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Arron Banks

Arron Banks, Bluster and Punch – A La Trump

Arron Banks had the opportunity, on mainstream television last week, to explain why supporting the unofficial Brexit leave campaign Leave.EU with £8 million of his own money was legitimate and the right thing to do. He appeared on the  Andrew Marr show on Sunday. The show attracts an audience of 1.5 – 1.7 million which is pretty good for a politics show and well ahead of Peston on Sunday and Sophy Ridge on Sunday. Details of these Sunday political shows and relative audiences are in this article.

Given that this was to be such a crucial interview for Banks, I assumed he would have done extensive preparation: taken a lot of advice to ensure a convincing argument which would move the story on.

Bluster and Punch

Having watched the interview, I am pretty sure he did not take much advice. Instead, he went for a modern style of interview which has been honed by the US President but copied by others, which I am naming ‘bluster and punch’. This is the Trump school of arguing: don’t bother trying to convince those that do not agree with you, simply instead arouse those that do agree with you to a heightened sense of injustice and betrayal. Click here for the BBC’s write up of the event.

To me, it looked like a shameless attempt to obfuscate and defend by attacking others. However, I have to say that although I disapprove of the style, it has proved to be effective, at least at winning public votes. I am not so sure it worked for Banks.

Andrew Marr, not the most aggressive of interviewers was clearly flustered by the lack of rationality in the performance. In fact, he seemed somewhat flustered before the interview started.

I have no knowledge of where the 8 million donated to Leave.EU came from, not much in the way of suspicion and am not clear on electoral law.

But I can tell you that the Aaron Banks’ argument was not prepared for the interview by a professional spin doctor or PR advisor.

While Banks started off well by saying the `Money came from Rock Services’ and that categorically there was ‘no Russian money’ it all went downhill from there.

If you want to make a clear argument for the media (or the public) you need to build it step by step with proof points for each step.

Arron Banks

Confusing and Distracting Use of Numbers

Banks chose not to share such evidence. He didn’t say what sort of insurance customers he served – business or individuals or both. He said it was half a million, the size of Manchester. This was a confusing comparison as only central Manchester has a population of half a million, what most of us think of as Manchester is almost 3 million.

Worse the numbers led to more questions. I spent a lot of the interview thinking if you have half a million customers and you gave away 8 million pounds then those customers on average donated £16 to Leave.EU. Which does beg the question how much profit is he making per customer in the highly competitive, usually low margin insurance sector?  I am sure I wasn’t the only person thinking like this, which means the planned evidence provided here was hugely distracting.

If you are building an argument for a media interview the numbers want to be clear and easily understood, not raise more questions.

Make the Argument Clear

Similarly, in explaining the structure of his companies, Banks did not choose to make it clear. The implication is that Rock Services is a parent company or as Andrew Marr kept calling it a ‘shell company’ and that there are a number of brands that feed profits into that shell company but he seemed unprepared to share details, leaving the clear impressions that he was choosing to hide that information.

If he had said:

Rock Services is the parent company to a number of brands, including A, B and C.”

 …we would have all instantly stopped thinking it sounded dodgy.

As an advisor, I would also have suggested it was a good idea to explain why the donation was made. Surely, it would have been helpful to have a sentence that said ‘I donated this considerable sum from my own wholly owned business interests’ because I sincerely believe it would be better for the UK if we left the stifling, rules-bound, undemocratic, single market’. Without this helicopter view, the whole interview sounded defensive.

As the interview went on Banks’ argument seemed to me to get less and less credible. But he seemed more and more bullish.

Lambasting Others Undermines Credibility

Criticising others, blaming corruption, malice, bias and the BBC can all be done in moderation but to simply state everyone who disagrees with you is without credibility, is to undermine your own credibility. It is like the old soldier on parade who said ‘they are all out of step except me!’.

Given the controversial run-up to this interview, Banks and his advisors (if he had any) could be sure that Marr’s researchers would gather and read everything that was ‘out there’ in the public domain and relentlessly go through the cuttings to hone the tough questions. Apparently, they even sent someone to Companies House.

Planning for Hostile Interview

From a PRs perspective, the more confrontational the interview is likely to be, the more predictable the questions. And that makes the planning much easier.

As a preparation exercise you identify all the likely questions, then you need to craft succinct, credible answers. There may be some questions for which your spokesperson chooses to say ‘I am not making that public because it is commercially confidential’ or ‘I am not going to comment on that’. Clearly, you cannot do that for every question. I referred to this Close Down technique in my blog last week. 

Generally, only if you land a credible answer can you then take the opportunity to broaden the conversation to make a wider point such as accusations of bias, corruption etc.

I suspect Banks thinks the interview went well because he is clearly thick-skinned and he believes he is right and everyone else is misguided. If his intention was to deliberately muddy the waters – but take the opportunity to reiterate allegations that there is an insidious but widespread Remain Campaign still on the march, he probably fulfilled his brief.

