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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.

 

media interview traps

Media interview traps – how to avoid two of them

Media interview traps are relatively easy for journalists to set and for interviewees to fall headlong in to. At The Media Coach, we try to keep you safe by identifying the most common ones and giving you tips and techniques to avoid them. So it’s useful to look at two examples of interview traps which happened in recent days: being indiscreet near a microphone – even when you think you are not being recorded – and the journalist trying to get you to go ‘off message’ to create juicy headlines. The first trap resulted in days of embarrassing, negative publicity while the second was neatly avoided.

media interview traps

There are some well known media traps but people, even professionals, regularly get caught by them.

Media interview trap 1: Cameras are always on and microphones are always ‘hot’

During every media training session we drill into people the need to be very careful around microphones and cameras before and after an interview; in fact, whenever you are in a TV or radio studio. But familiarity can breed contempt and this week we saw even one of the UK’s most experienced journalists, BBC presenter John Humphrys, get caught out when he made controversial comments in a studio without realising he was being recorded.

He wasn’t on air at the time and was just chatting with a colleague before recording an interview when he made what he has since insisted were “jokey” comments about one of the biggest media stories in the previous week; Carrie Gracie’s resignation from the post of the BBC’s China editor because men in other editor posts were paid considerably more than she was.

The story about the lack of equal pay at the BBC had been running for several days and probably would have been winding down, but with the leaking of the recording, it is now right back up the news agenda.

One of John Humphry’s BBC colleagues, Jane Garvey, summed up the incident nicely when she tweeted:

media interview traps

Media interview trap 2: going off message/just reacting to the journalist’s questions

Also in recent days, experienced media performer, Stanley Johnson, (father of Foreign Secretary, Boris) deftly demonstrated how to avoid another common media interview trap, which I call the “while I’ve got you here, can I just ask you about…” question.

Mr Johnson was appearing on a phone in on Radio 5live’s Emma Barnett show after the UK Government announced proposals to curb plastic waste in the environment. After giving his view on the proposals, and mentioning Boris, Emma Barnett, seized the opportunity to go slightly off-topic with Stanley Johnson in search of a potentially juicy headline by revisiting the very public falling out between his son and the now Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, during the last Conservative leadership contest. ( You can click here for the full interview which starts at 1 hour 24 minutes and 55 seconds and will be available for the next three weeks.)

media interview traps

Stanley Johnson refused to be drawn when asked about the relationship between Michael Gove and his son Boris Johnson.

When asked to respond to the comments from his daughter Rachel that Mr Gove had stabbed her brother Boris “in the front and the back”, Stanley Johnson neatly spotted the potential for negative headlines which could overshadow his environmental agenda. He simply took the sting out of the topic by refusing to get drawn in and saying “I don’t think it’s a good idea to distract from talking about the environment” before going back to his key messages on his intended topic.

This is an effective example of the bridging technique which we teach during Media Coach training sessions to ensure interviewees can avoid being drawn off-topic and ending up with headlines they never intended.

Finally, to avoid both traps, the two cases illustrate the need to take media encounters seriously, focus and remain disciplined at all times.

Photo 1: Pixabay
Photo 2: Creative Commons

 

 

get the tone right

Media training: Getting the tone right

Getting the tone right can be far from easy in a media interview. You need to sound in control, but also demonstrate the right emotion for the occasion. I wrote last week about how Prince Harry and Meghan delivered a happy but not schmaltzy interview on their engagement whilst apparently effortlessly avoiding a lot of potential pitfalls.

Husband of Iran prisoner gets the tone right

Another man who gets it right in much less happy circumstances is Richard Ratcliffe. An accountant from Hampstead thrust into the media spotlight when his Iranian born wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was imprisoned in Iran, and his young daughter who, despite her British passport, has not been returned to him but is instead with her grandparents in Iran.

Getting the tone right

Richard Ratcliffe makes himself available to be interviewed however distressing the news, and always gets the tone right.

Not much is written to my knowledge about Richard Ratcliffe but nothing that is written suggests he is someone with any understanding of the media (besides living in Hampstead which might mean there are some invisible guiding hands amongst his neighbours).

He is never angry, never over-claims but just calmly and sadly states and restates the facts and the argument.

The latest development as reported here in the Independent is that following Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s visit to Tehran, a court case expected to be held in Iran on Sunday and likely to extend Nazanin’s sentence, has been postponed. It’s a small bit of positive news in very sad story. And  Ratcliffe was interviewed on Sky news, from his sitting room to put the human face on the latest development.

