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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.

 

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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

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?

marketing basics ignored

The marketing basic that most serious execs ignore

Storm Imogen is grabbing headlines in the UK this week, following storm Henry last week and reminding us all of the experiment being run by the UK and Irish Met Office to name storms. It began in September last year and since then we have had eight named storms including Abigail, Desmond and Gertrude. The reason given for the experiment is the belief that the naming helps efficient communication and means ‘the public will be better placed to keep themselves, their property and their businesses safe’. In doing this the two Met Offices are clearly following a system that began in 1953 in the US, and has named all hurricanes since then.

Basic communication tool

Giving memorable and easily identifiable names to something is a basic communication tool which we all use at home when we name our children and pets, give nicknames to our neighbours or name our boats and cars. So why do senior executives, particularly in software, tech and financial services companies wilfully chose not to do this?

Leonard_Nimoy_Spock_1967

Spock in 1967 StarTrek. Naming a product after a well loved character makes it memorable.

So let’s take a hypothetical example. Imagine we have a new bit of software, aimed at the small business market and called SME Payroll Overpayments Corrector. The name is a mouthful but call it SPOCK (S-P-O-C (k)) instead and suddenly we have something memorable and easy to talk about. It doesn’t have to be an acronym, that is just one easy way of doing it. But you could call this widget Pegasus or Humphrey or Matilda without any justification, or name it after the inventor or the Saints Day of the launch. Whatever is chosen will be more memorable than SME Payroll Overpayments Corrector. 

Too frivolous

The funny thing is, and I have seen this many times, when PR or marketing professionals suggest to serious executives that they deploy this simple trick, the idea is rejected as being ‘too frivolous’ or ‘out of line with the group branding’.

In one dismissive stroke of ‘group think’ one of the most basic marketing tricks of all is dismissed. And sadly it will be these same executives who are likely to later complain that the brilliant new product or widget has not had the recognition, traction or media coverage they would have liked.

Cats and Apple 

Naming blog useable pic

Apple are now naming their operating systems after Californian landmarks

The tech company Apple is much admired as a well-run business. Why do we think they chose to name their operating systems after cats (Cheetah, Puma, Jaguar etc.)? Because it made them memorable and easier to talk about. Of course for the geeks, all these also had numbers such as 10.3 and 10.4 etc. But the cat name was given prominence. Recently Apple ran out of cats and has moved to naming operating systems after well-known Californian locations: Mavericks, Yosemite etc. Here is a fuller explanation from Business Insider.

Brics and Ticks

The naming trick has also been deployed with great effect in economics and investment circles, many, many times. Think of bulls and bears for example.  Jim O’Neill is a British Economist once chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. He is best known for coining the acronym BRICs in the early 2000’s. As all my bankers will know this stands for Brazil, Russia, India and China but the acronym is used in the context of the (once) fastest growing emerging economies. Recently the FT was arguing that BRICs have now been superseded by TICKs – Taiwan, India, China and South Korea, the new darlings of emerging market investors.

And just in case you are still thinking this is all too silly, let’s remember the genius who in 1993, rather late in a crowded market of new mobile phone companies (many of which subsequently fell by the wayside) decided to call his company Orange. Who would have thought that would work!

Don’t let a name check make you sound like a robot

Don’t let a name check make you sound like a robot

Is it ever ok for organisations to talk about themselves in the third person?

Any media trainer will almost certainly say no, adding that nothing de-humanises a spokesperson faster than those who say ‘Organisation X’ rather than ‘we’ when speaking on behalf of their company, institution or NGO.

From Churchill to Martin Luther King to Boris Johnson, effective public speakers have always known and understood the importance of ‘we’ for building empathy.  And, more recently, as Lindsay blogged in December, part of the spine-tingling power of UK Shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Benn’s ‘Syria’ speech was in its appeal to ‘our children’ and ‘our values’.

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Don’t let brand placement make you sound like a robot

Clearly, these are examples of rhetoric designed to quickly persuade and carry an audience with the speaker.  But if you need convincing at a more mundane level, consider these two statements. Which one builds trust and makes you think the spokesperson is comfortable and open in the way they represent their organisation at a day to day level?

‘Company X does not believe the Warsaw Agreement reflects a true evaluation of the available data on alternatives to Substance B. Company X worked for more than 20 years, with input from regulators, to introduce alternatives.‘

OR

‘We do not believe that the Warsaw Agreement reflects a true evaluation of the available data on alternatives to Substance B.  We have been working for more than 20 years, with input from regulators, to introduce alternatives’.

Clearly, (unless you are a robot), you are going to pick answer B.  It seems an incredibly basic thing for companies and public institutions to get right.  And yet, many do still overlook the all-important ‘we’, with its overtones of collective responsibility and inclusiveness.

Why? How could they?

