camerons pr blunder

Cameron’s PR ‘blunder’ – no third term

CAmeron3UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments, that if re-elected in May he would not seek a third term in office in five years time, is the lead story in all the main British newspapers today and on radio and television. It was definitely a scoop for BBC’s James Landale who was conducting a ‘cosy’ behind the scenes interview in the PM’s kitchen at the time.

There are plenty of voices suggesting the Prime Minister should not have answered a question about his long-term plans so honestly. In doing so, the argument goes, he has fired the starting pistol for the next Tory leadership race, especially as he went on to name three possible successors. And he has distracted from May’s election.

For myself, this kind of political reporting is tedious in the extreme and with a complicated election on the horizon, serious economic issues at hand, not to mention plenty of international crises to talk about, I would question whether it should be a lead story. But I certainly realised as soon as I heard the comment that we were in for a media frenzy. It was predictable.

For students of PR, there is one salient lesson here. Just because something is true does not mean it is a good idea to say it to a journalist. Media training is in part about sensitizing people to issues which are commonplace, even obvious in one context but, out of context, give the journalist a story that is either damaging or distracting. Former BP CEO, Tony Hayward’s comment ‘I want my life back’ springs to mind. He wasn’t saying anything we couldn’t have guessed but saying it made a huge story.

Assuming Cameron did not plan to make this announcement about ‘no third term’ his PR team will have been wringing their hands because they lost control of the news cycle. They would not have been prepared for this media frenzy, the lines would not have been in place and they will have had to rush around to find Tory Grandees to wheel out and explain that the Prime Minister was not being disrespectful to the electorate, was not assuming he would win the next election, and is indeed focused on the next election and not his personal future.  And, of course, while the media is talking about Cameron’s ‘blunder’ they are not talking about whatever it was the election machine had in mind for these two days.

All this ‘damage’ because the Prime Minister truthfully answered a question put to him. The lesson is that in all interviews one has to be disciplined. Relaxing into a chat with a journalist is a recipe for an unexpected headline.

However, just to be mischievous, it is worth remembering that David Cameron was a PR man and he has been Prime Minister for almost 5 years. He knows how the British media works. So actually perhaps it wasn’t a blunder at all. Perhaps he wanted a 24-hour news-fest that constantly repeats the possible assumption that the next election is a forgone conclusion.  I am not sure this has been damaging for Cameron at all. It may, in fact, have been a PR coup.




Pegidas spokesperson image

Pegida’s spokesperson falls into the negative framing trap

If you are an organisation or group with an agenda that could easily be misconstrued by public opinion then you need to work hard to make sure your PR is spot on and doesn’t backfire against you.

Earlier today, Pegida,  a German group which is campaigning against the ‘Islamification of the West’ held their first march in the UK (others have taken place in Germany).  They stress they are not anti-Islam, only anti-extreme Islam. And, according to media reports (and Pegida itself) they had deliberately picked the city of Newcastle (which has a small Muslim population) to avoid attracting the kinds of far-right groups that previously would have been attracted to similar marches in Bradford or Leeds (which have far larger Muslim populations).

One of Pegida’s proof points  that they aren’t racist is that they had Muslims taking part in their march.

Pegida's anti-Islamification stance

Pegida’s ‘anti-Islamification’ stance is classic negative framing

A spokesperson for the group, Marion Rogers told the BBC

“We are not racist, we are not fascist, we are not far-right and we’re certainly not anti-Islam – we’ve got Muslims here with us today.’

All of these negative statements i.e. ‘anti-Islamification’, ‘we are not’ etc are classic examples of negative framing.  Once the interview is over the listener will be left with the denials and the powerful associations conjured up by ‘we are not anti-Muslim’. i.e. they will be left with the impression that Pegida IS anti-Muslim.  A parallel from the corporate world would be a media interview with a CEO in which he or she is quoted as saying ‘we are not in a crisis’ and the reader automatically assumes they are because the word ‘crisis’ sets alarm bells ringing.

Either way, strategists at Pegida almost certainly haven’t read  ‘Don’t Think of An Elephant’ by George Lakoff, the Berkeley professor and cognitive linguist who wrote the handbook on how not to conform with and reinforce people’s negative ideas about you.

Some people might ask what Ms Rogers should have done when pressed with this kind of question. Quite simply, if Pegida is being honest when it says they are anti-extreme Islam then from a PR standpoint they should have run a positive campaign which they didn’t have to defend. But she certainly should not have opened herself up to being quoted in media interviews saying ‘we are not x, we are not y, we are not z’. Not only does previous experience of negative campaigning (e.g the No campaign on the Scottish referendum) tell us that they generally not as effective as they could be, but they give the media powerful and potentially damaging quotes which are hard to distance oneself from in the weeks and months after an interview.