In an interview from Channel 4 news a month ago that took place just after the Boris Johnson ‘gaffe’ when he mistakenly said that Nazanin had been training journalists – and his subsequent quasi-retraction. It was a mistake that undermined the whole family defence which was that Ratcliffe’s wife was simple on holiday when she was arrested. Many people would have been raging but Ratcliffe just looked and sounded sad but did his best to be positive.

Media Training tips for managing tone

Often the important point in managing the tone is to think first what the tone should be. A strategic approach to interviews will always give you a better outcome.

Media Training tips for managing high emotion

I have actually media trained several people who have become media spokespeople for all the wrong reasons. The father of a girl who died in controversial circumstances, a man with terminal cancer who was campaigning for change in some laws etc. The challenge in these cases is to manage the narrative to avoid the emotional bits that will trigger a breakdown. Bluntly, looking sad is one thing but sobbing on air is uncomfortable and distressing for everyone. The trick is to isolate the bits that people can’t talk about and have an alternative track that will distract from that bit of the story. Of course the journalists and probably the audience want to hear the personal story so it is a fine balancing act. At least broadcast journalists are not insensitive to the problem of too much emotion and in these circumstances, they are not looking to make life difficult for the interviewee. And thank goodness the BBC at least has banned the question ‘How do you feel…’.

Of course, those spokespeople, like Richard Ratcliffe, put themselves through the media ordeal because they think something important is at stake, and at the end of the day there is nothing like media exposure to get things done. Let’s hope in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe all the media attention will pay off.

Royal interview

Royal Interview – nicely done

The royal interview was, for us spin doctors and media trainers, a highlight last week.  Prince Harry and fiancée Meghan Markle faced respectful but very personal questioning from the BBC’s Mishal Husain; and they handled it with aplomb.

The couple appeared natural, shared bits of their story but never looked uncomfortable. I may be wrong but I am guessing a fair amount of work went into that, if not formally then informally.

As the Daily Telegraph noted:

‘A divorced, mixed race, Hollywood actress who attended a Roman Catholic school is to marry the son of the next King. Such a sentence simply could not have been written a generation ago.’

So many taboos and traditions have been swept away by this engagement that the handling of the interview is probably rather unimportant. But perhaps it did illustrate how this generation of royals are handling the media differently and with much more professionalism than in the past.

Royal interview – professional approach to the personal

This was an interview that perfectly illustrates a professional approach to the personal.

Any spin doctor advising on such an important and sensitive interview would say: give away enough to tell the narrative you want to tell, don’t lie but artfully steer away from anything you don’t want to share. Asked about some of the coverage of the relationship Markle said it was ‘disheartening’ and ‘discriminatory’. But she said this with disappointment rather than rancor. Call me cynical but I am pretty sure ‘disheartening’ and ‘discriminatory’ were prepared lines – and even the tone was carefully chosen. I could be wrong, she might just be a natural but neither are words that most people use every day. They are a good choice because they are suitably negative but not inflammatory. Just what was needed.

Royal interview gave clear sign posting

There was also the very clear signposting that the couple would not reveal the name of the mutual friend who set them up on the blind date: “We must respect her privacy” they both repeated. This is apparently now known but Meghan and Prince Harry were clear but not defensive about controlling the interview on this point. It’s always easier to tell a journalist you are not going to answer a question than to fudge it.

There were a couple of other nice touches that might or might not have been inserted by a spin doctor. Several uses of the word ‘cottage’ with all its small and frugal connotations (!), and the roast chicken dinner. As we often say to people, just insert a bit of colour! It’s not that I doubt the truth of the roast chicken, I just think most people wouldn’t have automatically mentioned it. But it played its role in adding a homely touch to the royal romance.

Royal interview

The roast chicken dinner was one of those irrelevant facts that nevertheless has a role in adding ‘colour’ to a story.

Anyway, all in all nicely done and given that managing the media is going to have to be such a big part of their lives it bodes well that together – and undoubtedly with the help of others – they delivered a charming, happy, uncontroversial interview.

messaging explained

Messaging explained: Robbie Gibb steps up to save PM

The big news last week in the world of political PR was that the BBC’s head of operations at Westminster, Robbie Gibb, was named as Theresa May’s new director of communications. Here is how The Guardian reported it:

messaging explained

BBC’s Robbie Gibb gets top job

While I am constantly irritated by large organisations and the government appointing senior journalists instead of professional PRs to do high-powered well-paid comms jobs, this seems to have been a rather more sensible choice than some. Gibb has worked for the Tories previously and as a BBC manager is in any case rather more than a hack.

