perfect pitching

Perfect Pitching: My 7 Top Tips

Perfect pitching requires bringing together a lot of elements. It is more than just a presentation – but is never just about the hard sell. We coach people and teams to give great pitches and there are a few things we always look out for.

1. Perfect Pitching Starts with Questions

To do a great pitch you have to squarely meet all the needs and desires of the buyer. What exactly do they need? What are their concerns or reservations? What do they want to hear? You will never do a good job if you just roll out the last pitch you did with a few updates. Carry out a thorough analysis of the potential client first and ask questions of them in whatever way you can.

2. Introductions

Keep introductions short and sweet. They can quickly become boring, especially if you have a team of people on the pitch. If you provide written biographies in the handout you can just cherry pick a few key points. If you can make the introduction interesting and fun that is absolutely worth doing – but don’t labour it.

3. The Creds

It is always important to have a short section in a pitch that explains your credentials. However, this is another area that can quickly become very dull. Consider leaving the credentials to the end of the pitch – after you have explained what you can do for this particular client. If you fear they won’t listen until they’ve seen the creds, try again to do it succinctly. Just because it is succinct doesn’t mean you can’t use the odd interesting, unusual or, if appropriate, gossipy bit of information about one of two of your previous projects. You are looking to pique interest. If it prompts a follow-up question, you are doing well.

4. Keep the Slides Clean

Too much information on the slide is a classic problem. We see it all the time. The font gets smaller and the client is faced with prose rather than summary. Clients often say: ‘we have to do it like this because we print out the slides as the handout’. Such an approach will ensure your pitch or presentation is suboptimal. If you put the detail in presenter’s notes, you can print out a version that includes the slide and the presenter notes together. That way, the client is left with all the information but hopefully, during the pitch, they are concentrating on you and not the small print.

5. Don’t Read the Slides

This is related to the point above but is so important it is worth underlining. If you include a lot of text on the slide you will be faced with the dilemma: do I read out the slide or assume they will read it while I am talking. Neither option is good and definitely sitting watching someone read their slides is never going to make a client love you. Instead, think of your pitch as a performance (not a read through) and remember you are required to entertain.

perfect pitching

It’s all about connection

6. Rapport is King

People buy people – or teams. Selling often – even usually – hinges on personal relationships. Whilst you will have important information to deliver, the whole point of inviting people to pitch is so that the buyer can make a personal assessment of the team. Although the presentation is the vehicle, the key focus should be to create rapport or opportunities for rapport. Lindsay Williams (MD of The Media Coach) has urged me to read Chris Voss ‘Never Split the Difference’. She points out that Voss urges negotiators to watch the reactions of the other team. If someone reacts facially or physically to a piece of information find a way to check what the reaction means. Questions should be open – don’t assume you have read it right. But asking ‘have you come across that before?’ or even ‘I am thinking you perhaps disagree with that?’ allows the buyer to connect with you and is likely to give you useful information.

7. Hold Back the Last Slide

In business life, there is nearly always a Q & A after a pitch. That is a good thing and is often when some real work is done. However, it presents a danger. If you have been discussing some relatively minor and perhaps sticky point for a few minutes and then come to the end of your allotted time, the buyers are left with that subject in their minds. I suggest you take a few seconds to say ‘ well we have come to the end of our time but can I just leave you with our key points…’ and put up the last slide, a short succinct summary of what you are offering. That way you leave your message in their minds.

The Media Coach team can help you and your team with their pitch whether that is online or face to face. If you think your pitch performance is not yet perfect, why not give us a call? +44 (0)20 7099 2212 or drop us an email enquiries@themediacoach.co.uk.

Featured Image Credit, Claudio Schwarz via Unsplash (Licensed under a CC0 1.0 licence)

Can we film with social distance

Can we film with social distance? Five tips from our NHS filming

Can we film with social distance? This is a question that is now being asked in every professional production meeting and will be for the foreseeable future. A question that had previously probably never been formulated, perhaps with the exception of wildlife filming.

It is also a relevant question for corporations and large organisations, all now used to using video to communicate with clients, staff and potential customers or users. But all having to rethink how it can be done in the age of COVID 19.

In the last few weeks, we have been filming induction videos for returnees to the NHS. We have worked with medics to establish new ways of working. This has shown us that, while all this is an extra set of complications, filming safely is perfectly possible. Here’s a video summary of how we are doing it.

