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)

Emily Maitlis feature

Emily Maitlis – Airhead: Why all PRs should read it

Emily Maitlis has written a great light-hearted romp of a read about the chaos behind the scenes of television news. I used to work with Emily (and have a lovage pesto recipe from her mum … just saying). I have watched her stellar career with admiration but absolutely no envy. I simply would not want the stress!

However, reading about it all is great fun.

Emily Maitlis

A Very Personal Account

Maitlis whizzes through encounters with Donald Trump, Simon Cowell, the Dalai Lama and of course that Prince Andrew interview in short chapters that can each be read in less than the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. She writes from a very personal perspective: What she saw, what she thought and above all what she felt. She details the gut-wrenching nerves ahead of the big set-piece interviews, the stress of broadcasting live from the front of the Whitehouse and that horrible creeping feeling that you are being played by Tony Blair, but you can’t work out how or why.

 What PRs Might Learn

The takeaways for PR people are many and varied but here are a few.

  • Newsnight is one of very few remaining broadcast news outlets that do any real research and then only sometimes. While Maitlis does detail some heavy-duty team meetings to discuss various angles for a big interview, she also explains that this happens relatively rarely.
  • While the PR machine may well be working overtime on your side of the equation what happens in the interview is crazily random, depending on the interpretation and concentration of the interviewer. Even after the long discussions, it is down to Maitlis as the interviewer, in the moment, to ask an inspired, a random or a distracted question.

 The ‘While I’ve got you …’ Question

  • The chapter that deals with a Sheryl Sandberg interview, shortly after her husband died (very unexpectedly) is particularly instructive. The agreed interview was about dealing with grief, something Sandberg wanted to talk about. However, she was and is still the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. Maitlis felt she could not have access to Sandberg and ignore all the controversial aspects of Facebook. This despite the fact that the agreed topic was Sandberg’s very raw and personal grief. Maitlis spends considerable time agonising about how to frame this ‘while I’ve got you…’ question. When the moment comes, Sandberg switches seamlessly from grief-stricken widow to the pure professional and answers – well professionally. But afterwards Sandberg is furious that Maitlis did not stick to asking her about grief. Maitlis explains her professional duty but also points out that; talking about grief, Sandberg was very interesting. But when talking about the morality of Facebook she was very dull …. ensuring the bit Sandberg wanted to air would get by far the most airtime. We try to teach people this, but it is good to read a top-notch BBC journalist spelling it out to one of the most famous COOs on the planet.
  • The frustration of interviewing the Dalai Lama, who refuses to say anything interesting, should be compulsory reading for all overly controlling PRs. There really is no point (and it is damaging to your reputation) to do an interview if you have nothing to say. (My colleague Catherine Cross addresses this in this blog linked here, amongst others.) 
  • The constant tension between being a decent person and being a good and honest journalist comes up again and again. Alongside the romp, you get to experience the non-stop agonising about how to be both decent and professional. It is instructive because, despite the agonising, Maitlis chooses, again and again, to prove her professionalism rather than prove her humanity. The job comes first.

Emily Maitlis

My Personal Observations

With genuine thanks to the two people who bought me this book for Christmas …. I can thoroughly recommend it.

preparing for media interviews Feature

Preparing for media interviews: don’t overlook the obvious question

Preparing for media interviews is essential. You need messages, and you need to think about the tough questions. But we see people tie themselves in knots trying to anticipate all their nightmare or crisis issue questions: developing complicated answers to each and every one. Then in practise, the one question that really trips people up is nothing more complicated than “What does your business do?”

preparing for media interviews

Preparing for media interviews: Can you articulate the basics?

It sounds a simple enough question but failing to find an effective and memorable answer to describe what their business does, is a trap into which many interviewees fall into head-long.

[I have recently presented a webinar on this subject for the IOD. It’s free and you can find the link at the bottom of the page.]