[If you haven’t heard or read me grump about this before, one of my beefs is that PR is a profession and should be more respected. Whilst it overlaps with journalism it is a very different job. Some brilliant journalists make excellent PRs but most don’t. And in the meantime, it stops excellent PRs being promoted and actually skews the profession by creaming off the top jobs and giving them to ill-qualified media names.]

Anyway, that aside – the appointment of Gibb made a whole feature on Radio 4s Sunday lunchtime programme The World This Weekend – which by the way my Dad occasionally presented more than 20 years ago so I have an affection for it.

messaging explained

Francis Maude tribute to Gibb

The team did what we call in the trade a ‘package’ or a report on Robbie Gibb and interviewed his former boss in the Tory Party, Francis Maude. As a tribute to Gibb, Maude or Baron Maude of Horsham to give him his full title these days, gave this soundbite.

Former Conservative front bencher Francis Maude explains why Robbie Gibb was so useful

We were looking for a serious figure to be my Chief of Staff and effectively to be Press Secretary as well; and Robbie was brilliant and was willing to leave his job in the BBC to do that. What he was very good at was working with us to craft the messages.

I mean, what we did at that time was we took the concept of stealth taxes, and one of my team coined the phrase stealth taxes, which passed into the language.

My classic rule of political communication is you need to spend quality time working out what are the few things you want to say, and then say them all the time and just at the moment when you feel physically sick hearing yourself say the words is the moment at which someone will say why haven’t you been saying this before…

…and I remember the moment a few months after Robbie had started working for me when a taxi driver said to one of our team – with all of these stealth taxes Labour are introducing I wonder the Tories aren’t making more of it – which illustrated the rule perfectly.

Messaging explained

Whilst, the link is available for a couple of weeks on BBC iPlayer (starting at 9.29) we have transcribed this one minute of radio because it brilliantly explains messaging. Messaging is one of those words that people have a rather woolly understanding of but for us, it has a very precise meaning. Our meaning is the same as Maude’s ‘classic rule of political communication’.

I particularly love that Maude identifies you need to spend ‘quality time’ working out the few things you want to say.

You can over do repetition

On the point of repetition, we might differ slightly. We don’t think it is a good idea to annoy everyone with key phrases as Theresa May did in the election with ‘strong and stable’. If you need reminding here is a write up of one particularly underwhelming Maybot speech.

One does have to apply intelligence and judgement when using messages but the Maude principle is right. You need a few key phrases, with a solid argument behind them and then repeat them in different forums (rather than the same interview or speech) as often as possible.

And of course, if you need help identifying and crafting your messages you really might benefit from the support of an experienced ex-journalist. They are usually good at messaging but often not so good at many other parts of the PR job like strategy or dealing with internal sensitivities. Should you feel such a need you have the option of poaching someone from the BBC  on an inflated salary, understanding they might be ill equipped to do the rest of the job – or you could employ one of the Media Coach team for just a few hours to facilitate a message building session.

Meanwhile, it will be very interesting to see how much difference Robbie Gibb makes to Mrs. May. I suspect we will see the effect very quickly.

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations

Trump Banned Unfriendly News Organisations: Why You Should Not

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations from a White House press conference at the end of last week stepping up the ‘ante’ in the clash between the new President and the Fourth Estate. He has banned The Guardian, New York Times, Politico, CNN, BBC and Buzzfeed; all organisations apparently seen as hostile to the new order.

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations

President Donald Trump banned some news organisations from a White House briefing

Trump ban: no surprise

In some ways, it is no surprise. Trump comes from a business background and business is always much more selective about engagement with the media than politicians or administrations. How this will all play out in American politics is anybody’s guess. We are in unchartered territory.

But it does highlight the issue faced by many companies. Do they risk engaging with the media, knowing there is a possibility they will get unfriendly coverage? Or do they refuse to engage and hope little will be written or read about their company or any issues?

Business is too cautious

My own view is that business is much too cautious and much too controlling when it comes to the media. There are certainly times when it is better not to put your corporate head above the parapet but in general, the risks of media engagement are well understood and reasonably easily managed. There are of course a few exceptions.

But this is why I think business should engage more than they do.

Firstly, there is the obvious reason that editorial coverage is worth a great deal more than advertising. It tends to be read by the right people – your customers and other stakeholders will read stuff that is relevant to them. Despite the fact that fewer people pay for a newspaper these days, the efficiency of search engines and social media sharing means little is missed. Editorial coverage is also seen as more credible than advertising, and there is scope for much more sophisticated communication than in advertising.