Natalie Bennettgr

Know your numbers

This week the Green Party’s leader Natalie Bennett discovered that knowing your numbers is an essential part of interview preparation, especially if it is a live television or radio interview.

She appeared on talk station LBC, where Breakfast presenter Nick Ferrari quite reasonably asked her how her party would fund the building of 500,000 new council houses:


Natalie Bennett did not know the numbers

NB: “Well, what we want to do is fund that particularly from removing the tax relief – um – on mortgage – ah – interest for private landlords…”

NF: “How much would that bring in?”

NB: “Private landlords at the moment are br… – er – er- you know – basically – running away with the situation of hugely rising rents, they’re collecting large amounts of housing benefit….”

NF: “But how much would that be worth – the mortgage relief for private landlords?”

NB: “Um – well – uh – that’s part of the… of the whole costing of all of this…”

NF: “Yes but how much will that bring in… the cost of 500,000 homes – let’s start with that – how much is that going to be?”

NB: “Right, well, that’s, that’s, erm … you’ve got… got a total cost … erm … that we’re … that… that will be spelt out in our manifesto.”

NF: “So you don’t know?”

NB: “No… well uh.”

NF: “No, you don’t. Right.”

The interview continued for a further two-and-a-half painful minutes of stutters, stumbles, awkward pauses and long silences. It was made all the more surprising because the interviewer resisted the temptation to be aggressive, and chose instead to be politely persistent – as you can hear for yourself here:

In fact almost all serious interviews need facts and numbers to back up assertions. Making sure the figures stack up and can be easily grasped is essential. Making sure they are accurate and will stand up to scrutiny if necessary is also important, and often someone will need to check that today’s numbers do not contradict or confuse numbers previously released. All of this is typically carefully built into the preparation for any media event, preparation the Green Party seemed to have missed out on.

Nick Ferrari

Nick Ferrari spotted a hole in the argument

Nick Ferrari did what journalists are paid to do: he spotted a loophole in Natalie Bennett’s ‘evidence’, and he went for it. Afterwards, he described it as “one of the worst interviews ever by a political leader”, while she admitted that the experience was “excruciating”.

No one is doubting that the leader of any political party has a daunting task to prepare to be asked about every aspect of every policy on which they are campaigning. But to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail – summed up by Ferrari’s final question to her, live on-air:

NF: “Do you think you might perhaps have genned-up on this a bit more, Natalie Bennett?”

The sum total of what I’m saying can be expressed as follows: having a message minus statistics means that your argument simply might not add up.

a case for clear arguments on radio

How not to talk about free trade: a case study

An interview on the business slot of this morning’s Radio 4‘s Today programme reminded me how important it is for broadcast spokespeople to make their arguments clear and concrete even if they think their desired audience already knows what they are talking about.

From recent professional experience I know that the issue of TTIP –  i.e. the sprawling free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the EU and US – is one that  flummoxes people who have to talk about it. The mere mention of its almost wilfully boring title – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – could put a charging rhino to sleep at 100 paces.   And, depending on your viewpoint it’s either a huge opportunity to create jobs and growth on both sides of the Atlantic or a neo-liberal conspiracy to give big business free rein to undermine European social values and safeguards.

So this is a hard topic to talk about, as it seems vast, vague and abstract.  On top of that, most of the TTIP negotiations have been conducted behind closed doors and the resulting information vacuum has been filled with rumour. However, if it is your job to make the case for or against TTIP you need to make a compelling argument if you’re going to be persuasive and memorable.

Sadly, the interview in question was not one of those. Gary Campkin is director of International Strategy with TheCityUK, an independent membership body that promotes the UK financial services industry within the UK & internationally.

 1. Where were the messages?

Mr Campkin failed to nail his elevator pitch. Rather, than taking the bull by the horns he talked vaguely about ‘potential for the future’, growth’ and ‘jobs’ before moving onto the trump card of ‘regulatory coherence’. This is the pits: if regulatory coherence is your best interview line then you will lose half your audience. The journalist  immediately spotted this, and  interrupted Mr Campkin to ask what TTIP will actually do but then had to prise an example out of him. This was poor preparation on Mr Campkin’s part. He should have been able to offer up several clear and concrete examples, ideally about the benefits for the UK’s small businesses and consumers, without being prompted.   He was better on the US-UK trade relationship and emphasised that the bilateral export relationship was the most important one the UK had ever had. But he should have done more, as he still sounded speculative, abstract and disengaged from his topic.