So what are the new rules to ensure the filming process does not spread the infection.  Here are my five tips

1. Minimum number of people in the room

Firstly, keep the crew number and the observers to a minimum. Ideally just one person behind the camera.

2. Wear Masks

Crews can wear face masks. Obviously, those being filmed probably can’t wear a mask but the crew is not seen and therefore can. As we all now understand non-medical masks protect others in the room rather than the wearer.

Can we film with social distance

3. Two metres apart

Having enough space is something that will take thought and planning. People who book rooms for us to work in often underestimate the amount of space needed to arrange a shot, with good lighting and an inoffensive or even interesting background. Now we have to be much more aware of space. Being safe requires the use of larger filming locations – bigger meeting rooms or even outside spaces.

4. Radio or Boom Mics

Next, to avoid physical contact between crew and performer, we are using radio microphones that clients can attach for themselves, or a boom or shotgun mic, which has the benefit of no physical contact between crew and client. We have all got used to seeing these on the news – news crews all over the world have already demonstrated this can be done.  Fortunately for us, we already have both radio mics and boom mics, so no issue here.

Can we film with social distance

5. Hand Hygiene

Finally, the fifth element of social-distance filming is hand hygiene. We have to make sure that the crew carries both hand sanitiser for personal use and also anti-bacterial, alcohol-based wipes to make sure that items of kit (such as microphones) can be easily cleaned between jobs.

We are working in London, filming corporate videos and available for training as the UK finds its new normal. If you want to discuss what our team can do for you please call +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

dominic cummings' lockdown

Dominic Cummings’ Lockdown Drive : Falling Foul of Fairness

Dominic Cummings’ lockdown drive may turn out to be a career-defining episode for the aggressive, plain-speaking and, until now, hugely influential political advisor.

Dominic Cummings Becomes the Story

Political advisors are supposed to know what works with the public: what has cut through, what the public will get behind and in the end how they will vote. It is this nose for the herd mentality and how it will play out amongst the various institutions and players with power – that ‘political advisers’ are paid for. Dominic Cummings appears to have either misjudged this one – or realised he was gambling with his career and drove north to Durham anyway.

Watching his performance in the garden at Number 10, many people, especially many parents of young children, will understand the dilemma and his actions. Most will see it as in a different league to the Scottish Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, who twice broke lockdown to visit her second home. In his statement, Cummings provided evidence that what he did was not illegal. Lockdown rules allowed that – especially for those with young children – it may not always be possible for everyone to comply with the strict ‘stay at home’ message.

 

 

Cummings Falls Foul of the Fairness Principle

The problem is that Cummings’ actions fall foul of the fairness principle. Others did stay at home in difficult circumstances: did not visit their children in hospital, did not see their father before he died and so on. And the fact that Cummings went home to Durham when things got tough, is seen as simply not fair.

A sense of fairness, or fair play, is a very powerful driver of human action. I must admit I hadn’t fully understood this until the last few weeks. But an innate, ingrained and universal sense of fairness has been a theme in two of my lockdown reads. Both stress all human beings are born with this sense of fairness and both stress that you ignore it at your peril.

In the Chris Voss book on negotiation, ‘Never Split the Difference’, the author points out that even in highly unlikely situations – like negotiation with kidnappers (he was an International FBI Negotiator) –  ‘a sense of fairness’ is something that can be used by either side. One of Voss’ ‘tricks’ was apparently to tell the baddies that he wanted to be ‘fair’ with them. He also built a reputation or brand for being a ‘fair’ negotiator, sticking to his word, etc. But the crucial phrase here is on page 122.

dominic cummings' lockdown

Lockdown reading. Both books point out that fairness is an innate and powerful human emotion

‘The most powerful word in negotiation is ‘fair’. As human beings, we’re mightily swayed by how much we feel we have been respected. People comply with agreements if they feel they’ve been treated fairly and lash out if they don’t.’

He later mentions research that even monkeys will throw a tantrum if they don’t feel they are treated fairly. The sense of fairness is in our genes.