Established relationships with journalists are useful

Secondly, it is hugely helpful to an organisation or business to have established relationships with journalists. It means that when they do want to get information ‘out there’ it can be done much more easily. It also gives the press office more options: to pick one journalist over another from a position of real knowledge, offer exclusives etc. Working relationships are essential and understood in other areas of business but undervalued in PR.

Thirdly, it is also hugely helpful to organisations to have trained and experienced spokespeople. This is particularly true if there is likely to be a crisis at some point in the future. You need a handful of people who know the game, have done a few radio and TV interviews and are not going to be phased by the process. As media trainers we are all too often asked to take people from first steps to ready for Radio 4’s Today programme in one four-hour session. Common sense will tell you that this is not ideal. 

The big win: shaping the conversation

mp banned George_Lakoff

George Lakoff has written about how the right-wing in the US has been shaping the public conversation

Finally, there is a more subtle benefit: engaging with the media provides the opportunity to, over time, shape the conversation. This requires a somewhat sophisticated longer-term media strategy but is something that can really work particularly for innovative industries – FinTech for example. There is a business benefit to softening up the public or creating expectations. This has been endlessly written about in politics. For example, the hugely readable ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ by George Lakoff. His revised and updated edition demonstrates how the right wing have played a very long game and a very successful one in shaping the debate in the US. While the democrats have mostly failed to do this. In the UK think about how Micheal O’Leary at Ryanair has shaped the debate over what we pay for when we buy an airline ticket.

Withdrawal of business from public debate has been damaging

On this last point, I would like to get on my socio-political soap box. The withdrawal of business from the public conversation over the last 30 years has been hugely damaging to British society. As a result of the apparent risks of media engagement going up in the mid-eighties and early nineties, more and more companies decided to control all conversations with journalists and in many cases turn down most interview opportunities. I know this happened because I saw it first hand as an output editor on BBC Financial World Tonight. During my time from about 1989 to 1994, it got steadily harder to find business people to talk.

[Although a few businesses did nail their colours to the mast over Scottish Independence and Brexit very few chose to be interviewed. It was deemed that the risks were too high. But my main concern is about more general everyday matters.]

Trump banned capitalism crisis

Many young people now believe business is bad for humanity

The result this withdrawal from the public conversations is that huge swathes of the under 25’s now think making money is wrong and that anyone making money is damaging the human race. Whilst the reality is, while some businesses can be exploitative – and I know a few – in general business is delivering an extraordinary level of comfort, service, interest and freedom of choice to the population.

So, why are businesses in general so reluctant to talk about their successes in the media? Well occasionally they do but when you think what a huge role business is playing in the life and development of the country, business is vastly under-represented.

If you would like to get more media coverage for your organisation we can of course help by training your spokespeople or helping develop your messages. So do pick up the phone (020 7099 2212) . Your country needs you!

Shaping the conversation: further reading

A good introduction to ‘shaping public conversations’ from a poverty action group in the US.

Media Training basics: don’t shoot the messenger

Media training basics include understanding that interviews with journalists are an opportunity rather than a threat.

Sure, there are potential pitfalls and problems that you might encounter in the course of the conversation, but the key point to realise is that you have been selected as an opinion leader, with a chance to influence what others think.

With this in mind, it would be madness to criticise the very broadcaster that is providing you with the interview opportunity. Nevertheless, a surprising number of interviewees seem to forget or ignore this and waste time shooting the messenger.

Media Training basics: case study

Media Training Basics Don't Shoot the Messenger

Peter Bone MP used an interview on BBC Radio 4 PM programme to criticise the ‘pro-EU’ stance of the BBC

Take Peter Bone, for example – a politician since 1977 and an MP since 2005. The Conservative member for Wellingborough is a prominent Eurosceptic and has been through countless interactions with the media. He was invited onto a recent edition of Radio 4’s PM programme to discuss comments made by Brexit secretary David Davis that day, suggesting the government was not ruling out paying into the Brussels budget in exchange for access to the single market.

Presenter Eddie Mair asked Mr Bone what he thought of what had been said – a gentle, easy opening question that should have provided him with an opportunity to say almost anything he liked on the subject.

Media Training basics: why waste easy questions?

But within his first answer, Mr Bone had dismissed the story as people “clutching at straws” who were “desperate for any news”. This is never a good tactic. Journalists hate being told what constitutes a story – and from the listeners’ point of view, it’s reasonable to assume that anyone agreeing to be interviewed believes there is something to talk about.

