financial settlement afterwards. That makes no sense to me, you negotiate before (you leave). And with respect Mr Gove, you are like a First World War general, waiving the flag, saying ‘over the top men’. But you have no idea what is going on on the front line or what the casualty rate will be’. Gove listened to this patiently and then answered respectfully and skillfully moving the conversation on to his message about putting faith in the British people.

Gove had good metaphors of his own. He suggested that the UK, ‘rather than being a difficult lodger in a house we didn’t design could be a friendly neighbour in a home we could call our own’.

As we have noted many times before in our blogs, metaphors are mighty powerful weapons of war.

What was missing from a spin doctors point of view were the numbers and the everyday examples. Where was the fan-belt maker from Bolton and the car exporters from Sunderland?

How to survive a TV debate: rhetorical flourish

There were however, some clever rhetorical flourishes. Gove challenged us all to name the five presidents of Europe. He asserted that none of us could. ‘The European Union’, he said, ‘is not a democracy, no one is elected, no one can name the presidents and none of us can sack them’. He went on: ‘The most powerful symbol of our democracy is the removal van that arrives outside 10 Downing Street every five or ten years’. Examples of prepared, powerful, clever, rhetoric.

Interestingly, while the questions from the audience were just as tough as in the previous programme, overall the audience were much more supportive of Michael Gove than they were of the Prime Minister. While the set piece interview for Gove was more manic, with more interruptions and more heated, the discussion with the audience was much friendlier and more respectful.

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.

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.