A Sense of Fairness is in our Genes

The fairness point also makes a significant appearance in another book ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The authors similarly point out that our sense of fairness is innate and almost certainly evolved as a way to live in harmony with each other and manage conflict. But the crucial point for this argument is that in times of war, governments take action to make society seem fairer. As Wilkinson and Pickett write:

Britain became substantially more equal during both the First and Second World Wars as part of an effort to gain support for the war effort’.

To state the obvious, if the cooperation of the majority of people is thought to be essential there is a need to convince them that the burden and sacrifice are being equally shared. And that is where Cumming’s has tripped up.

And it seems to be this fairness point that really hit a nerve with Church of England bishops. They took to Twitter to lambast the Prime Minister for supporting Cummings’ decision to drive to his parents’ farm during the lockdown. Here is what they had to say. Who even knew there were so many bishops on Twitter … but the fact they were all prompted to get tough by this is story, is pretty telling.

Cummings’ own performance yesterday was not arrogant or belligerent. He did explain his thought processes, but he also refused to apologise. It is the nature of the beast. But so often half an apology is worse than no apology at all.

For anyone who wants to see how to handle aggressive questioning, the Cummings performance is pretty strong. [I feel the FT’s coverage is uncharacteristically misleading] He is calm and respectful although clearly rattled. He is also apparently employing the ‘till they drop’ press conference technique which aims to give journalists as much time and access as they like, in the hope of arriving at the point where all questions have been answered and no one cares anymore. There is a fictional version of this in a West Wing episode that is a great illustration of the principle. I am clearly not the only person who remembers this from more than a decade ago.

dominic cummings' til they drop

At the time of writing it is not clear whether Cummings has done enough to save his job. However, one thing is clear to me. He would have had a better chance if a) he had done the press conference a few days earlier and b) if he had apologised properly.

The Media Coach team prepares people for difficult media interviews, and helps companies with Crisis Communication Plans. If you think we can help you or your team please call me on 020 7099 2212.

stay alert feature

Stay Alert – A Perfectly Good Message

‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’ is the UK government’s update to ‘Stay at Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’ … and political opponents from all quarters have orchestrated a loud furore about the ‘confusion’ caused by this message.

Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland was quick to complain and refused to adopt it north of the border and the Welsh government quickly follow suit. They complain that no one will understand what ‘stay alert’ means.

What poppycock.

‘Stay alert’ is perfectly clear (in context) and a perfectly good message.

stay alert

Stay Alert: The Role of a Top-Line Message

Short pithy phrases make good ‘top-lines’ for messages. They rarely encompass the whole story. In fact, it is often better if they don’t. So long as they are memorable and relevant then it is often useful to spark some discussion about the detailed meaning. I think of it as opening the door to an argument. In time the top-line phrase may become the shorthand for the whole argument or narrative. Think ‘shielding’ in the COVID context. Think ‘a dog is for life, not just for Christmas’; think ‘keep calm and carry on’; think ‘dig for victory’ and so on. I suspect all my readers could explain the thinking behind each of these phrases. But anyone working on a literal translation would probably struggle to understand.

The tricolon ‘Stay Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’ was similarly incomplete. For example, what does ‘protect the NHS mean’? Should we arm ourselves and stand in front of hospitals? No, of course not. Government spokespeople needed the top-line ‘protect the NHS’ to open the door to understanding the importance of ensuring the health service was not overwhelmed as had been seen in Italy. Everyone got it.

‘Stay alert’ as an update to ‘stay home’ is not at all confusing. It obviously means you no longer need to stay home but things are far from normal. In the detail there is stuff that needs to be explained; new rules about what we can and cannot do.

Of course, the government could have said instead ‘be careful’ or ‘stay aware’ or ‘be vigilant’ or ‘pay attention’ or ‘keep your wits about you’ and so on. But ‘stay alert’ would be my favourite of all those.

So why the loud complaints and sniping from the side-lines? The answer, I think is that there are political opponents who want to ensure they are seen to be active. But of course, it is very difficult to criticise too heavily when, to do so, might risk the current compliance and the life-saving consensus. Simply put: they have to find something to complain about.

For students of PR, it is worth understanding that even when people criticise a message – it doesn’t necessarily mean it is not effective. To take a controversial example from history (which I strongly disapprove of), Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ phrase was massively criticised. But it was also hugely influential. The Brexit campaign’s £350 million a week claim was again hugely criticised, for good reason, but undoubtedly influential.