Then when Eddie Mair pushed him a little harder (“forgive us for listening to what government ministers say and trying to interpret them on behalf of the listeners”), Mr Bone responded, “It is the BBC, of course, and I know you’re terribly, terribly pro-EU.”

Suddenly the debate switched from discussing access to the EU single market to the manner in which the BBC was covering the issue:

Peter Bone:  “There you see – there we go again: BBC – pro-EU hat on, you just can’t see reality…”

Eddie Mair:   “Is it easier to bash the BBC than to deal with the question?”

Peter Bone:  “I don’t have to bash the BBC because it’s unmitigating (sic) pro-EU…. I mean, it’s just the way you start these reports…”

Eddie Mair:   “Have you seen reports in The Telegraph posing the same questions?”

You can hear the interview here until the end of December 2016.

Listeners on both sides of the debate will resent this approach – especially as the only other interviewee on the subject was fellow-Brexiteer Mark Littlewood, the Director General of the free-market think tank The Institute of Economic Affairs. What’s more, soundbites introducing the article had come from Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Nigel Farage, David Davis and Ian Duncan Smith – not a Remainer in sight.

Bone should have known better and kept his powder dry. When landing a key message should be your strategic purpose, it’s a waste of ammunition to target the media instead. Doing so frustrates interviewers who spend time dodging the bullets, and alienates the audience who are left wondering what the battle was all about.

Expecting a radio interview opportunity to come up in the near future? I and the team of trainers at The Media Coach have years of broadcast news experience; we can prepare you for a radio or TV interview and ensure you avoid making such basic mistakes.

Photos used under creative comms licence

Key Messages are magic

Key Messages are magic: you almost certainly need some

Key messages are something that when I was a journalist I would have scoffed at. I remember the BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys saying that anyone who says you need three key messages to do a radio interview is talking rubbish. Now with more than 10 years media and presentation training experience, I am confident in saying he is utterly and completely wrong.

Key Messages are magic

A few hours with a trained journalist could save you days of frustrating email negotiation

Key Messages helped George

To illustrate let me introduce someone we will call George. George is an old friend of my family. I have known him since he was 12 and he is now in his late 20s. He is ferociously bright with a brain that is capable of holding huge amounts of detailed and diverse information. He has encyclopedic knowledge of geography, global politics and the railways of Europe (!). But when he went for his dream-job interview, he lost out. They gave him very specific feedback; he had bombarded them with too much information and too much detail and they had not fully followed his arguments. (My interpretation is they were not sure if they were dealing with a genius or a nutcase.)  So he came to spend an afternoon with me and we sorted out his messages: how he would describe his professional skills and how projects he had completed in other jobs were evidence of his knowledge and ability.

I see myself as a …

What I feel I would bring to this organisation is…

Etc…

We also worked out what he was going to say, if asked, about a ‘hole’ in his CV. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation but it was complicated.

And then we rehearsed.  Which is exactly what we do in Media Training.

Key Messages organise thoughts

It is understandable that John Humphrys would not see the necessity for this sort of preparation for either a job or a media interview.  After a lifetime as a journalist and broadcaster, Humphrys and his ilk need only to think about something to be able to articulate it as a simple argument. It is their professional skill. (Interestingly, journalists rarely recognise this as a skill. They assume everyone can do it despite daily evidence to the contrary.)

Let’s take another example. Imagine someone has spent the last five years managing clients and designing an ‘end to end process solution’ for automating the work of people who pick the items for your on-line order in a vast warehouse. What are the chances of that person being able to articulate the advantages of 3D barcodes or warehouse management software in simple language?

Absolutely zero.

This does not mean that particular professional is inadequate.  It just reminds us that experts often find it hard to articulate a helicopter view. Under questioning they often get lost in the detail and led down blind and unhelpful intellectual by-ways.

Key Messages are useful everywhere

I recently facilitated a meeting helping draw up the talking points for a new international strategy for tackling a specific set of problems in emerging economies. It sounds a long way from media and presentation training but actually is remarkably closely related.

This gutting of a detailed strategy document to identify a few easy-to-grasp core ideas is a task regularly faced in many different forms by all sorts of teams in business. But it can take weeks. Putting all stakeholders together with a former journalist will save hours if not days of frustrating email negotiation.

Back to George. I am delighted to report that George got the next job he applied for and is now being offered a promotion and a new role in another European country. Well done George. And another triumph for the magic of messaging.

If you know people who need help sorting out their messages give us a call.