Part of this is almost certainly down to branding. In our sardine-tin of a digital landscape, many organisations probably believe the best way to stand out is to name-check themselves as often and as loudly as possible.  There are also those who think using the third person adds gravitas, objectivity and even distance to sensitive or weighty issues.  And while all of these arguments are understandable, they shouldn’t automatically be favoured over ‘we’ or ‘us’.

And finally, in certain (ahem) policy towns, the persistent over-use of the third rather than the first person may well be a hangover from the adaptation of written materials to oral ones i.e. where lines/messages are prepared on paper by subject matter experts working in their second or third language and without forethought about how the words will sound coming out of an actual human being’s mouth.

Which is why it’s even more essential for spokespeople to rehearse (or, at the very least, read) their work aloud before doing a press conference or green-lighting a press release.  Otherwise, they run the risk of sounding like automatons who aren’t actually connected to the organisation they represent. And if they don’t sound like they care about their organisation, then how can the rest of us be expected to?

 
a case for clear arguments on radio

How not to talk about free trade: a case study

An interview on the business slot of this morning’s Radio 4‘s Today programme reminded me how important it is for broadcast spokespeople to make their arguments clear and concrete even if they think their desired audience already knows what they are talking about.

From recent professional experience I know that the issue of TTIP –  i.e. the sprawling free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the EU and US – is one that  flummoxes people who have to talk about it. The mere mention of its almost wilfully boring title – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – could put a charging rhino to sleep at 100 paces.   And, depending on your viewpoint it’s either a huge opportunity to create jobs and growth on both sides of the Atlantic or a neo-liberal conspiracy to give big business free rein to undermine European social values and safeguards.

So this is a hard topic to talk about, as it seems vast, vague and abstract.  On top of that, most of the TTIP negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors and the resulting information vacuum has been filled with rumour. However, if it is your job to make the case for or against TTIP you need to make a compelling argument if you’re going to be persuasive and memorable.

Sadly, the interview in question was not one of those. Gary Campkin is director of International Strategy with TheCityUK, an independent membership body that promotes the UK financial services industry within the UK & internationally.

 1. Where were the messages?

Mr Campkin failed to nail his elevator pitch. Rather, than taking the bull by the horns he talked vaguely about ‘potential for the future’, growth’ and ‘jobs’ before moving onto the trump card of ‘regulatory coherence’. This is the pits: if regulatory coherence is your best interview line then you will lose half your audience. The journalist  immediately spotted this, and  interrupted Mr Campkin to ask what TTIP will actually do but then had to prise an example out of him. This was poor preparation on Mr Campkin’s part. He should have been able to offer up several clear and concrete examples, ideally about the benefits for the UK’s small businesses and consumers, without being prompted.   He was better on the US-UK trade relationship and emphasised that the bilateral export relationship was the most important one the UK had ever had. But he should have done more, as he still sounded speculative, abstract and disengaged from his topic.

2. No control strategy

TTIP is controversial. A lot of people think it’s going to see privatisation of the NHS and give companies power to sue governments. Mr Campkin was mostly in rebuttal territory and did not have a convincing strategy for dealing with these entirely predictable negative questions. He could have provided context from previous trade agreements or named the EU negotiators leading the talks to make him appear more plugged in to what’s going on. As it was, he simply talked about ‘cast iron’ guarantees from the UK Government and EU negotiators (whoever they are) without providing any evidence or linking back to broader arguments about the benefits to the UK from TTIP.

3. Enthusiasm

Mr Campion was not the world’s most enthusiastic interviewee. He didn’t need to jump out of his chair or go into Ted Talk mode but he could have faked it a bit so that he didn’t sound as though it was 6:15 on a Wednesday morning and that he had skimmed the briefing his PR had given him in the car on the way to the BBC.

Talking about TTIP is never going to set people’s worlds on fire (unless you are hold strong views about it in the first place). But if you are a spokesperson for or against it then you need to work extra hard to de-conceptualise it. And you need to sound like you care about what happens. Otherwise, you can be sure no one else will.

You can click here to see my tips on how to communicate more effectively on TTIP.

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Migraines and midwives: why the minister’s interview was not what the doctor ordered

Very little can rouse me from a post-migraine stupor when I’m feeling sorry for myself as I was this morning. However, while listening to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 (a live special on midwives which was being broadcast from a hospital in Liverpool) I heard an interview with Dan Poulter, the Health Minister which was sufficiently annoying to force me muttering from sick bed to computer.

You can hear the interview here for the next seven days (it starts at 29:53).

1254813_Dan-Porter_MG_7073

Health Minister Dan Poulter was too slick on Woman’s Hour

I don’t know why I was so irritated as there was nothing wrong with it from a technical perspective. Dr Poulter had his messages worked out, he provided context, used numbers (2000 new midwives, a record 6000 in training) and meaningful examples, such as birthing pools and en suite bathrooms. He was also disciplined about trotting out his prepared sizzle (or in this case management consultant speak) ‘women want more choice about where they give birth’ and ‘best possible support’.

