education exams

The dangers of sizzle without evidence

As a lesson in self publicity, it was exemplary.

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

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

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

education exams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The words you think make you interesting to journalists are anything but


Interviewees overuse certain phrases which devalue them for journalists

When, if ever, is it acceptable to describe something as a ‘game-changer’ to a journalist?

One exception might be when a multibillion dollar tech company suffers a shock defeat in a court case which has landmark implications for the rest of the sector. That’s probably acceptable. Just about. But only because it’s probably an accurate reflection of the facts, and spoken by a lawyer, which means he will have chosen his words with precision.

However, I was still disappointed that I couldn’t find a better quote in this morning’s FT when reading about the Google data-privacy verdict. Not with the journalists, but with the people giving them the quotes. If the hacks had to resort to ‘game-changer’ for the quote then we truly are in a sorry state when it comes to word smithery.

There is a pervasive trend for media spokespeople to use phrases and soundbites that they think make them sound as though they are being interesting and profound when they are being anything but. In media training we call it ‘ positive-bland’ and it refers to people who use language incorrectly, or pick phrases that are so dull or overused so that they become meaningless, if not vacuous during interviews. This is not the same as using jargon, which carries its own evils, but positive-bland can flirt dangerously close to management-speak.

Game-changer is, indeed, a guilty culprit in the lexicon of positive-bland. Other usual suspects include ‘passionate’, ‘innovative’, ‘tragedy’ (really: when was it a tragedy that a football club fired its manager?) and ‘it’s all about the customer-experience’. PRs should also take note when trying to pitch to journalists. As one journalist friend mournfully notes, the most overused pitch phrases are ‘exclusive’, ‘unique’ and ‘I’ve got a scoop for you’. Invariably, they haven’t.

When crafting soundbites, it is important to pick words that are not only creative and fresh but also accurate. Otherwise, if everything is a ‘tragedy’ or ‘game-changer’, how are people going to take you seriously or find you interesting enough to quote? This was particularly evident during the financial crisis when certain prominent business journalists got very overexcited when Northern Rock went bust. But when the big American banks started going under six months later they had no way to capture the seriousness of what was happening because they had already used up all their superlatives.

If you are happy to use boring yet hyperbolic phrases that make journalists roll their eyes, then carry on being bland. Or you could spend ten minutes thinking of some different words that set you and your organisation apart. It might be an incredibly useful, if not game-changing, shift in approach. But it almost certainly won’t be a ‘paradigm shift’.

Dan Porter

Migraines and midwives: why the minister’s interview was not what the doctor ordered

Very little can rouse me from a post-migraine stupor when I’m feeling sorry for myself as I was this morning. However, while listening to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 (a live special on midwives which was being broadcast from a hospital in Liverpool) I heard an interview with Dan Poulter, the Health Minister which was sufficiently annoying to force me muttering from sick bed to computer.

You can hear the interview here for the next seven days (it starts at 29:53).

Dan Porter Image

Health Minister Dan Poulter was too slick on Woman’s Hour

I don’t know why I was so irritated as there was nothing wrong with it from a technical perspective. Dr Poulter had his messages worked out, he provided context, used numbers (2000 new midwives, a record 6000 in training) and meaningful examples, such as birthing pools and en suite bathrooms. He was also disciplined about trotting out his prepared sizzle (or in this case management consultant speak) ‘women want more choice about where they give birth’ and ‘best possible support’.

And maybe this is why it was so annoying. As an exercise in message control it was fine but this wasn’t enough to

make him a good interviewee. What was noticeably missing was empathy (I’m obsessed with it at the moment) and a willingness to even address the central issue. It didn’t help that Dr Poulter was late for the interview (he was supposed to be on earlier in discussion with a midwife) and was cut short. As a man with power in this most female of health areas, he needed to display extra sensitivity and sympathy. But he sounded bored and refused to acknowledge the central question: why do midwives feel they can’t do their job properly due to a shortage of staff and funding?

Time and again my clients and friends tell me that the thing they hate the most about politicians is their refusal to take questions head on. Now, I have some sympathy here because politicians can’t always give a straight answer due to a of a lack of information, or because conceding ground will make a headline or create a story in its own right. However, refusing to even acknowledge the question and bludgeoning people with your message is not only evasive but also ineffective because it turns the listener off.

This was highlighted for me during a conversation over the weekend with a friend’s mother who is a lawyer at media organisation in the UK. She said that their internal research shows that the public are far more inclined to give a company a second chance if it’s spokespeople don’t try to avoid questions but show humility when things go wrong or when people have legitimate questions.