2. No control strategy

TTIP is controversial. A lot of people think it’s going to see privatisation of the NHS and give companies power to sue governments. Mr Campkin was mostly in rebuttal territory and did not have a convincing strategy for dealing with these entirely predictable negative questions. He could have provided context from previous trade agreements or named the EU negotiators leading the talks to make him appear more plugged in to what’s going on. As it was, he simply talked about ‘cast iron’ guarantees from the UK Government and EU negotiators (whoever they are) without providing any evidence or linking back to broader arguments about the benefits to the UK from TTIP.

3. Enthusiasm

Mr Campion was not the world’s most enthusiastic interviewee. He didn’t need to jump out of his chair or go into Ted Talk mode but he could have faked it a bit so that he didn’t sound as though it was 6:15 on a Wednesday morning and that he had skimmed the briefing his PR had given him in the car on the way to the BBC.

Talking about TTIP is never going to set people’s worlds on fire (unless you are hold strong views about it in the first place). But if you are a spokesperson for or against it then you need to work extra hard to de-conceptualise it. And you need to sound like you care about what happens. Otherwise, you can be sure no one else will.

You can click here to see my tips on how to communicate more effectively on TTIP.

storming out is never good on tv

Your TV interviewer may be annoying but storming out isn’t great either

Storming out of a live TV interview never ranks among the top tips of media trainers.  Exasperating as interviewers can be, walking off set more often comes across as petulant than defiant, particularly when it’s the kind of fodder today’s political and media journalists love to cut (selective) clips from in order to create a piece of thoroughly trivial TV puffery that bloggers then feel compelled to write about and hate themselves for.

Yesterday’s piece of bait was an exchange that took place between Sky News’ Dermot Murnaghan and Shadow Business Secretary Chukka Umunna. According to the headlines a ‘furious’ Mr Umunna ‘stormed out’ of an interview after he was asked to comment on a letter that he hadn’t read.

If you watch the video it’s not nearly as exciting as that. But it does contain a few useful lessons on interview etiquette:

Mr Umunna was asked to comment on something he didn’t have first-hand knowledge of and he rightly tried to shut it down and move on.  Although this is a good idea from a PR perspective, at the same time it’s pretty disingenuous given that the letter in question was the top news story of the day in the UK and Mr Umunna, a senior member of the Opposition, should have read or at least been properly briefed on its contents in advance. The same lesson applies (to a lesser extent) to ordinary mortals outside the world of politics. You should always be aware of the big stories in your area, if only so that you are not caught off guard and know how to handle the curve ball question you aren’t expecting (or don’t want to take).

2) If you are informed but are still going to plead the ignorance line you should be prepared for the journalist to give you a hard time, as evidenced by…

3) The snippy and irritated line of questioning from Mr Murnaghan . He attacked Mr Umunna for refusing to comment on the letter until he’d got the ‘party line’ straight and then tried to box him into the corner and put words in his mouth by asking whether the letter ‘was patronising to Muslims’. This was a classic aggressive interview technique and one that Mr Umunna didn’t fall for. It’s usually not a good idea to call the interviewer ‘ridiculous’ though. They generally don’t like it.

4) Always remember the value of smiling when closing something down. Mr Umunna looked annoyed. How much better his performance would have looked if he had smiled patiently at being asked to comment on something he hadn’t read. Perhaps he should have taken up the offer of returning half an hour later with an informed answer.

In the end it was a visibly peeved Mr Murnaghan who cut the interview short when he couldn’t get a direct answer/attributable quote to his question. His surly line of questioning about the ‘party line’ made him look pretty bad. He ended up ‘winning’ the headlines battle on a technicality, though because it was pretty silly of Mr Umunna to get up and leave, particularly when the interview was clearly ending.

So overall, null points on both sides. But clearly, a pair of disgruntled egos.


Belgian PM strikes the right chord with live interview from Charlie Hebdo demonstration

Belgian PM strikes the right chord with live interview from Charlie Hebdo demonstration

In the digital age, how physically accessible should senior politicians make themselves to a public that is more turned off and cynical  than ever about the way politics functions?

Depending on your viewpoint, social media has or hasn’t aided the democratisation of politics. But what is clear is that in many cases it has not actually brought government ministers closer to their electorate or humanised them. It’s just  given them another platform from which to tweet pictures of highly engineered ‘meet the public’ photo opportunities, while simultaneously making them more attackable online.

Belgian PM Charles Michel doing a live interview

Belgian PM Charles Michel doing a live interview among the crowd outside the European Parliament

So that’s why I was surprised and impressed to see the new Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel doing a live TV interview in the crowd that had turned up  in the square outside the European Parliament  to show support in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.  His appearance had echoes of last year when Belgian ministers were also seen on the streets following the  fatal shootings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

It was a simple but well-judged gesture and  (judging by the reaction on Twitter) one that clearly chimed much better with the public mood than a controlled statement delivered from in/outside the PM’s offices might have been.