 

Key Messages: online articles

There are plenty of online articles explaining the basics of key messaging. Here are a few:

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.

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

Know your audience: why Trump may be losing ground

Know your audience is one of the basic tenets of communication. But Donald Trump’s fortunes may be on the turn – and history may conclude that his big miscalculation was misjudging his audience. His unconventional style won him the Republican nomination but is not playing so well with the wider electorate.   I really enjoyed this thoughtful piece from the BBC’s New York correspondent Nick Bryant.

As Bryant points out, campaigning for the presidency is not the same as campaigning for the presidential nomination.

Know your audience: why Trump may be losing ground

Know your audience: Trump is the hero of angry Americans

Many thousands of words have been written about how Trump’s free-wheeling, deliberately politically incorrect, communication style has made him a hero of angry Americans who feel disenfranchised by the Washington elite. The problem he faces is that having got those votes in the bag, to win, he now needs to appeal to Americans who are not quite so angry and who have a more nuanced approach to politics, and social and economic problems.

As we have talked about elsewhere, political speeches need to be an emotional journey that ends up with the audience feeling they have been understood and they can see a better future for them and their family. The problem in politics is that there is not one audience there are many. There is not one thing the electorate care about but many. That is why so many hours go into crafting messages and speeches. It is hugely complicated and a profession in itself.

Trump’s campaign has at least been entertaining because to a large extent he has ignored those conventions. Marie Claire is among many publications that has pulled together a list of the extreme, offensive and rather stupid things Trump has said. It is worth a read.

The whole political phenomenon of protest votes for very non-traditional politicians is fascinating. And something that we will return to again and again. But just last week the conservative journalist Janet Daley argued in the Telegraph that we are entering the ‘Age of Stupid’ because politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are saying stupid things and not just getting away with it but being applauded.

Know your audience: 5 common mistakes

But to return to the mundane: if in the end, Trump is misjudging the wider audience, he is making a mistake that many people make in presentations and in media interviews.

Professional communicators have always to ask: who is the audience, as well as what is the message.

In media training, we see five ways people misjudge their audience.

  1. The most obvious miscalculation is that people use jargon, treating the journalist and the audience as if they were professional colleagues and using technical or specific language or acronyms that simply don’t work in a more general group of people, This can be medics talking about ‘health outcomes’, bankers talking about ‘unauthorised borrowing’ or international aid people talking about ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘capacity building’.
  2. Another obvious miscalculation is that people forget they are speaking to an external audience and share information that is confidential. For example, they share business targets or margins, or they are much too honest about the underperformance of their own team or another part of their own business. It is really common for people to tell journalists all about some new initiative that has not yet been announced – giving the journalist a scoop and the poor PR person who has been working on the launch a real headache.
  3. Another mistake I often highlight is too much focus on making money. In the UK and Europe making money is not seen as virtuous (this is not true elsewhere in the world). It is typically not a good idea to talk externally about your money-making ambitions. Much better to talk about the improvement in the experience or lives of your customers. This is not true if you are talking to the investment media: investors want to understand the business model and where the profit is, but for a general audience it is better to speak about your business as if it were a well-run charity. If asked directly by a journalist about the commercial ambition, it is best to be coy. I suggest phrases such as ‘of course we are a commercial organisation but the important thing is… ‘ We then suggest shifting the focus to the public benefit.
  4. Often when talking to a general audience there is a need to state the obvious. As journalists, we are taught to always consider the ‘helicopter view’. Remind people of the big picture. If you have spent months designing a computer system you will be stuck in the weeds of functionality and bugs – but if you are speaking to an external audience, you will need to remember to articulate why it was needed in the first place.
  5. And finally it is not just the helicopter view: a general audience needs to be reminded of things a speaker can assume are obvious. I call this sign-posting. A really typical mistake is a scientist throwing up a complicated PowerPoint slide with several graphs and lots of data points and saying ‘so what is obvious here is…’. And of course it is not obvious at all. The professional communicator knows you need one chart, not four and you need to explain the basics: ‘this chart plots weight loss over a one-year period with time across the bottom and combined weight of the group on the Y axis’. With that sort of introduction to the slide, everyone has a chance to work out what is going on. But sign-posting can also be as simple as ‘last year’ and ‘this year’ or ‘why this matters is….’

So if you are planning a media interview take AIM: work out who your Audience is, what your Intention is and then work out your Message.

Our advice would also be to avoid outrageous sexist comments or any wildly racist generalisations.

 Photo used under Creative Comms Licence