Now, Dr Poulter didn’t do a bad interview in a technical sense. But it really was a case of trotting out the prepared line rather than genuinely engaging with the questions. Digital media has made this kind of exchange all the more jarring because, even though it’s only right to promote your side of the argument, a reluctance to engage or even appear human is something people increasingly won’t stand for. And it doesn’t win politicians any brownie points with a public who already think they are out of touch and don’t know how to talk to ordinary people.

You only need to spend 15 minutes a day to master Twitter – it’s true!

You only need to spend 15 minutes a day to master Twitter – it’s true!

“I really think I should be doing twitter but I just don’t have enough time in the day to do it, it seems like a full time job.” “

“It’s just information overload and I can’t see the point of it.”

These are comments I often hear from my clients when we are discussing their use of Twitter. Whilst they seem valid observations this really doesn’t have to be the case. You really can do Twitter in 15 minutes a day. You just need to know how to filter.
tweets image

Follow these simple initial tasks and you will master using Twitter:

Firstly, invest a little time identifying the people you really should be ‘listening’ too. In every walk of life we know certain people we turn to for different events, our ‘phone a friend’, Twitter is no different. We should find the people that have the best insight into the information we need, the ‘influencers’.

Next, identify the people you really want to ‘listen’ too. Again if we think about our daily lives we tend to only want to hear from people that are like-minded, have interesting things to say and will give us food for thought. Treat twitter the same way and only follow people you want to hear from.

Now create lists. If you create them in Twitter you can add them to Tweetdeck and Hootsuite. (These are applications that make managing Twitter a whole lot easier and save logging into the website each time you want to peek.) You can create as many as you like but make sure you think about useful themes e.g. Clients, Important Connections, News, or even Comedians I like, after all we all need a little light relief in the day!

Choose some hashtags to follow. (A hashtag looks like this # and goes in front of a word making it easier to search for comments about the same subject). Think about subjects you are interested in and create #hashtag streams. For instance a locality #Yorkshire, a weekly activity #FriFotos, a subject relevant to you #Gadgets or #tech. If you’re not sure what you want to review you can get some ideas by looking at what’s trending. Alternatively, find conversations you want to join and use their #hashtags. Make sure you don’t select too many. The idea here is not to overload yourself with information – if you do you’ll be back to where you started. So just pick around 4 or 5 streams to follow and one at least that is relevant to your industry.
Begin you’re 15 minute daily routine – Login to Hootsuite or Tweetdeck and check your tabs in the following order:

To do list Michelle blogThese few steps will help you to quickly digest only information relevant to you. They will also help to give you content as you can re-tweet and be inspired by others to create new posts. Finally this will increase your following, which is a major objective for being on Twitter. All achieved with just 15 minutes input a day.


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

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

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

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

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

1. Sizzle sessions

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


The Wire has some great speeches

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

2. News judgment clinics

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

3. Jargon checklists

jargon image

Keep a jargon checklist: or picture your trainer looking angry

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

 4. Practise on camera

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

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

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




UK floods 2: be careful what you sizzle


As my colleague Laura Shields has already noted, there was much to praise about the UK Prime Minister’s handling of the press conference in response to the rising flood waters along the banks of the Thames this week.


The PM initially said ‘money is no object’ for fighting the floods

But there were problems too – including the choice of which message David Cameron chose to sizzle, in order to focus attention on the most important thing he had to say.

In particular, I was struck by his claim that “money is no object” when it comes to the continuing relief effort, with a pledge to spend “whatever it takes” to ward off the extreme weather.

I must admit, I raised a quizzical eyebrow when I heard these quotes in the media. Really, I thought? An endless supply of money? Limitless funding? Not for the cash-strapped NHS or our children’s education, but for damp carpets in Didcot?

The trouble is, of course, it’s obviously not true. As Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary later clarified, there was “no blank cheque” to deal with the crisis.

Patrick McLoughlin leaving Downing Street

Patrick McLoughlin later said ‘there is no blank cheque’

And there lies the problem. Two competing bits of sizzle, both from the party in power, each contradicting the other. Our attention has been drawn by the dynamism of the language used, and once we’ve noticed it, we realise you can’t have it both ways.

Number 10 clearly realised this too. As a result of the confusion, Conservative Chief Whip Sir George Young sent an email to Tory MPs entitled ‘Line to take on money no object/blank cheque and flooding’ (a communication itself which was – rather appropriately, I thought – ‘leaked’).

All of which highlights not only the power of sizzle, but how important it is to sizzle the right message (and make sure you can back up what you are saying). Otherwise the fiery ideas you intend to convey can generate a torrent of criticism and end up making you sound rather, well, wet.

Torrential Rain

UK floods: Cameron’s press conference was straight out of the crisis communications handbook

David Cameron gave a text book crisis management press conference this afternoon.