As a Brit living abroad and already bored by the 4 month electoral campaign that has just kicked off in the UK I wonder whether there are media lessons that the political leaders there could learn from this.

Of course,  Brussels is a much smaller city than London, so nipping down the road to do a spontaneous interview isn’t quite as straight forward for David Cameron as it would be for Charles Michel. And, leaving aside the not exactly minor issue of security, there are also risks to your credibility in making yourself too accessible and not statesmanlike enough (not to mention the possibility of it going wrong and being pelted with eggs by disgruntled members of the public).

But so rarely do we get to see our politicians against a backdrop of ordinary people (where the latter aren’t being manipulated or used as photo props) that when we do get the opportunity, it’s a breath of much needed fresh air.  But it’s a shame that it takes a tragedy to make it happen.


Mars Starbucks

Oh dear! A scientist who only speaks geek.

It’s always good to laugh and one interview on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme this morning certainly caused me to guffaw.


Methane on Mars could be evidence of ‘life’ on the red planet

It is a classic and rather funny example of scientist Sushil Atreya, a Professor with the Curiosity programme, refusing to compromise and explain the possibility of life on Mars in layman’s language – and a journalist, Sarah Montague, working her socks off to try and help him.

This interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme was broadcast at about 8.30 a.m. – probably one of the most valuable and influential slots (peak audience) on one of the most valuable and influential programmes in the UK.  Unfortunately the scientist in question does not care about PR – his own, the university’s or the space programme’s – he is just answering questions as he would for a rather dim and uninteresting student. Everything he says is coherent and undoubtedly accurate but totally inappropriate for the audience.

I am sure he is a very nice and clever man but boy, does he need media training!

syria children nbcnews ux

How to bring numbers to life

I am posting here a link to a brilliant bit of radio that brings to life the impact of the Syrian civil war by relating it to the UK.

The opening sentence gives you a chilling flavour of what is to come.

“Say you are one of the two and a half million people who live in the huge conurbation of Greater Manchester, and then you leave; all of you.”

The Syrian cause is close to our hearts here at The Media Coach. We have more than one client working in this now dangerous and desperate country. People we have trained in the last year, daily put their own lives at risks to provide a desperately needed lifeline to others.

syria children

Have of all Syrian children are no longer in school

But this is a blog about bringing numbers to life. Particularly large numbers. Getting an audience to really understand huge numbers of people can be done visually – by an arial shot of a vast refugee camp, for example, or most memorably in the past few weeks by the sea of ceramic red poppies around the Tower of London to represent the dead solders from the First World War. But to do it on radio, giving your audience something they can relate to is a surefire method and this is great example. Much later in this two and a half minute clip Michael Blastland of BBC Radio 4s More or Less programme, turns his attention to the millions of children in Syria who are no longer getting an education. He asks us to imagine this happening in the UK.


Michael Blastland, author and BBC Radio Presenter

“Go to every school in the land and throw out every other pupil, send them home, wherever home may be. About five million of them, to correspond with the fifty percent of children in Syria who have been forced out of formal education.”

The ability to make numbers mean something is a real skill and one that is often overlooked.

Thanks to Michael Blastland for bringing these particular numbers to life.

eu commissioner hearings scorecard

EU Commissioner Hearings Scorecard

In Brussels over the coming week, the new EU Commissioners (technically Commissioner-designates) are presenting themselves to the European Parliament. I’m working with other communications consultants in Belgium to ‘live blog’ the hearings and assess how each of them does.

We decided to do this project partly because the EU’s standing is at an all time low and partly because President Juncker has promised to make his Commissioners more accessible to the media and ordinary Europeans. So this is our first chance to see just how much of the common touch they really have.

Of course, we will be looking at the usual stuff as well – i.e. knowledge of the brief, EU affairs, credibility etc. But this is the Brussels Bubble’s bread and butter (try saying that after a few drinks) and we want to measure the candidates’ impact (or potential impact) outside this sphere. So we will also be ranking them for energy, enthusiasm, vision and basic likeability.

If you would like to follow the assessments click here.


An irresistible metaphor

Media Coach trainers spend a great deal of time trying to persuade serious business people to use metaphor. Metaphor makes simple ideas more fun and more memorable – or to use our jargon ‘stickier’. A ‘sticky’ message is the best sort!


Cameron’s ‘purred’ metaphor was catnip for journalists

David Cameron’s private and embarrassing use of the word ‘purred’ in the same sentence as ‘the Queen’ was very unfortunate but for us shows the huge power of a good metaphor. If he had just said ‘she was very happy’ in his aside to Micheal Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York, it might still have been reported, but the number of column inches and the amount of airtime would have been a great deal less.

This is the power of metaphor. Don’t use them by accident, use them consciously to supercharge your message.