The Art of the Quote: Sizzle with Care

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

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

The Art of the Quote

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of the Quote: Best to avoid cultural stereotypes

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

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

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

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

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


Photograph of Jeroen Dijsselbloem used under Creative Comms licence. 


The dangers of sizzle without evidence

As a lesson in self publicity, it was exemplary.

But the backlash following recent comments made by the chairman of the Independent Schools Association, highlights the importance of speakers having sufficient evidence to support what they are saying.

Richard Walden entered the media spotlight last week by claiming that state schools were failing to produce pupils with a moral compass. Specifically excluding the independent sector from the problem, he said:

“the country is turning out too many amoral children because schools cannot find the time to teach the difference between right and wrong, as so much school time is spent on ‘teaching the basics’.

Richard Walden failed to support his claim that Britain is turning out too many ‘amoral’ children

As the vast majority (93%) of children educated in this country are in the state sector, this is quite an extraordinary claim. And as American astronomer Carl Sagan was keen to point out, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

So whilst we applaud Mr Walden’s use of media-friendly sizzle with remarks like “amoral children” and “moral compass”, we would also look for evidence. Where is the proof for this headline-grabbing assertion? Therein lies the problem. He says his comments were based on a survey he read several months ago, although he could not remember where he read it.

No statistics, no sample size, no explanation of its methods. He can’t even tell us who conducted the survey, so that we can evaluate its authorship and conclusions for ourselves. Instead, there’s just a sweeping generalisation, with nothing to back it up.

Whilst his audience at the Independent Schools Association Annual Conference might accept his comments at face value, the public in general – and the state school sector in particular – are likely to be a little more sceptical.

Indeed, some of them may conclude that using his influential position to publicly criticise huge numbers of children without any evidence whatsoever, and in order to promote his organisation’s interests, was somewhat “amoral” in itself.

My end of term report for Richard Walden: must try harder.


Want to keep your skills up after media training? Watch The Wire

A lot of clients ask me how they can keep their new skills up to speed following our media training sessions.

Obviously, the answer I want to give is that they should buy more training and do so on a regular basis! But I appreciate that budgets and circumstances don’t always allow for this, which is part of the reason we write coaching notes and set up this blog.

But a blog can only go so far in helping to reinforce learning because media training is about providing a practical toolkit, which can go rusty quickly if it isn’t used.

So here are some tips for PRs who want to keep their team’s skills fresh between trainings.

1. Sizzle sessions

Get colleagues together for lunch or coffee and ask them to bring news stories with quotes in. Ask them to analyse the language and explain what works and what doesn’t. Depending on

The Wire has some great speeches

their enthusiasm, these discussions could also be extended to include poetry, group viewings of speeches and Ted Talks or even monologues from TV (The Wire has some of my favourite speeches in it). There is also team-building value to this exercise but I appreciate that all organisations are different and that time is a factor.

2. News judgment clinics

As a PR you could pull together two or three pieces of coverage of the same story  (preferably one which isn’t related to your organisation).  Get colleagues to analyse the differences in tone and angle to help develop judgment. You could also ask them to rank different stories for their news value as a way of understanding how journalists put stories together and what is and isn’t a story. This may also be helpful for training junior communications staff or for getting excited non-comms colleagues to stop turning up at your desk with ‘stories’ which are actually turkeys.

3. Jargon checklists

Keep a jargon checklist: or picture your trainer looking angry

During formal sessions, most trainers will get hot under the collar about how much jargon delegates use in their practice interviews. PRs can build on this by pulling together a jargon checklist with the top ten words, which should be banished from all encounters with journalists. This could be done for all delegates as well as the organisation as a whole. Pin these checklists in prominent places so that you drum it into colleagues that jargon is a dirty word with journalists. I often tell spokespeople to picture me looking angry (which isn’t hard) before their interviews as a reminder.

 4. Practise on camera

This is blindingly obvious but make sure you do it.  A lot of PRs have cameras but don’t institute regular practice sessions. The camera won’t get itself out of the box and your team won’t improve on their own. Use it.

Here are some tips for what I think could help between sessions.

I’d love to hear from PRs: what’s worked for you?