Top-line messages need to be short and memorable and open the door to an argument. As anyone who has worked with us knows, we favour metaphors, similes and analogies in this role but the important question is does it do the job? And here is why this is important. If, as a spin doctor or slogan writer you are too cautious, you will end up with something wordy and worthy that everyone can agree on, but no one remembers.

There are many things the government – perhaps most governments – have got wrong in this crisis. Mistakes that have cost lives. Bitching about the message is just a distraction.

coronavirus messaging feature

Coronavirus Messages Are Missing The Under 30s

Guest Blogger : Raff Marioni

Coronavirus messages are not reaching people under 30. At 23 years old, I’ve obviously had a lot less experience than a Whitehall spin doctor; but I can say with total confidence that the government isn’t speaking young people’s language and they are not finding me or my friends online.

Raff photo coronavirus messaging

Meet Guest Blogger Raff Marioni. He says government messages about COVID 19 are not reaching his generation.

Looking at my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feed – the most important gauges of what my friends are talking about – Covid-19 is still considered only a danger to old people and there’s minimal government-led messaging on important details we should know.

The Media Coach asked me to share my thoughts on this problem. I am 23, in my first year of working for a PR firm. Before that, I was president of Newcastle University Students Union. I was introduced to the world of messaging and media management when – while at Newcastle Uni – I was trained by the Media Coach’s Jon Bennett. Jon, who is a Newcastle Uni alumni and a trustee of the SU, recently asked me if I thought young people were ‘getting the message about COVID’ and my answer was an emphatic no.

Coronavirus messaging

Coronavirus Messages Generation Gap

What is clear to me is that for my generation there’s a gap: coronavirus messages are not cutting through. Under thirties are not changing behavior. And I blame that on old fashioned comms that are completely unsuited to a digital world.

It’s as if the government dusted off a pre-internet pandemic media strategy from the 80s and put it into action, focusing on adverts in papers, TV news interviews and marathon daily briefings. That might be what you need to reach the over-40s, but it’s totally outmoded for my generation.

For me and my friends, the idea of buying a newspaper is about as foreign as the idea of ever owning our own home. We also don’t tend to have allegiances to traditional outlets either; there’s rarely such a thing as a Guardian or a Mail reader. My mates are much more likely to self-identify as a Twitter or a Facebook user.

So if you want to talk to us, you need to go to where we are – and young people consume their media almost exclusively digitally. And they want something fresh and authentic.

A really notable example of where old media jumped the divide into new media was Emily Maitlis’ opening monologue on Newsnight on 9th April, it went viral across UK social media because it departed from the usual safe bi-partisan format.

 

Social Media Timelines Keep Us Informed

It’s not that my generation never watches TV or cares about news, in fact, I’d argue the appetite for information is huge. It’s just that – because we have social media timelines, live updates from news apps and friends sharing links in group chats – by the time the evening news comes around we already know what’s happened throughout the day.

It means we also want something more than just an old-fashioned bulletin. We want news and views and I think broadcasters are starting to realise that.

Aside from getting the traditional headlines pinged to us on our phones, we’ll actively search Google or Twitter for what we want to know. A scan of the first few results on each usually provides us with the nuggets we need. We’ll only click for more detail if our interest is particularly spiked.

Another key source of information is the shared or sponsored articles on Facebook or Twitter timelines. To illustrate how times have changed, LadBible – a source of news, viral videos and funny stories – has 37 million Facebook followers, while The Sun has 3.3 million.

If the government wants to talk to us, they’ll find us online. But it’s a noisy space and in an age of relentless scrolling, we need something that will make us stop and listen.

If someone asked my advice – I would suggest designing a targeted campaign that outlines that young people are still dying from Covid-19, combined with stark, sponsored ads explaining how ignoring the lockdown means we could kill our loved ones. It shouldn’t take losing a grandparent (or a job) to have grasped the severity of this pandemic, but for many young people, it has.

My Generation Grew Up on Spin

I am from a generation attuned to, and drained by, spin. We’re massively cynical about government soundbites because we grew up with Blair and Iraq, the tuition fee fiasco and the Brexit bus farrago.

It’s why we’ll listen to Chris Whitty, but when Johnson or Hancock muscle their way into frame, we return to scrolling.

