The British newspapers are all covering the details of Philip Green’s findings on government spending. The retail entrepreneur has spent a mere two months investigating procurement and has come up with enough evidence of waste to create a blaze of publicity.
What is interesting about this story is how a fairly limited amount of information is made to go a very long way; and that is because Philip Green doesn’t just understand about procurement and cost cutting. He also understands how to communicate.
We talk in training of the ‘magic formula’ of quotable language (sizzle), numbers and tangible examples. Well – here is that formula applied in spades.
Taking the language first, the Green is pugnacious and highly quotable. His comment that leaving buildings empty is ‘bonkers’ makes it into the Financial Times along with the quote ‘It is an opportunity. If this was a company and we found stuff like that we would be licking our lips’. In The Times his quotes, and there are many, include ‘shocking’ and ‘Is there any excuse why the Government doesn’t put Microsoft IBM Dell, the four or five major companies from which they buy things – in a room and then beat them up for the best price’. In the Daily Mirror, it is ‘staggering’ that makes it into the headline.
Using language like this gets you quoted. It also means people remember what you say. It increases the ‘stickiness’ of the message, as followers of Malcolm Gladwell will recognise. Interestingly, these phrases are not the crafted soundbites of a PR campaign. That is obvious because all the papers are using different quotes.
Green is just one of those people who talks like this. That means he gives the journalists a wide range of quotes from which to choose. It is effective but one could argue it is overkill. Simply providing less choice of quotes, gives an interviewee more control of the actual phrases chosen, if that is the game they want to play.
What is also highly effective about the information released in Green’s report is the use of numbers and example. In this case the report runs through a list of tangible things: car hire, office paper, hotel rooms, laptops. Against each there is a highest and lowest price. Journalists love this sort of information because it is so easy to use. And the list of itemised government waste is all over the news. It enables the Financial Times, for example, to produce a front page graphic in the style of the Independent, a theme they continue inside. Every news outlet does something with that list.
We trainers are constantly trying to persuade people to use specific tangible examples rather than more general conceptual words because it increases the effectiveness of the communication. Put simply, ‘paper and paperclips’ works better than ‘stationery’ simply because it creates a picture. People we train often worry that it is inaccurate. How often have I heard objections like ‘it’s not just paper and paperclips; it’s pens and post it notes and pencils etc. It is inaccurate.’ The interesting thing is that that is doesn’t matter. The consumer of this information will quickly work that out the general from the specific. There may or may not be research to prove it but it seems clear that most people find it easier to abstract from a few tangible items to the general, than they do to remember what the general refers to. Ask people in the street what is meant by ‘Government Procurement’ and people will have to stop and think. Say ‘everything the government buys; from warplanes to paperclips’ and you have instant understanding.
The really interesting thing about this story is that for a very limited bit of research and some very savvy publicity, it is likely that Green has achieved something often sought after by PR initiatives: he has ‘changed the conversation’. Until 10th October government spending cuts were synonymous in the public’s mind with job cuts. Now the public believes there are many other ways to save government spending. And what’s more the civil servants and public employees up and down the land have been woken up to the consequences of their actions.