And maybe this is why it was so annoying. As an exercise in message control it was fine but this wasn’t enough to

make him a good interviewee. What was noticeably missing was empathy (I’m obsessed with it at the moment) and a willingness to even address the central issue. It didn’t help that Dr Poulter was late for the interview (he was supposed to be on earlier in discussion with a midwife) and was cut short. As a man with power in this most female of health areas, he needed to display extra sensitivity and sympathy. But he sounded bored and refused to acknowledge the central question: why do midwives feel they can’t do their job properly due to a shortage of staff and funding?

Time and again my clients and friends tell me that the thing they hate the most about politicians is their refusal to take questions head on. Now, I have some sympathy here because politicians can’t always give a straight answer due to a of a lack of information, or because conceding ground will make a headline or create a story in its own right. However, refusing to even acknowledge the question and bludgeoning people with your message is not only evasive but also ineffective because it turns the listener off.

This was highlighted for me during a conversation over the weekend with a friend’s mother who is a lawyer at media organisation in the UK. She said that their internal research shows that the public are far more inclined to give a company a second chance if it’s spokespeople don’t try to avoid questions but show humility when things go wrong or when people have legitimate questions.

Now, Dr Poulter didn’t do a bad interview in a technical sense. But it really was a case of trotting out the prepared line rather than genuinely engaging with the questions. Digital media has made this kind of exchange all the more jarring because, even though it’s only right to promote your side of the argument, a reluctance to engage or even appear human is something people increasingly won’t stand for. And it doesn’t win politicians any brownie points with a public who already think they are out of touch and don’t know how to talk to ordinary people.

stories

Telling tales: how to develop a storytelling culture at work

Barely a day goes by without some communications tsar or journalist evangelising the benefits of storytelling for business and politics. And regular readers of this blog and our clients will also know just how much emphasis we place on the value of stories for making arguments concrete and memorable for the media, politicians, voters, customers or other members of the public.

“The manager of a bottling plant in Alsace told me the other day that …” can lead to an illustration of the importance of new labour regulations, environmental controls, human rights legislation, etc, etc.

“I was travelling in Eastern Spain over the Christmas holidays and came across a …” could introduce a killer example to support an immigrant rights campaign, social welfare legislation, drought/flooding alleviation measures, language-teaching subsidies, etc, etc.

That’s fine, in principle. But how do you develop a storytelling culture in organisations or industries whose staff see this kind of approach as purely something for the communications department to focus on?

stories at work

A well crafted story makes messages memorable and sticky

Brussles doesn’t do story-telling well. Here are some tips for beleaguered communications staff to wield with recalcitrant colleagues.

1. Remember the big picture

Unless you are seriously odd, or read the rightwing British press (or both), EU regulation and legislation are not end-goals in their own right. Whether you’re talking to MEPs, journalists or members of your trade association, the particular directive your colleagues are working on is always part of a bigger story, be it about public health, the environment, or data protection. Encourage colleagues to take a step back and recognise the purpose and impact of their work outside Brussels. I accept this is tricky but it’s important.

2. Sort out the messaging

If you don’t have decent messages, work with the public affairs team and policy experts to refashion them into a proper story, which uses the legislative process to supply the detail (and not the narrative).  Less is often more. My heart sinks when I see unambitious and overcomplicated messages that are full of unsubstantiated assertions and meaningless proof points.

3. Know what isn’t a story

Resist the urge to comment on every single micro development that comes out of the Parliament, Commission and Council. There is far too much position paper and press release writing going on in Brussels as it is. I know I am not the only (ex) journalist who would be happy to never read another Brussels missive ‘welcoming’ some Commission announcement or announcing that the European Pencil Sharpener Association (also known as P.O.I.N.T.L.E.S.S.) held a conference. Don’t do it. These things are not interesting and they are not stories. Communications directors must stand their ground on this one.

4. Get your pipeline sorted

You can’t have a storytelling culture without stories and numbers (often known as proof points). If you are in a trade association or NGO coalition you may struggle to get decent material from your members.  But they are like gold dust in Brussels (because they are painful to source). Try to set up relationships with colleagues or wider association members who understand what you need and can help feed your pipeline. Tell them what you are looking for and ask them to give you examples and numbers that are memorable, show a relationship or can be put in context (i.e. which tell a story).

5. Apply this approach to everything

Whether it’s company notepads, posters, presentations, social media output or infographics, make sure all your organisation’s communications reflect its values and impact. If you are a grant-making body, this means putting an end to photos of meetings and handshakes and getting more action shots of children being taught in school, or fishermen using new nets.

Here are five ideas for how to encourage a storytelling approach in your organisation.

Let me know what’s worked for you?