Ultimately, young people are used to looking ahead, but we’ve suddenly lost momentum in our lives. Tell us what the future can look like if we all get this right. Just do it clearly, concisely and in our language. Oh, and don’t expect us to spare you an hour.

Photo: Image © Acabashi CC-BY-SA 4.0
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:One_form_of_exercise_social_distancing_Tottenham_style_Covid-19_pandemic_7.jpg

Feature hostage to fortune

Hostage to fortune: 20 thousand deaths would be ‘a good outcome’

The phrase ‘hostage to fortune’ is an English idiom which we use a lot in media training. Experts of all sorts are prone – when asked their opinion – to give it, as best they can. It is utterly reasonable but in the public domain often ill-advised.

As most people will know the phrase ‘hostage to fortune’ means something that will cause difficulties in the future. This is a particular risk with journalists who are always looking for a story and in particular evidence of failure or disappointing outcomes. Being too precise in a prediction can play right into their hands. And of course, any big bold numbers will always be a potential headline.

hostage to fortune

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, faced questions from the Health and Social Care Committee on Tuesday 17 March 2020

Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser, was asked on 17th March – by Jeremy Hunt MP – to outline how many deaths could be expected from coronavirus. He explained that 20,000 deaths would be ‘a good outcome’. (He was careful to say this was horrible and ‘an awful thing to have to predict’. He did not forget to show empathy.) This was a select committee rather than an interview, but I thought at the time that he might live to regret being quite so precise.

A few days ago the number of hospital deaths from coronavirus passed the 20,000 mark and, as all would expect, this was a focus of much of the questioning and the coverage. Does the fact that we passed 20,000 mean the strategy should have been different? etc.

Of course, those questions would have come and will come in the future anyway. But it is a good illustration of the principle: Give a prediction and then fail to meet it is a sure way to get a negative headline.

hostage to fortune

Health Secretary Matt Hancock

A similar but different example is Matt Hancock’s promise on the 2nd April to be able to provide 100,000 coronavirus tests a day, by the end of this week. However, while this may, in the end, prove an embarrassment or at least another ‘failure’ headline, this number was not given by accident. Hancock is a seasoned politician and he did not make this promise casually. Many at the time believed the promise was rash but he appears to have deliberately set what is called in the jargon a ‘stretch goal’. Clearly, he felt it would concentrate minds and demonstrate commitment. Some credit the target with reversing a sense of government ‘drift’.

There should be no absolute ban on spokespeople sharing targets, internal goals, or just a personal assessment. But those speaking in public need to understand that what might have been a ‘finger in the wind’ type guess by an expert – can seem so much more definite and considered when it turns up in a headline.

A new PR term: Astroturfing
I learnt a new word this week: astroturfing. In the US, there is a suspicion that protests against the coronavirus lockdown may not be spontaneous grassroots-led protests but have in some way been orchestrated by right-wing lobby groups. Apparently creating something that looks like a grassroots movement when it is not is called – astroturfing! Who knew?

 

Image of Sir Patrick Vallance – YouTube
Image of Matt Hancock – Wikimedia

Presenting online feature

Presenting online: lipstick and heels

‘I’ve got 5 minutes to air and I’ve still got two calls to make when the usual morning refrain rings out around the office. ‘Barclay, get your lipstick on’. If I’ve told her once I’ve told her a thousand times – this is radio, no one sees me, I never wear makeup and I DON’T HAVE ANY LIPSTICK.’ The words of my colleague Liz Barclay remembering our days working together at the BBC.

Presenting online

Just reading that story makes me nostalgic! It was me that used to say ‘Barclay put your lipstick on’. At that stage, Liz was a presenter and I was her producer on Radio 5 Live. It was always very busy and there really could have been two quick calls to make before we went into the studio. I wanted her to clear her head and get into performance mode … I knew she would never in a million years put any lipstick on – but it was our ritual. [Liz Barclay, of course, is now a very popular media and presentation trainer via The Media Coach. You can read her profile here.]

I was reminded of our lipstick ritual last week when I had to ‘pitch’ for work, but do the pitch via Skype. I decided not to just do the obvious ‘business wear’ for the top half, but to put my heels on as well. As I did the meeting sitting down you could be forgiven for thinking ‘why heels?’ well, it was all about getting into performance mode. Walking around for ten minutes beforehand, I could feel my head clear and my persona switch from dog walker to consultant.

