In my wildest fantasies I like to indulge myself that one day I might be someone who stops traffic whenever the Media Coach motorcade passes through town on its way to official business. Sadly for me, the traffic being stopped in Beirut last week had nothing to do with my presence but was down to that of a very different someone - Iranian President Ahmadinejad – who was in Lebanon for his first state visit to the country.
For obvious reasons, the security measures were parlaysing and the Lebanese army, as well as the Iranian and Hizbullah security teams were running a superb disinformation campaign, telling all and sundry that Ahmadinejad was staying in every even-vaguely swanky hotel in town. As a precautionary security measure this was clearly the right strategy. But it bamboozled the Lebanese (who are generally reliant on their cars for getting around) and anyone else trying to navigate a normal way of life around Beirut’s gridlocked streets.
As it turned out, Ahmadinejad was staying in the Phoenicia Hotel just across the street from me. This could be seen as a surprising PR slip because the Phoenicia is the smartest hotel in Beirut (standard rooms start at $300 a night) and it appears to completely undermine the ‘man of the people image’ which his advisors have worked so hard to project. The carefully crafted persona (based on small, plausible details) is that of someone who drives a Volkswagen, doesn’t use the Presidential palace and sustains a bond with Iran’s poor by railing against the excesses of American imperialism.
In general, Ahmadinejad is someone who is pretty savvy when it comes to using the media. Whole articles have been dedicated to his over the top soundbites – or what we at the Media Coach call ‘Hyper-Sizzle’. ‘Sizzle’ is our name for quotable language i.e. the language journalists pick up and use depending on how emotive or inflammatory it is. As those of you have attended our courses know, we use a (highly technical) scale to demonstrate how Sizzle works and its impact on journalists. At the bottom of the scale there is boring conceptual language that no journalist in their right mind would quote in a story. And at the top there is ‘Hyper-Sizzle’ which is language that is so emotive, no journalist in their right mind wouldn’t quote it.
It’s not just Ahmadinejad who uses ‘Hyper-Sizzle’. Other speakers (generally politicians) use it when they want to create a specific impact and are prepared to shoulder the fallout. As French Interior Minister in 2005, Nicolas Sarkozy famously described Parisian rioters as ‘scum’ when he was playing to voters ahead of the elections that would carry him to the Elysee Palace two years later. More recently, European Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding was uncharacteristically terse when she branded the French government’s allegedly duplicitous behaviour over the Roma deportations ‘a disgrace’.
I generally advise my clients not to speak in ‘Hyper-Sizzle’ unless they want to risk unleashing a wave of press attention with potentially uncontrollable consequences. That said, it can be difficult to be create press coverage in a positive but nuanced fashion. Difficult yes, impossible no. You just need to understand the impact your words are having and power them up or down accordingly.