However, if his intention was to sway an undecided public that his campaign contribution was above board and put to rest any fears that he might have done something wrong, he failed.

Communicating risk

Communicating Risk in the Media

Communicating risk via the media is really hard. A good case study for this came this weekend when The Sunday Times splashed with a leaked report from the National Police Co-ordination Centre about planning for a No-Deal Brexit.  

Risk of UK Crimewave

Under the headline ‘Police Plan for Riots and Crimewave if there is a No-Deal Brexit’ the paper runs through some alarming details of what might happen. This includes a rise in crime as Britain suffers food and drug shortages, an expectation that people will become sicker (presumably because prescription drug supplies are affected) and concern about food and goods shortages leading to widespread unrest. It also predicts widespread disruption to the national road network.

The list comes from a confidential discussion paper which is yet to be presented by the National Police Co-ordination Centre. It was not a definitive version of anything – and of course it was written by someone told to ‘imagine the worst’ so the police could plan for it.

Clearly, the report is highly newsworthy but what is not stressed in the coverage is that this was part of a process of preparing for possible events, rather than predicting the events themselves.

Risk Story Killed

It was alarming stuff and widely reported on the day, but the story has died quickly – and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the Home Secretary Sajid Javid did a great job of killing the story when asked about the report on The Marr Show on Sunday. The link is below and the relevant comments run 9:45 -11:45.

The Home Secretary’s (clearly prepared) line was ‘I am not going to comment on these things in detail but is a good thing that the police, like everyone else, is preparing’. As you can hear he repeats a version of this several times despite Andrew Marr doing his best to get something more. Had Sajid Javid said something different, such as ‘it is possible there will be food and drug shortages’ the story would have had a lot more coverage.

That probably reads as a very slight difference in the form of words but in terms of the way a journalist can report the next chapter, it makes all the difference in the world. One kills the story and the other gives it a second wind.

Editors Maybe on a Short Leash

There are probably other reasons that the story did not get out of hand.  I suspect the BBC and perhaps some others are being very careful about reporting No-Deal Brexit risk. I have no inside knowledge but, having worked in the Corporation, I suspect there have been some very serious high-level discussions – in the last few months – about responsible reporting of Brexit ‘risk’.  As I said the political sensitivities are huge and the dangers of panic, fear etc. are so obvious. Editors and senior correspondents are almost certainly on a short leash.

However, this is just the start and there are a lot more stories about ‘No-Deal Brexit risk’ to come.

The wider point is that being open and honest about ‘risk’ is hard for a number of key reasons.

Four Reasons Why Communicating Risk is Hard

Firstly, there is a general consensus that normal people do not understand the concept of risk. Personally, I am sceptical about this but it is a widely held view. It goes like this: if you say there is a small risk of a terror attack in London this weekend, what people will hear is there is a possible or even likely terror attack in London this weekend.

The assumption then is that ‘normal people’ or a high proportion of ‘normal people’ will overreact.

Secondly, any journalist reporting that comment will report ‘risk of terror attack in London’, absolutely hardening up the story.

This is exactly what happened in The Sunday Times and in The Express who both hardened up the National Police Co-ordination Centre story to get the headline.  Here is The Sunday Times link and here is The Express.

Anyone glancing across the headlines without taking time to understand the story will be misled about the probability related to the risk.

Thirdly, there is another problem of communicating risk openly and that is that people get tired of being scared and under-react. Many risks do not actually happen. And that encourages people to think they will never happen. Public organisations are understandably careful about ‘crying wolf’. Too many earthquake warnings and people do not move when they are told they really need to.

And fourthly, being open about risk can be taken as a political act. And that is a real problem. Anyone will think twice about going public about a particular perceived risk if they think senior politicians will publicly attack them.

As a spin doctor and media trainer, I would like to be able to say there is a simple formula that answers this problem of communicating risk, but there really isn’t. It is complicated, it requires very careful planning and very disciplined communicators. And it is still difficult.

 

UK Prime Minister Media Style

UK Prime Minister Media Style

The UK Prime Minister Media Style was this week on display for the first time. Theresa May gave her first major interview since taking office to the BBC’s Andrew Marr. It runs more than 17 minutes and from it I can draw some clear conclusions about the media style of this Prime Minister.  But the question most people will have in their minds when watching this interview is: why don’t politicians answer a direct question with a direct answer.

My advice to the PM: more direct answers please.

May has clearly been well prepared for this interview. She has her messages in place and there was certainly no thinking on the hoof, all the questions had been anticipated and her answers were rehearsed. Thank goodness. For me this is more evidence of a ‘safe pair of hands’.

What’s more, while the hair and make-up were perfect, the outfit was not overly formal (are those bare ankles?) and the setting is the rather faded glory of, what I assume is, the Maidenhead Constituency office, complete with cracked fireplace and 1970’s carpet. I think this was a deliberate choice, indicating that this Prime Minister is not interested in the glory of the job or the opulence of the offices of state.