We all know – if you look good, you feel good – and if you feel good, you perform better. And in these times of lockdown, switching from home-mode to work-mode is harder without all the contextual cues. But you can help yourself, hack your brain if you like, with lipstick or heels. For men it may be a shave or a shirt and tie.

I discussed all this, via Zoom, with former colleague Laura Shields: she now runs the Red Thread Consultancy in Brussels. Red Thread, like The Media Coach, is now doing a lot more training online.  But Laura is ahead of me in this world of online presenting:  she not only works as a consultant; she was also a spokesperson for the campaign group ‘British in Europe’. She has done several TV interviews via Skype and Zoom. Laura (with help from her husband) set up a camera separately from her screen, to give more professionalism.  She has some proper lighting and has trained herself to look properly at the camera in true television style. Here is the relevant part of our chat.

For Laura, the next step is to find a way to move a plug-in camera so she can present online – standing-up. Meanwhile, even Laura’s 7-year-old son is embracing the technology. Here he is talking to classmates during a virtual birthday party.

Presenting on-line

We are all being forced to learn a new way to work. If we can help you prepare an online presentation or put together a video just give us a call +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Meanwhile, here is an article from Corporate Comms Magazine, about how to do a good skype interview for professional broadcast.

 

Coronavirus Communications – PM could do better, a lot better

Coronavirus communications from the government are being scrutinised by the entire population. I was deeply concerned by Boris Johnson’s performance during yesterday’s press briefing. As my phone went berserk in the aftermath it became clear I wasn’t alone.

Coronavirus communications image

I got texts from friends who were confused by the PM’s announcements, a call from a pub owner who was defiant about closing and messages from parents who felt none the wiser about when schools will shutdown.

Summing it all up was a former colleague who is managing the news-desk of one of Britain’s main national broadcasters:

“That was a f&*%ing car crash”.

Maybe a tad harsh, but he’s right that Boris should be doing far, far better.

A meticulous coronavirus communications strategy, containing carefully crafted messages, is hard to do when things are moving so fast. But it is absolutely vital. There is simply no room for vagueness, ambiguity or improvisation and I think Johnson failed on all three of those measures and just couldn’t resist the urge to wing it.

Effective crisis comms relies on giving clear, decisive, detailed information in the right tone. But that is not what we heard on Monday.

Urging people not to go to bars and restaurants without actually closing them – or being on the front foot about what provision you will make for the hospitality industry – was a confused and confusing message. It generated ill will among landlords and the catering trade, who feel hung out to dry in relation to their insurance, and judging from the pubs I went past last night was counter productive anyway.

That clanger has been widely covered this morning but what worried me just as much was the way that Johnson responded to reporters’ questions towards the end of the briefing. He was asked what he would do to help low income households, a question which gave him the perfect opportunity to land a reassuring message along the lines of “we are all in this together and people will not be left stranded”.

Instead, he responded by talking about improvements the Conservatives have made to the living wage, a party political response which was totally out of place.

He was then asked about the broader impact on the economy and talked about it “roaring back” within months, a sub Trumpian response which seemed neither rehearsed or reassuring.

I agreed with the Guardian’s snap verdict, which said the “roaring back quote came over as naïve utopianism”, and concluded “Johnson made a reasonably good fist of explaining what his proposals were but there was an enormous gap in the statement that a more experienced or strategic prime minister would have addressed”.

What’s required in this sort of situation is discipline and sobriety, traits which whatever your political persuasion is not what Johnson is renowned for and his performance confirmed what were already growing concerns yesterday about his and the government’s communication strategy.

These weren’t helped by the reports, which haven’t been denied by Number 10, that Johnson had made a joke during a conference call to manufacturers regarding the emergency production of ventilators that it could be called Operation Last Gasp.

One of the golden rules of any engagement with the media is to be very careful about any attempt at humour but what this proved was that the PM needs to realise that he needs to avoid careless or flippant comments in any situation in the current crisis.

There have been some good decisions. Ending the self-imposed ban on ministers appearing on the Today Programme was right and necessary.