Despite corporate jargon frequently being cited as one of the most annoying business habits, too many people still fall back on phrases such as “end-to-end solutions”, “digital platforms”, “vertical markets” and “leveraging synergies”. The digital and tech sectors, in particular, often over-estimate the understanding of their audience.

Can you ditch the jargon?

I hit this problem head-on recently, when training some otherwise impressive young entrepreneurs. Their descriptions of what they did were peppered with just these sort of phrases and it took numerous attempts of asking; “but what does that actually mean?”, “how does that work on a day-to-day basis?” to get an explanation from them along the lines of “we help our clients to use social media more effectively so they can raise their profile and win more business”.

Of course, it is not just media-novices who fall into the trap of thinking that complicated language or industry jargon makes them look clever. Last year Ocado included the following paragraph in a press release to explain a change in business strategy:

“The centre of gravity at Ocado Group has shifted from our heritage as an iconic and much-loved domestic pure-play online grocer to our future as a technology-driven global software and robotics platform business, providing a unique and proprietary end-to-end solution for online grocery, and an innovation factory, applying our technical expertise to adjacent markets and verticals.”

The howls of derision, particularly among journalists, were loud – just one example from the FT is linked here.

Preparing for media interviews: Not dumbing down is really dumb

Rather than impressing an audience, this sort of language merely alienates people. During training sessions, when we are helping to develop messages, participants sometimes question the use of simple language, as they feel it is dumbing down their work too much. In response I quote Albert Einstein who said:

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

The fact is that if your audience doesn’t understand what you are talking about, they will tend to think worse of you, not of themselves!

Make it real. Relate to something people recognise

preparing for media interviews

Lord Browne
The former CEO of BP, understands the benefit of clear communication using layman’s language

When preparing for media interviews you could do worse than look to the example of Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP and an engineer by profession who, when asked what an engineer does, answered:

“Engineering is about creating practical solutions to humanity’s most pressing challenges – whether it’s building a bridge, finding new treatments for cancer or tackling climate change.”

preparing for media interviews

Warren Buffett
The legendary investor has a legendary way with words

Business guru Warren Buffett is another communicator who revels in the use of simple colourful language. For example:

  • “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
  • “If you aren’t willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes.”
  • “Buy a stock the way you would buy a house. Understand and like it such that you’d be content to own it in the absence of any market.”

More of his best quotes are linked here.

So, when preparing all your messages – whether for media interviews, presentations or simply for a networking meeting – think about the following three things:

  1. Mind your language! Keep it simple and avoid jargon.
  2. Make your answers memorable: use word pictures and metaphors which bring what you are saying to life for your audience and can effectively explain difficult concepts.
  3. Make your answers real: give examples which people can relate to so what you are saying becomes human and tangible.

For more advice on how to use simple and effective language, listen to my recent Webinar for the Institute of Directors ‘Bin the Babble: How to win more business with better communication’.  (You don’t have to be an IoD member – just chose the ‘Not yet’ option when asked if you are a member.)

More Info

Here are links to some other posts on messaging and language that may be of interest:

Developing Messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing

Great media quotes

Using pictures to make your ideas memorable

 

Photo Credits:
Word Cloud – CC Gavin Llewellyn, Flickr
Lord Browne – CC Suzanne Plunkett, Flickr
Warren Buffett – CC Wikimedia

 

 

Shooting video for the web feature

Shooting Video for the Web: Another Angle

Shooting video for the web in-house is increasingly part of ‘business as usual’ for all sorts of organisations that need a professional, engaging online presence. Technology means that simple videos don’t need a professional cameraman. However, a little knowledge can go a long way to give a more professional feel to your films.

Shooting video for the web 3

The Challenge: Make Videos Visually Interesting

When moving pictures were first invented there was only one shot – a wide shot showing moving images from a park, a busy street (full of horse-drawn carriages and men in top hats) or even a steam train bearing down on the camera lens – and this was enough to keep people interested. But pretty soon that novelty wore off and we discovered that to begin to tell a story in film you actually needed other shots to draw in the audience. Shots like the close-up and tracking (or dolly) shots were invented and filmmakers realised that editing these shots together was the key to creating a compelling story. But even using all these techniques, when we sit down to watch classic black and white movies from the 1920s and 30s, they still appear to us rather slow-moving and dull.