We also saw a warmer, more animated performer than in the past, with a marked reduction in her frosty impatience with the media process.

Her use of messages was, perhaps overly obvious, just a bit too much repetition and not enough new information for such a set piece interview.

On her vision for Britain the message was: “I want to see a country that works for everyone, a society that works for everyone, an economy that works for everyone…”

On schools: “Good quality education, giving opportunity…”

On Brexit: “We will make a success of it” and “We want to be an outward looking, independent Britain forging our way in the world.”

On the timetable for the exit negotiations  “We need to take time to prepare, we need a period of preparation” and “We will not trigger Article 50 before the end of the year”.

But the rhythm of the interview is annoying. For the first 15 minutes May makes a point of never answering a direct question with a direct answer. This I think is a mistake, probably the only substantial criticism I would make of her style. It was clearly a deliberate strategy, but a misguided one.

So, for example, when asked:

“Would you like to see at the end of the first Theresa May administration more grammar schools open than there are now?”

The answer was:

“What I would like to see Andrew is ensuring an education system, regardless of where people are, regardless of the school they are going to that is ensuring they are getting the quality of education that enables them to take on those opportunities…”

This sort of response drives listeners and viewers nuts. I just don’t understand why politicians won’t say ‘We are looking at that’ or ‘I am not giving you an answer to that today’ or ‘This is something we are still discussing’.

Making a direct response to the question before moving to a wider point makes the speaker sound much more honest and credible.

Here are just a couple of comments from below the interview on YouTube that show how people react to this communication style.

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

 

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

 

 

 

 

Theresa May did actually adopt the strategy I would have suggested, towards the end of the interview  – at 17:18 if you want to find it.

When asked a follow-up question on her stalling over the Hinkley Point decision she said:

“I think you are trying to get me to give an indication of what my decision is going to be Andrew, which I am not going to do.”

She did it with good grace and was not aggressive about it and it worked a treat.

Composite Marr quotes

A lesson in the need to prepare for obvious questions

Nine minutes into a 12-minute interview on Remembrance Sunday this short bit of dialogue sparked an apparently unplanned controversy.

Composite Marr quotes

The interview is between Andrew Marr, on the Sunday Morning current affairs programme The Marr Show and General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff. (Sorry but the link will only work until mid December 2015.)

‘Manoeuvred into criticising’ 

As a result of these two phrases from Sir Nicholas, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Opposition Labour party, is complaining to the Ministry of Defence. He says Sir Nicholas crossed the line on the military’s political neutrality. In an attempt to defuse the row, on Monday the former head of the Navy and a Labour Peer, Lord West said in another interview, he thought Sir Nicholas had been ‘manoeuvred into criticising’ the opposition leader.

Corbyn Complains compositeFor those who haven’t followed this, Corbyn is a life long member of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and is hoping to persuade his party and the country to vote against spending between £20 and £100 billion on renewing Trident – Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

Watching the interview (the comments come at one hour and two minutes in if you are looking at the whole programme) you can clearly see that Sir Nicholas realised the danger of the question and tried to choose his words carefully: but still ended up in hot water.

Learning Points for us PR professionals:

–  This was a long and wide-ranging interview, over 12 minutes. The longer the interview the greater the risk. The comments come about nine minutes in.

–  The more senior the person and the less often they appear in the media, the more difficult it is for them to do what we would think of as a ‘disciplined’ interview. They are used to holding court and not used to having to be careful with every word knowing it can be elevated to a headline.

–  The ‘would you support Corbyn if he was elected?’ questions, of which the offending question here was just one mild version, are obvious and predictable.Huff Puff composite

–  It is not credible to imagine that Marr plotted to lead Sir Nicholas to that point with some Machiavellian line of prepared questions. But it is entirely likely that Marr knows what Sir Nicholas thinks and wondered if he could get him to say it on air. However, from a journalistic point of view it was a totally reasonable question in the context of the interview. This was not a bit of mischief tagged on the end.

– Actually Sir Nicholas got off very lightly. It’s obvious to us, that a different interviewer would have seized the phrase and been much more challenging on what exactly it meant. Marr let it slide.

– If Sir Nicholas was being supported by an efficient PR machine he would have been rehearsed in the line to take on this question and would not have been left trying and failing to stay out of trouble whilst in front of the charming Andrew Marr and a bank of TV cameras.

Possible answer

So how should he have answered it? We don’t know all the considerations but how about : ‘As you know, the military is politically neutral so I am not going to be drawn on that but what I would say is…’

At The Media Coach we call preparation for tough or politically sensitive questions ‘reactive lines’. The difficult questions need to be identified by someone who has professional PR (or journalistic) skills, and appropriate responses need to be crafted. Then, the interviewee needs to rehearse them aloud. Reading reactive lines in a document ahead of an interview is not an adequate way to prepare; role-playing them a couple of times is.