Flanking Johnson with scientists Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance was a smart move, not only does it portray that the government are no longer sick of hearing from experts, it also gives Johnson foils to whom he can refer questions that require scientific authority, detail never having been his strength. What is his strength is he can deliver a message with authority in a way that gives the press what they need to tell the story the government needs to circulate. Johnson’s use of the line “I must level with the British public” last Thursday showed what he can do when he’s prepped and disciplined. Let’s hope the clarifications come swiftly and the lessons have been learnt.

The Media Coach team have now switched to providing training and coaching online. Clients planning their own coronavirus communications are booking in two hour slots of Skype, Zoom or Webex coaching. If you think spokespeople need coaching before talking to the media or staff – or if they are to do videos – we can help. We can also provide camera operators in London, the South East and the Midlands if should they be needed. Call us on +44 (0)20 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

risk communications

Risk Communications: COVID-19 case study

Risk communications is in my view is incredibly difficult. In the world of professional communications, it is one of the hardest things to get right. COVID-19 or Coronavirus is going to provide an interesting case study in how to effectively communicate risk (or how not to). And lesson one might usefully be the Prime Minister’s press conference this week.

risk communications feature

First the problem: Scientists and statisticians understand risk as a probability. There is a 20% chance of x happening means: possible but not very likely while an 85% chance means: really quite likely but not certain.

However, most people do not think as clearly as this. And in general, they are encouraged by journalists, especially tabloid journalists, to read low risk as a likelihood. [I strongly recommend Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise, if you want to understand this more clearly’. Since reading it I have become a student of Bayesian thinking.]

As a result, ‘over-reaction’ or ‘panic’ can easily be triggered by too much information. And if, as an organisation facing a problem, you know the press is going to over-react the temptation is not to provide information.

However, in public life, if you don’t come clean about risks you lay yourself open to charges of ‘white-washing’ or lack of transparency. This destroys trust.

So, for the government, this is a case where too much information, the wrong tone or a misspeak could cause or add to the panic. Too little information and it risks being accused of a cover-up.

The unusual Number 10 press conference on 3rd March may have looked calm and professional, but all three men knew they were walking that particular tightrope. It is a very good watch for students of risk communications.

 

Here are my take-aways:

  • The choice of people at the podium was crucial. We had the Prime Minister, the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Witty, and the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. These were very senior, obviously clever advisors. They stood either side of the Prime Minister giving a very nice image of support.
  • Both advisers constantly referred to the data and to modelling. They made it absolutely clear that they were sharing science, not opinion. I loved the point where Professor Witty said ‘The behavioural science shows that in times of crisis the British public demonstrates extraordinary altruism’. Even when saying people will help each other he felt the need to refer to science!
  • Despite the brainpower of the two advisers, there was absolutely no use of jargon. This looks effortless but I am certain it was really difficult. These men will have spent the last three weeks in technical briefings by data and health scientists. Having been in a few of those meetings myself I can tell you that the jargon will have been impenetrable. But also, as contagious as the virus itself.
  • Key points were stressed time and again. The importance of washing hands was not considered too prosaic for these great brains to pronounce on. And to repeat.
  • No question was dodged – except perhaps the one about the PM taking paternity leave. This gave a very clear impression of transparency. In fact, there were several questions that weren’t answered but in each case one of the spokesmen said either ‘we are not going to answer’ or ‘we can’t speak about that at this stage’. In media training, I am constantly reminding people that they must at least acknowledge the question before adding or changing the subject.
  • There was no repetition of the journalists’ sensational language. It was predictably the Daily Mail journalist who invited comparison with a war effort. However, the Prime Minister decided not to accept the invitation! All three spokespeople were careful to use their own words.

Despite the controlled and measured tone of the press conference, the coverage was extensive and somewhat sensationalist.

As a seasoned watcher of these things, it is clear that there was no great slip-up and no stand-out message from the press conference beyond the hand washing and ‘we have a plan’. Given these are a bit weak for a hungry journalist the coverage varies across newspapers and broadcasters as different journalists firstly choose and then beef up particular angles. When you don’t get agreement on the headlines you can be sure the story is not so strong.