A Second Challenge: We are all Film Literate

Shooting video for the web provides another challenge: We all consume a lot of filmed material. From an early age, we are learning what good, even amazing, visual story-telling looks like. We now expect things to move along at a much quicker pace, just in case the audience should lose attention. For example, in this one minute video, I’ve used 17 different shots, giving an average shot length of 3.5 seconds.

Two Cameras Can Give a Lot of Visual Interest

If you have the luxury of two cameras, it can be useful to film the interview from two different angles and then cut between them during the edit. Even when shooting video for the web, you could carefully repeat the interview. In professional television, the same thing may be filmed many times from different angles, and five or more versions cut together to create a clean and believable version of reality.

Just a few cutaways, some bold graphics and an up-tempo music track and modern videos have gone from seemingly simple shoots to something with much more pace and sophistication. It all takes a bit of planning and creativity but it is possible to make what is, in essence, a simple talking-head type video, into something that really stands out.

Shooting Video for the Web: Want to Learn How to Make Great Little Films?

Shooting video for the web 1

If you or someone in your team would like to be taught to create videos with style, why not give us a call. I run bespoke one or two-day ‘shooting video for the web’ courses under The Media Coach brand. We can together practise a wide range of professional techniques that will take your inhouse filming to the next level. Call +44 (0)20 7099 2212 in the first instance to discuss exactly what you need.

PR roll

Greggs On A Roll

Fast-food chain Greggs is on a roll. A good PR roll. We so often comment on companies and people that get into a mess by failing to use some basic and well-known tenet of PR, that it is nice to instead focus on a company that seems to be sure-footed. While not doing anything amazing, it is just doing PR well.

Good Results – And a Staff Bonus

This month Greggs announced a phenomenal growth in sales which allowed them to award 19,000 employees a £300 bonus at the end of the month. The numbers are even more impressive when you consider that in May 2018, 18 months ago, Greggs issued a profit warning due to subdued sales that knocked 17% off the share price. This year’s bonus and positive results were widely reported, giving heaps of great publicity to the humble high street chain.

The Vegan Sausage Roll

The jump in sales was widely attributed to the success of last January’s launch of the vegan sausage roll. This in itself was another great PR success.

There really is nothing to beat catching the zeitgeist. Veganism has gone from a dusty forgotten cupboard to the limelight as ethical consumers vote with their pennies, not just to protect the welfare of the animals but also to protect the planet. (The link between veganism and climate activism is an interesting one that we may return to later. It is in itself a PR success that may yet fall apart.)

Greggs Social Media – A Case Study for Modern Marketing

But what really turbo-charged sales was the reactive Twitter campaign. Piers Morgan, who has seven million, followers tweeted ‘Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns’. To which @GreggsOfficial responded ‘Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you’.

PR roll

There were a number of other witty responses to those who took aim at the sausage roll. All of which greatly helped sales.

In June Buzzfeed helpfully pulled together 19 occasions when Greggs was unexpectedly brilliant on Twitter.

PR roll

As noted at the beginning of the blog, the combination of all these things had led to a raft of coverage about how well Greggs is doing. Here are pieces in The Telegraph, The New Statesman (broadly positive), Reuters, The Independent, There are many more. Hats off to the marketing team and particularly the person who decided to allow the Twitter team to step outside standard corporate responses.

 

 

Crisis Comm Scott Morrison Feature

Crisis Comms Management – Aussie PM gets it all horribly wrong

Crisis communications management today has a whole set of rules and a list of best practices that have been honed and polished over the last century. No two crises are the same but there are some really standard rules which 99% of experts would agree with.

Crisis Comms: Scott Morrison has not read the handbook

Unfortunately, it seems no one has communicated these rules to the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Perhaps it was widely assumed he knew them as he was a professional marketeer. From where I sit, Morrison’s ability to seriously upset everyone affected by the bush fires raging across South and East Australia has been beyond belief.

Crisis Comms - Scott Morrison

Here are a few obvious rules he has violated.

Look like you are in charge

Once a crisis becomes really serious – usually when it involves loss of life – it becomes the job of the boss to look like he is in charge. To do what they are paid to do and show leadership. It is not a good idea to go on holiday!

But as everyone knows that is what Scott Morrison did. He went on holiday to Hawaii while the fires raged and people were losing their homes and being evacuated. Some were even dying. The Prime Ministers Office compounded the offence by insisting the PM was not holidaying in Hawaii but refusing to say where he was.

Show empathy

Again, one would not have thought this was worth saying: But just as Prince Andrew forgot to show empathy for the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, the Australian Prime Minister ‘forgot’ to show empathy for people affected by the fires. The clip that was perhaps most widely shared on social media showed the PM turning away from a tearful and desperate woman asking for more government help.

 

This theme has been aggravated by the fact that the government had previously hired someone to advise on ‘empathy’. The consultant was reportedly paid nearly AUS$200,000 to advise on how to build empathy with landowners faced with a disruptive inland railway project. It was dubbed an ‘empathy consultant’ and was the subject of political comment before the fires.

Crisis Comms Jacinda Ardern

Just compare this to the empathic response of the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who visited and listened to the Muslim community after the Christchurch Mosque attack in March last year.

Make it clear that you care by cancelling Business as Usual

This can be a difficult one because clearly some business does have to continue even during a crisis. But anything involving fun, entertaining, extravagance, food and drink, etc. can really look bad if it is expensive and happening whilst others are suffering. On New Year’s Day, Morrison hosted a lavish reception for the Australia and New Zealand cricket teams. Again, he compounded the error by misspeaking. He said the bushfires were happening against the backdrop of cricket. This gave the impression he was more focussed on the cricket than the fires.

Get the tone right

In a crisis people are hyper-sensitive. As a leader, it is really important to get the tone right. Instead, the Australian Prime Minister seems to have gone out of his way to aggravate everyone. It is almost as if he is taking lessons from President Trump.

Not only did his office lie about him being in Hawaii but later The PM tried to justify his holiday by saying ‘I don’t hold a hose mate, and I don’t sit in a control room’. He also chose to talk about the importance of work/life balance comparing his decision to go on holiday with a plumber who had to decide whether to do one more job or spend time with his kids. We are all in favour of analogies, but they do have to be risk assessed! The plumber analogy was not fit for purpose.

The whole tone was reminiscent of BP’s CEO during the Deepwater Horizon crisis. He is remembered for saying he wanted the crisis over because ‘I want my life back’! The phrase that was particularly crass as 11 lives were lost when the rig initially exploded.

Um…Don’t be an ostrich!

Finally (for this blog) the Prime Minister’s New Year message appeared to equate the fires with other natural disasters and did not mention the issue of climate change. One wonders if he knows who Greta Thunberg is and whether he has clocked that she is currently the voice of a global generation of angry youngsters – many of who are about to get the vote.

Images: Wikimedia

naming feature

Naming – A Misunderstood Art

Naming is very important. Name a trend, you own the trend. Name the product right and you own the genre (think of Hoover, Coke, Elastoplast). A colloquial or unofficial name is likely to be much more memorable and influential than a sensible, formal name. Weird or fun names also have more traction. A few recognisable examples: would you have approved any of these if you had never heard them before?

Naming: would your marketing department have approved these?

naming

Google – who would have thought of that!
Apple
Monzo
Starling
WeWork
Waze

Here is a whole article from TechCrunch about how tech start-ups use super weird names.  It is not just business or products names. It’s categories or phenomena or ideas.  Millennials, Generation X, Generation Z, Boomers. Nudge psychology, greenhouse gases. It’s unlikely these would ever have been adopted if it had been left to the traditional voices in large businesses.

In my experience marketing departments or branding teams, often have a lot to say about names. In my view, it is almost always wrong. They insist on sensible long and quasi descriptive names. Rather than fun, random ones. Or more interesting: names that have to be explained.

[I previously wrote about this nearly four years ago – with lots more examples.]

JDART and the power of a clumsy acronym

This week we had an amazing example of how important it can be to name something in a non-standard way, in order to create – well something more powerful.

naming

Elon Musk, CEO Tesla

Elon Musk, a notable tech entrepreneur, won a defamation case bought by the British caver who led the rescue of the 12 boys trapped in a Thai cave. In a spat on Twitter, Musk called Vernon Unsworth a ‘pedo guy’.

naming

My sympathies were all with Mr Unsworth, but the interesting thing to me was the use by the clever and presumably expensive defence, of a made-up word posing as an acronym: ‘JDART’.

I will leave it to someone called Elizabeth Lopatto writing on website The Verge to explain. (You need to know the clever lawyer in question was someone called Alex Spiro).

“Spiro then coined the worst acronym I’ve heard in years, and I edit stories about aerospace so I know from bad acronyms. It is: JDART, for joking, deleted, apologized-for, responsive tweets.”

However ridiculous that reads, this was a very clever and successful move. It gave life to the idea that one has to be allowed to make an error of judgement on Twitter and apologise – without being sued for millions.

Here is what the BBC’s North America Technology reporter wrote:

“One of the smartest moves by Elon Musk’s defence was in introducing the concept of “JDart”, an acronym to describe their client’s conduct on Twitter in relation to the infamous “pedo guy” tweet.

It’s clumsy, for sure, but it meant Mr Spiro could offer the jury here a degree of structure around what before seemed senseless: Mr Musk may have acted foolishly with the J, but he soon “darted”, which is how you know he wasn’t being serious about the allegation. Expect the JDart “standard” to be applied again and again. “

I am always suggesting clients push for better names for great ideas or projects. It really doesn’t have to have a meaning – you can call a piece of software Shirley, or Crowsnest or Porridge for no reason other than fun. Or it can be a crazy acronym like JDART which has to be carefully explained. Either way, you will give your idea or product a life of its own. And that is good for business.

Photo credits:

Google building image – Flickr: Luis Villa del Campo
Elon Musk – Wikipedia
Cave rescue headline – BBC screengrab.

Prince Andrew

Prince Andrew rolls the dice

Prince Andrew’s grilling by Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis is definitely the interview of the year.

The widespread criticism and hullabaloo would have anyone believe it was a ‘car crash’ and Prince Andrew should never have done it. I am not sure I agree.

Prince Andrew – car crash interview?

To me labelling this as a ‘car crash interview’ is simply journalists quoting some self-publicists who know how to grab the headlines.

First, if Prince Andrew hadn’t eventually done an interview, the very same media now saying it was a car crash – would have been saying it was time he broke with tradition and gave his side of the story. In this day and age, the public, encouraged by journalists, believe they have a right to a full explanation. There is no such thing as privacy for the Royal Family or many others.

Prince Andrew knows this.

And everyone knows it is infuriating to be accused of something (for 8 years so far) without being able to tell your side of the story.

He sounded like a man who wanted to set the record straight

I believe Prince Andrew weighed it up and on balance decided he wanted to have his chance to set the record straight. In the past, the Royal Family has not done this. They have stuck to the ‘never apologise, never explain’ rule. Of course, there have been exceptions: Princess Diana’s Panorama interview in 1995 and more recently Prince Harry and Megan’s ITV interview on the difficulties of dealing with non-stop press intrusion. 

I watched the Prince Andrew interview very carefully, paying particular attention to the body language and also looking for a level of coaching. This sort of long-form interview is very different from three minutes to get your point across. We all know the public will decide whether someone is lying or not based not on what they say, but on the impression they give. Any side-stepping or ‘bridging’ will give the impression of guilt. (This assumes the watcher was open-minded at the start of the interview).

Prince Andrew come across as completely credible

What I saw was completely credible and I totally fail to see how the interview itself was a ‘car crash’. His Royal Highness blowing his top, or demanding the questions were inappropriate would have been a car crash. If he had contradicted himself it would have been a car crash. If he had stumbled and look shifty and defensive it might have been described as a car crash. He did none of these things.

One of the things I look for above all else is the coherence of the argument. Were there any bits that didn’t add up? I could not hear any.

Interview criticism

Most of the people claiming it was a car crash are not specific about why they believe that. But there are three strands of criticism of the interview itself.

  1. The Prince should have shown more compassion, sympathy, concern, etc. for women who were trafficked for sex.
  2. He should have apologised or shown regret for his friendship with Epstein.
  3. His choice of words in categorising Epstein’s behaviour as ‘unbecoming’ was inappropriate (but quickly corrected).

From where I sit these would have been minor improvements to a very well handled interview. I fail to understand why so many people should be so vitriolic about someone cautiously regretting a friendship! Since when was being friends with the wrong sort of person a crime. Especially if they were not a close friend and especially if you did not know what they were up to. As for concern for the women (or indeed any victims of paedophilia), he was not asked about this and if he had artificially inserted this into the conversation all the Twitter trolls who are convinced he is guilty would have just howled that it wasn’t real.

Body language was mostly well controlled

Some have criticised his body language. Given that very few of the allegations were new to him it is a bit difficult to get much from the body language. You are not seeing the first reaction to new information. There were some accusations (staying at a beach house four times a year) that clearly did hit the mark. They were new to him and he was outraged because he believed they were untrue. We briefly saw the outrage because (it seemed) he had not heard this accusation before. That we could read in the body language but it did not harm his credibility.

I have friends who did not believe a word Prince Andrew said. Their reaction was: We know what men like him are up to. Who is he kidding? They are all at it.

I also have friends who think it was a credible and impressive interview and he came across as a guy who wanted to put his side of the story over.

It does seem worth saying that while the angry, the disbelievers, the haters of privilege, etc. are all over Twitter, there will also be a group of cooler heads who judge things differently but who are not choosing to share on Twitter.

Was it right to do the interview?

For me, Prince Andrew handled the interview extremely well. He answered each question directly, did not try to control the interview, gave detail and whilst not being overly emotional, he certainly showed his vulnerability.

I recommend Emily Maitlis’s own account of the interview in the Times (behind a paywall) and will quote her here:

‘Our news world is so often full of bland figures trying wilfully to be more bland. Say nothing. Avoid scrutiny. Dodge and deviate from every question asked. And whatever comes of this, I must admit to respecting an interviewee who is prepared to approach head-on every single thing that he is asked.’

The more you say, the more everyone else says

However, it is not clear whether doing the interview was wise. It was certainly a high-risk strategy. And the problem is that the more you say, the more everyone else says. He took this issue from a low-level grumbling story to front page across the world for three days. He opened the gates to a feeding frenzy of people who were never going to believe a word he says because he is a man with money, power and privilege.

I suspect this is why the Prince’s new PR advisor, Jason Stein, resigned ahead of the interview.  He would have been blamed for the feeding frenzy and it would have blighted his career.

Although the coverage of the last few days has been bloody and fuelled by huge amounts of ‘fake outrage’ on Twitter, not to mention a lot of PR people wheeled out to say it was a mistake, the key question is what happens in the next three months? After all this venting, will more come out? Will the story continue to be as toxic for the Royal Family or will everyone move on, having had their say? That is the real gamble.

If one believed in honest journalism in the modern world, you would hope that there are some investigations going on into the other side of the story.  After all, fuelling the fire in the way this interview did, also makes the protagonists a subject of more interest.