Faced  with severe floods in the south west of the UK, ministers and technocrats falling over one another to pin the blame on anyone but themselves, and angry members of the public, he called his first Downing Street press conference for 238 days.

Cameron has learnt his lessons from the phone hacking scandal and has become better at appearing masterful in an emergency.

Here are five things he did which could serve as a checklist to others who might need to show leadership in a crisis.

david cameron press conference

David Cameron held emergency press conference on the floods

1. Cancel any plans (i.e. a forthcoming trip to the Middle East in Cameron’s case) to show actions speak louder than words and that nothing is more important than fighting the floods.

2. Say: ‘Nothing is more important than fighting the floods’ during the press conference (in case people didn’t get that you were taking it seriously).

3. Start the press conference with what you can say: in this case with the numbers of homes that have been flooded and then onto what’s being done to tackle the problem. So for example, we learned that by the end of Tuesday, 1,600 service men and women will have been deployed around the country with many more on call. This kind of approach is valuable because it feeds the media and social media voids, as well as making the speaker look and sound in control. It also allows you to do a lot of talking up front which puts you on the offensive rather than defensive with the journalists.

flood image torrential rain4. Keep your soundbites clear and simple. To shamelessly borrow from Tony Blair: ‘Now is not the time for soundbites.’ So from Cameron we got: ‘Things may well get worse before they get better’ and ‘Money is no object’.

5.  Refuse to be drawn on the politics (internal or external). Cameron did not commit to questions about squabbling ministers or questions about whether climate change was the cause of the flooding. Instead he focused on what the Government was doing to manage the crisis and that it was evident the extreme weather was a problem.

I expect the journalists will be all over the press conference looking for signs of inconsistency or sensationalism. But from a media trainer’s perspective this was disciplined, clear and a job well done.

Video conference image

Six tips for getting in-house videos right

When I first arrived in Brussels and was still freelancing as a journalist, I used to work with a Belgian cameraman who would describe some of the less impressive TV reports we worked on as ‘bricolage’ (DIY, or Do-It-Yourself).  It seems that every language has its own term for the cut-and-paste stories people who work in TV sometimes have to scrape together when they are short on good pictures, guests and/or time.

Given how hard it can be for TV professionals to get what they want, the stakes are even higher for non-industry people who have to produce videos as part of their job but don’t do it regularly. With many companies trying to cut costs, Brussels is seeing more and more in-house production, whereby junior communications staff are now being given the task of making videos which once would have been outsourced to an agency.

But it takes more than an enthusiastic 25-year-old with a working knowledge of Final Cut Pro to make a good video. So, whether you’re doing a conference report, social media or lobbying video, here are some tips on how to avoid your own version of ‘bricolage’ and having to call in expensive editing help to sort it out.

1.    Get a clear brief


Getting the soundbites right is key for in-house video production

It sounds obvious but you’d be surprised by how vague production briefs can often be. Make sure you understand exactly what your boss wants before filming starts, as this will help you and/or the cameraman (see Point 3) work with the edit in mind. Find out who the key people are you need to talk to and what you want them to say.

2.    Write some decent questions

The soundbites structure your story, so it is crucial to get them right. If you are talking to five people, don’t ask them an identical set of questions if you want to get something interesting that moves your story forward. Put together questions which will encourage a range of opinions and not just PR puff about why your event was great. (You might be making a puff piece but no one wants to watch an interview that is overtly so).

3.    Direct the cameraman

It is unlikely that you will be doing the filming because it’s hard to do it well.  So you will be spending money here. However, it is your job to tell the cameraman what you want, particularly if you are not going to be with them all the time and they aren’t going to do the edit. Do not tell them just to get general shots if you want something specific for the covering images.  Some cameramen will take the initiative and will film background material with the final edit in mind. But those who don’t edit (and a lot of them still don’t) won’t.

4.    Do the important interviews yourself

Or get someone you trust to do them. Inject some energy into your delivery as that will encourage the interviewees to respond in the same way. Ask focused questions that encourage stand-alone answers that the audience will be able to understand without knowing what the question was. If your interviewees have not had media training, then direct them. And re-do the answers if you are not happy; they won’t look better in the edit if you don’t like what you get during filming.

5.    Get timecodes

For the important interviews get the video timecodes from the cameraman before they deliver the footage to you. That will save you endless amounts of time trawling through the footage when you come to the edit.

6.    Leave yourself time

Edits take longer than you think even if you follow all of the steps above. If you have decent soundbites then pick them and lay them down first, followed by the background footage, captions and any music. This will take longer than you think, particularly if you are doing it on your own and have to factor in re-edits if the boss doesn’t like the first version.

Good luck!


A good number goes a long way with the media

This morning, the UK’s Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger did an interview on the BBC’s Today Programme in which she argued that smoking should be banned in cars where children are present because we know:

“A single cigarette can create concentrations of tobacco smoke in a car that is 23 times more toxic than in a typical house.”

The interview (which you can listen to here for the next 7 days) and figure Ms Berger quoted have been picked up almost verbatim by the mainstream media including The Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.

As someone who does a lot of work on risk communication I was immediately struck by the 23x figure, partly because of its numerical value and partly because of the visual picture it conjured up of smoky cars and houses.

When humans assess a new risk the brain initially does so by generating images (also known as mental models). This goes some way to explaining why some experts or campaigners are better at explaining risks than others.  Numbers are important as proof – but numbers which create pictures or explain relationships are even better because they allow the bit of the brain that deals with risk to process them more meaningfully. This is something that scientists or other ‘rational’, evidence based professions often overlook when talking about the risk posed by issues as diverse as fracking, GM or chemicals.


The brain assesses risk in pictures

But it’s a lesson that can equally apply to other number-heavy professions when preparing experts for interview. Ms Berger only used two figures in her interview (the other was 500,000 children a week) but they were simple, meaningful and clear.

Picking a few clear numbers and taking the time to put them in context is a far better use of interview preparation time than digging out 20. I have no idea where Ms Berger got her figures  (nor am I implying that they aren’t true). But clearly, they made enough of an impact on the mainstream press who picked them up unchallenged thus ensuring even more free PR for the policy and presumably more exposure for Ms Berger.

A good number counts for a lot with journalists: and some might say its value can’t be measured.


Telling tales: how to develop a storytelling culture at work

Barely a day goes by without some communications tsar or journalist evangelising the benefits of storytelling for business and politics. And regular readers of this blog and our clients will also know just how much emphasis we place on the value of stories for making arguments concrete and memorable for the media, politicians, voters, customers or other members of the public.

“The manager of a bottling plant in Alsace told me the other day that …” can lead to an illustration of the importance of new labour regulations, environmental controls, human rights legislation, etc, etc.

“I was travelling in Eastern Spain over the Christmas holidays and came across a …” could introduce a killer example to support an immigrant rights campaign, social welfare legislation, drought/flooding alleviation measures, language-teaching subsidies, etc, etc.

That’s fine, in principle. But how do you develop a storytelling culture in organisations or industries whose staff see this kind of approach as purely something for the communications department to focus on?

stories at work

A well crafted story makes messages memorable and sticky

Brussles doesn’t do story-telling well. Here are some tips for beleaguered communications staff to wield with recalcitrant colleagues.

1. Remember the big picture

Unless you are seriously odd, or read the rightwing British press (or both), EU regulation and legislation are not end-goals in their own right. Whether you’re talking to MEPs, journalists or members of your trade association, the particular directive your colleagues are working on is always part of a bigger story, be it about public health, the environment, or data protection. Encourage colleagues to take a step back and recognise the purpose and impact of their work outside Brussels. I accept this is tricky but it’s important.

2. Sort out the messaging

If you don’t have decent messages, work with the public affairs team and policy experts to refashion them into a proper story, which uses the legislative process to supply the detail (and not the narrative).  Less is often more. My heart sinks when I see unambitious and overcomplicated messages that are full of unsubstantiated assertions and meaningless proof points.

3. Know what isn’t a story

Resist the urge to comment on every single micro development that comes out of the Parliament, Commission and Council. There is far too much position paper and press release writing going on in Brussels as it is. I know I am not the only (ex) journalist who would be happy to never read another Brussels missive ‘welcoming’ some Commission announcement or announcing that the European Pencil Sharpener Association (also known as P.O.I.N.T.L.E.S.S.) held a conference. Don’t do it. These things are not interesting and they are not stories. Communications directors must stand their ground on this one.

4. Get your pipeline sorted

You can’t have a storytelling culture without stories and numbers (often known as proof points). If you are in a trade association or NGO coalition you may struggle to get decent material from your members.  But they are like gold dust in Brussels (because they are painful to source). Try to set up relationships with colleagues or wider association members who understand what you need and can help feed your pipeline. Tell them what you are looking for and ask them to give you examples and numbers that are memorable, show a relationship or can be put in context (i.e. which tell a story).

5. Apply this approach to everything

Whether it’s company notepads, posters, presentations, social media output or infographics, make sure all your organisation’s communications reflect its values and impact. If you are a grant-making body, this means putting an end to photos of meetings and handshakes and getting more action shots of children being taught in school, or fishermen using new nets.

Here are five ideas for how to encourage a storytelling approach in your organisation.

Let me know what’s worked for you?