The Daily Mail went with ‘Life on hold’, the Guardian went with ‘Murder inquiries to be axed’ which is more than a bit of a stretch from the very cautious ‘with a significant loss of officers and staff, the police would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order’. The Times found an angle from elsewhere – video checks on some NHS wards, but used a sub-heading from the press conference: ‘Prime Minister unveils strategy to deal with coronavirus disruption’. The Telegraph led with ‘expect 20pc of all workers to be off sick’. This is definitely a misrepresentation: the tone of the press conference was ‘we don’t know yet’. The Express went with ‘Britain ready for the worst’ which is at least accurate.

Overall, the broadcast coverage I saw and heard was more measured, but there was an awful lot of it. That in itself gave the impression that Britain was facing into a major epidemic.

Downing Street will probably be happy enough with the coverage. The PR wisdom in such cases would be you do what you can to be transparent and factual but accept there will be a ‘sensationalist hit’. However, you trust that most people will not over-react to the headlines. What matters most is not the first hit of the story but how sensationalist the tail is – and of course how the public reacts.

It looks as if there will be many more chapters of coronavirus communications in the coming weeks and months for students of PR. We know that organisations are dusting off their pandemic policies and planning their own communications. If you want help planning or rehearsing for major communications events, I and The Media Coach team regularly help organisations craft and deliver nuanced messaging. Drop me an email on Lindsay.williams@themediacoach.co.uk if you want to discuss how we can help.

Virus image by iXimus from Pixabay

The PM's media silence feature

The PM’s Media Silence: Strategy or Farce?

The Prime Minister has been absent from the airwaves for a number of days. He has not been seen in wellies at the site of major flooding and he has not made any announcements personally about COVID 19 or Coronavirus. The Guardian for one thinks Boris is neglecting the nation.

The PM's media silence

The PM’s media silence

I am not in the Westminster bubble, but I can have a good guess why the Prime Minister has not been seen. However, the more interesting question for me and anyone involved in PR is: is this a damaging strategy or will it pay dividends?

Why might Boris Johnson have gone quiet?

Apparently there is a rumour that the PM’s girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, gave him a black eye which is why he is laying low! In the absence of evidence, I will dismiss this. On this occasion, I suspect strategy, not farce.

A more likely explanation is that the Prime Minister is busy doing things he gives a higher priority to. The first hundred days is considered to be the most crucial for setting an administration on a path for success. (Here is a good explanation of this idea from the Harvard Business Review.) It is a time when everything is new, when people expect change and when the momentum and enthusiasm from an election win can help get things done. It is difficult for those of us not in government to understand just how difficult it is to get things done. (I will recommend again Michael Barber’s book How to Run a Government – a very good read on this exact point).

Boris may just be determined not to get distracted by events.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

There may also be some design behind the media purdah, based loosely on ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder, and screw-ups a lot less likely’. Leaders should be strategic in terms of when to make themselves available and when not to. Particularly, as every media outing carries an element of risk. It is certainly true that if Boris Johnson was spending every morning in a TV studio the press would be complaining that he was still campaigning and not paying attention to running the country. Whether the judgement to leave the sympathy and concern for flood victims to George Eustice, and the public pronouncements on a probable pandemic to Matt Hancock, is the right one – only time will tell. At this stage, there is no election to lose. And in five years time he will be judged on many other things.

There is a lesson in this for lesser mortals. That is: it is worth asking if it is in your interests to do all media interviews offered? Can you do too many? I believe, in some cases, too much media attention can work against you. Once you get good at doing media interviews, even as a commentator, you can get a lot of requests. If you say yes to them all you can get a reputation as a ‘rent a mouth’. Someone with an opinion on everything. This can quickly count against you with journalists, devaluing you as an expert commentator. How much is too much is, of course, a finely balanced judgement.

Another related point is that media outings need a bit of time and preparation. If you are doing too many, on too many unrelated subjects you won’t have time to prepare and you will make a mistake or misspeak. We have blogged here about how easy it is to misspeak.

A third reason for turning down a media interview as a leader is to let someone else do it. This can be a chance to let someone else in the team shine. But there is a flip side: if you delegate the media spotlight you can always sack the underling if it goes horribly wrong. I remember the poor Head of Operations at BA being made to do a public statement after the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 went horribly wrong. He was ‘let go’ shortly afterwards. The CEO of BA who had been around to cut the ribbon early in the day was nowhere to be found once the bags started piling up.

If you need help preparing for a media interview or a media event give us a call +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Image of Boris Johnson from Flickr- cc Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE)