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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.

Metaphor

Jeremy Hunt Sets Tongues Wagging with USSR Metaphor

When is a metaphor ‘inappropriate’?  This is my question of the week.

One speech this weekend seemed to cause more noise and bluster than any other, and that was from the new Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. In what looked like a calm and reasoned performance, he used a metaphor of the USSR and a prison to make his point that the European negotiators should be more flexible in drawing up the Brexit deal.

Jeremy Hunt Sets Tongues Wagging

Here is the relevant script:

“At the moment you, European friends, seem to think the way to keep the club together is to punish a member who leaves, not just with economic disruption, but even by breaking up the United Kingdom with a border down the Irish Sea…

“The EU was set up to protect freedom – it was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving. The lesson from history is clear – if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out of it won’t diminish, it will grow, and we won’t be the only prisoner that wants to escape…”

Choice of Metaphor Widely Criticised

There is a long list of outraged comment …

The Independent:  Everything that was wrong about Jeremy Hunt comparing the EU to the Soviet Union.

The BBC: EU diplomats say Hunt’s Soviet comparison ‘insulting’.

Bloomberg: Jeremy Hunt’s Soviet-EU Comparison Is Absurd.

The Guardian: Jeremy Hunt rebuked by EU after Soviet prison comparison.

HuffPost: Jeremy Hunt ‘Misjudged’ Brexiteer Tories With ‘Toe Curling’ EU/USSR Comparison

The Telegraph: Brussels suggests Jeremy Hunt should read a history book after he compares EU to the Soviet Union.

The New European: ‘Shocking failure of judgement’ – Hunt criticised for Soviet Union jibe

Firstly, I want to note – my thoughts on this are not a political comment at all.  I am personally a ‘Remainer’, I like Europeans and believe the EU is more good than bad.  I like to think I have respect for people that see things differently. I comment in this blog on things in the news that I think are interesting from a communications point of view.

Metaphors are Very Useful in External Comms

Secondly, I am a great fan of metaphors because they help communicate meaning. However, in public life, they have to be chosen carefully and they can easily cause offence. Anything to do with sexism, racism or Nazis – as I have mentioned before – is almost certain to offend someone. Sex metaphors can be tricky but also funny.  I still talk about the expert who claimed the Durban Climate Conference in 2011 was a “Viagra Shot for Carbon Markets” and got his comments on the front page of the FT.

So, to be clear, metaphors can be inappropriate. Boris Johnson often pushes the limit for me: and certainly, describing the Chequers plan as a ‘suicide vest’ is to my mind too rich although it clearly plugged into the Bodyguard zeitgeist.

I hear a lot of inappropriate metaphors when we are brainstorming during messaging sessions. They are good for a laugh but will quickly be dismissed by sensible people. They play the role of getting the creative juices flowing.

But for me, Jeremy Hunt did not overstep the mark. USSR and prisons are two separate metaphors in the same section of the speech. He made his point clearly and in a way that threw a new perspective on this very long-running, tedious argument (imagine trying to write a speech that says something new about Brexit).

In fact, I think a lot of the outrage is ‘fake outrage’. More to do with the political polarisation of the day than to do with anyone really being offended.

We should also ask the question: is this level of criticism a good or a bad thing? Most people would instinctively think it is bad. If everyone is condemning your turn of phrase you must have got it wrong, surely. However, as Johnson, Farage, Trump and others have shown us, being controversial gets headlines and seems to win votes. Sometimes, it pays to be outrageous but you need to be the boss or have an understanding boss – and a thick skin. Similarly, of course, it can pay to be outraged. Fake outrage also wins headlines.

Don’t Abandon Metaphors

So amid all the noise, I would like to make my point: don’t abandon metaphors. And also remember that colourful metaphors have an upside as well as a downside. It is all about using metaphors with judgement and above all planning them.

And as proof of the value of metaphor, I refer back to an interview my colleague Catherine Cross spotted, early last month, when Sir Ian Cheshire, the chairman of Debenhams was on BBC Radio 4 Today programme with the sole purpose of stopping rumours that the company was about to go into administration. He said:

The only analogy I have –  it is like having a bunch of nosy neighbours watching your house. 

“Somebody sees somebody in a suit going into a room. The second person concludes it’s a doctor, the third person concludes it’s an undertaker and by the time it gets to the end of the day you’ve got cause of death and everyone’s looking forward to the funeral,” 

This was widely reported and played its part in helping the share price recover, albeit only temporarily.

My guidelines:

  • Look to use metaphors, analogies and similes for external comms
  • Plan them
  • Keep them short
  • Risk assess them, ask others
  • Make sure you can say them aloud

If you would like help with message building either for the media or more general external communications we can run a short workshop for you and write up a message house at the end. You get to choose any metaphors!

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.

 

Political gaffes: Don’t show your briefs

Political gaffes: Don’t show your briefs

Don’t show your briefs, Jeremy! The Health Secretary’s recent gaffe highlights the importance of preparing briefing documents but not sharing them with the world!

Political gaffes: Don’t show your briefs

What is it with Government ministers and briefing papers?

Why is it on the (often short) walk between Number 10 and ministerial car, or Government department and meeting venue, they let the content of papers – regularly carried unprotected under the arm – become visible to all and sundry?

Especially when the ‘sundry’ concerned is press photographers with long-range lenses, easily capable of picking up the contents of A4 sheets of paper with words in a standard 12-font.

The latest in a long line of MPs to allow this to happen was Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was snapped earlier this week holding notes he and his team had prepared on Brexit. One italicized line, in particular, stood out: ‘Hard Brexit means people fleeing UK’. Whilst Jeremy Hunt campaigned to remain in the European Union, it’s hard to believe that this was his own view – particularly as leaving the single market and customs union is official Government policy.

Preparation is good

I am going to make a small leap here but I am pretty sure this was a briefing document containing examples of criticism or tough questions Hunt might hear from opponents in the Chamber of Commons. What is written underneath will be his prepared response – what we at The Media Coach call ‘reactive lines.’

These are an essential for Ministers but also an important part of planning for a media interview. They ensure the interviewee is fully prepared for the type of difficult questions, which he or she might be asked, and will have practiced answering them when it comes to the interview itself.

It is not just about the questions

Of course, as highlighted earlier in Lindsay’s blog – your focus in a media interview should not be solely on questions you expect the media to ask. Such an approach leaves you on the back-foot, only ever responding to the enquirer, rather than proactively making statements reflecting the point of view that you are trying to get across. Anyway, the truth is that no amount of preparation can guarantee to predict every possible stance the media may choose to take – from the unintentionally irrelevant to the unexpectedly left-field.

Helping spokespeople and their PR teams craft the ‘reactive lines’ and stress test them is very much part of what we do in any event-focussed media training. It is usually a lot easier than people realise and there are many tried and tested formulas for answers to tricky questions.

In short, Q&A documents have their place. Indeed, they are an essential part of an effective media strategy. However, preparing messages and knowing how to land them is even more important. But don’t let the written evidence of your preparations go on show to the outside world.

Some links

Here are a couple of relevant links for further reading

What is a Q and A document – useful how to for PR novices.

Another take on how to write key messages (but our message house system is much more comprehensive than this!)

A list of journalist common question types

 

Election and other bits and bobs

Election and other bits and bobs

It’s election time –  unexpectedly – in the UK. This gives those of us that follow public communications lots to think about and discuss. Instead of our usual article I decided to just share a few things I have been thinking about:

Just to restate a basic – this blog is apolitical. I comment on communication style, skills and lessons. Not on who people should vote for.

Watching Corbyn’s election communication style

Having become something of a lame duck leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a rather good first speech of the campaign last week. You can both watch and read it here. He has since spoken in Scotland and been interviewed on Andrew Marr and he looked relaxed and reasonably happy. Somewhat more in control than he was at the start of his leadership. He could still learn a thing or to from us about controlling interviews. 

Election and other bits and bobs

Someone pointed out to me that Corbyn is looking as if he is going to follow Trump and the Brexit referendum Leave campaign and concentrate on big picture assertions and ignore the detail: Shout loudly about ‘enemies of the people’, threaten big business, Philip Green etc. and avoid the complexities of reality. It has worked for others.

Blair steps into the fray with a confused message

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair – in my view normally a brilliant communicator– stepped into the campaign with a very confused message in an interview on BBC Radio 4. What he was probably saying was vote liberal or vote tactically but it was not clear. I know he was trying to avoid the wrong headlines but he needs to rehire Alistair Campbell.

Theresa May loses key comms personnel

And a final observation about the UK election this week: we note the departure of two key people from Theresa May’s PR team as explained here in the FT. Katie Perrior Downing Street Director of Communications resigned immediately after the election was called, while Lizzie Loudon, the Prime Ministers personal press secretary announced her resignation last Friday. This is a significant change and it will be interesting to see if May’s buttoned-up ice-maiden style changes.

French elections fascinate

We are also watching with fascination the French Presidential election. Not much to say about this today yet but more (from Laura in Brussels) in the near future. But we did notice this article in the FT which suggests politics is all about style over substance.

Election and other bits and bobs

Airline apology: how it should be done

In other news, there was this snippet you may have missed about an unfortunate incident on an American Airlines flight. Clearly, there were echoes of the United Airlines story of earlier in the month but this time the apology was swift and apparently unmuddied by ambiguity.

Lucy Kellaway shares her embarrassing public speaking experience

I am a dyed in the wool Lucy Kellaway fan, she is always an entertaining read. Assuming you have a subscription to the FT, this column from her is about how she got over confident and did a bad speech. It is worth a couple of minutes if only to remind ourselves it can happen to any of us. I did something very similar many years ago. Pride comes before a fall!

And finally…we make the news (in Estonia)

And finally, Laura Shields the Brussels Director of Media Coach International Ltd made the media herself in Estonia. The Environment minister there blogged about his training with her – including posting pictures –  and it was picked up by a prominent online news site. If you can read Estonian you will find it here. We suspect google translate doesn’t do it justice.

Laura Estonia Environment Minister

 

Photos used under creative commons licence, Wikimedia etc.

Legs-it distraction: what women should wear

Legs-it: what should women leaders wear?

Legs-it was the clever caption on The Daily Mail front page photo of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon showing a lot of leg last week. An article that prompted a great deal of coverage. As was widely noted at the time, the picture and cheeky headline received a great deal more attention than the substance of these powerful women’s frosty meeting or the issues surrounding it.

 

Legs-it distraction: what women should wear

 

Legs-it prompted a storm of twitter protest

As well as mainstream media there was a storm of Twitter protest with a lot of big names weighing in. From a journalists point of view it is all good clean fun and it will certainly have helped to sell newspapers.
 
Legs-it distraction: what women should wear
Among the more intelligent and thoughtful comments there was this from Jo Ellison at the FT – generally bemoaning the obsession with any woman’s physical assets, whilst bizarrely arguing that studying and commenting on their clothes is helpful and legitimate. That article led me to a much more interesting FT piece by novelist Joanna Trollope, on how women in the city no longer dressed in a modified masculine style and how the tech revolution has fuelled a fashion revolution in the corridors of power.
 

Legs-it PR lessons

There are a couple of PR lessons that jumped out at me from the legs-it furore.

First, I think short skirts are a nightmare in any context involving cameras and sitting down. I don’t mean just mini-skirts but even on-the-knee skirts will ride up when you sit.
 
It’s okay at a wedding when almost all shots will be whilst standing. But – as this picture demonstrates – once a woman sits the dominant visual element is the legs. (Flesh coloured legs are to my mind much more distracting than the coloured tights favoured by many younger women.) So among all the much more important affairs of business it is worth giving these things a thought. This is not a huge ask because almost all female leaders think about appropriate dress code every day. There are a huge range of risks and sensitivities that have to be navigated and it is all part of the job. It had not occurred to me until I was reading about this but Angela Merkel always wears trousers, apparently deliberately avoiding the sort of distraction evidenced by May and Sturgeon. Hillary Clinton is another powerful woman who, years ago, took on board the practicality of trousers and became queen of the pantsuit. 
 
Secondly, I would point out that, to get this shot, the cameraman would have had to stoop quite low, literally as well as figuratively. If you were the PR minder, you should have been thinking about that. Minders can and do step in although this is another fraught area as you don’t want to become part of the story.
 
Of course, serious professional women should not be judged on what they wear or the shape of their legs. It is a nonsense and sexist. But I am inclined to think boys will be boys and journalists will be journalists and we don’t have to condone it to want to avoid the situation in the first place.
 
So here are my takeaways:
  • As ever, what you wear and how you look should be controlled to ensure it is not a distraction. No dangly earrings, no flamboyant jewelry, no crazy shoes and men should avoid hilarious ties or bright socks.
  • Serious women might consider avoiding knee length skirts if they are going to be filmed or photographed sitting down. Men should avoid short socks that will show too much hairy leg between sock and trouser when sitting down.
  • If you are the PR man or woman – think about controlling the shot. What is in front, what is behind and what is the angle of the cameras.
In the end this is the sort of story that is tomorrow’s chip-paper as used to be said. But remember the media – even at their worst – really only reflect the society we live in. So while Guardian and FT readers will be genuinely exercised by the substance of the niftily named indyref2, an awful lot of others would have been thinking what a lot of leg! And that is a distraction from the important bit of the story.

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

communication style leadership

Communication style: Tory leadership race

Communication style will be a crucial factor in the Tory leadership race. The five candidates all threw their hats in the ring this week as the political meltdown following the Brexit vote continued to dominate UK headlines.

MPs will be voting today (5th July) with the results announced at 7pm.  The next round of voting will take place on Thursday 7th.  In this post, I am going to give a quick analysis of the communication style of each of the candidates.

 

tory leadership 2016

There are five contenders in the Tory leadership race

 Communication style: Theresa May

Theresa May, as I write the front runner, launched her bid with an excellent speech. Why do I think it was good:

  • It was statesman-like and extremely reassuring.
  • It went to extraordinary lengths to be inclusive.
  • It gave clear answers to the hot topic question. No invoking of Article 50 until the negotiating position is clear. No general election until 2020, and no change in the status of EU nationals in the UK.
  • The best line for me ‘I am the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major, public service is what we do’.
  • The speech was clear, structured and well paced.

What I would change:

  • After the hyperbole of the referendum campaigns, Theresa May’s lack of ‘showiness’ may be seen as a real virtue but if she wins it will not be long before people claim she is ‘boring’. She will not go down as one of the world’s great orators because she chooses not to let her passion show.
  • One of the perception-dangers of being a very senior woman is that you can come across as being schoolmarmish. The launch speech mostly avoided this but in general, May is a bit austere and preachy.
  • May doesn’t tell stories. Inserting anecdotes about ‘Joe who I met last week in Sunderland’ has become a standard part of political speeches but is often done really badly. May chooses to avoid this.


Theresa May’s leadership launch transcript

Communication style: Andrea Leadsom

Andrea Leadsom gave a detailed interview to Andrew Marr before launching her campaign on Monday. She is a confident and authoritative speaker although with less gravitas than Theresa May.

Why her communication style is good:

  • She comes across as honest and straight forward.
  • She has a more positive vision and seems less tired than Theresa May.
  • She has warmth as well as some authority.
  • She is likeable and mostly in control.

What I would change:

  • In the Andrew Marr interview, her naiveté showed. In particular, she was bounced into promising to publish her tax returns even though she had clearly never considered this before the interview. (She later said she would only do this if she gets into the last two in the race.) This may seem like a small thing but you can’t have a Prime Minister that makes up policy in response to a tough question.
  • Although compared to the general population she has authority, she has less than Theresa May and Liam Fox.
  • She is, as a communicator, ‘lighter-weight’ than Theresa May and other female leaders such as Angela Merkel. Her voice is higher and more feminine. This shouldn’t matter but it might.

Andrea Leadsom’s leadership launch transcript

Communication style: Michael Gove

Michael Gove as a former journalist is a good communicator and he does, as do the others, articulate an argument well, particularly when on prepared ground. He also knows that he lacks some of the standard oratory skills. He said himself  ‘whatever charisma is, I don’t have it.”

  • Gove does show passion although his oration skills don’t make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.
  • His launch speech was full of vision for a strong and proud Britain.
  • There is a strong sense of ‘grit’, a feeling that he is prepared to fight for what he believes is right.

What I would change:

  • Gove to me has an irritating voice and is also unfortunate looking. Both could be improved with a bit of effort.
  • When reading from his script in the launch speech, the sentences are too long, making it harder for him to make sense of it as he reads it.
  • He comes across as someone who has absolute conviction in his own view rather than someone who will lead a team of people with different views.

Michael Gove’s leadership launch transcript

Communication style: Stephen Crabb

Stephen Crabb is an outsider in this contest and many think he is mostly marking his card for the future.

What I like:

  • His communication style is less formal than the other candidates, he has a sense of Blair about him although this is somewhat reduced when giving a formal speech.
  • He has natural warmth and a slight regional (Welsh) accent, always a plus if you want to come across as a man of the people.
  • He uses lots of personal anecdotes.

What I would change:

  • He needs to let his natural warmth show when making or reading a speech. Not so easily done but just takes practice.

Stephen Crabb’s leadership launch transcript

Communication style: Liam Fox

Liam Fox is an experienced senior politician. He has gravitas. Like Stephen Crabbe he is much better (more appealing to normal people) in an interview than in his formal launch speech.

What I like:

  • Fox is blessed with a deep and statesman-like voice, more obvious in conversation or interview than in his launch speech.
  • He has gravitas.
  • His launch speech demonstrated his grasp of the international picture in a way the others did not.

What I would change:

  • I would want to see him inject his natural warmth into his formal speeches.
  • He would find it easier to read his speeches if he made his sentences shorter.
  • Sadly he comes across as another ‘grey man’ of politics. He is neither young, a woman or nerdy and this may count against him.

Liam Fox’s leadership launch transcript

 

How to survive a TV debate, David Cameron

How to survive a TV debate 1: Cameron the smooth

Those wanting to study how to survive a TV debate could do a lot worse than dissect the performance of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a high-profile, live-grilling on Sky News. However, the headlines Cameron got after his one hour marathon by both a political correspondent out to make his name and a live audience, were universally negative. The Week ran ‘Cameron mauled by TV audience’ and most of the coverage focused on a rather rude student who accused the PM of ‘waffling’.

You can watch the whole one hour here.

How to survive a TV debate: Cameron did an excellent job

All of which seems unjust if not plain misleading. Not normally a fan of Cameron I have to say I think he did an excellent job. He was superbly well briefed, he did not get caught out by any question, from either the correspondent Faisal Islam or the audience. I am pleased to see that I am not completely alone in my assessment. Rather begrudgingly, the Chief Political Commentator for the Independent newspaper at least, agreed with me as you can read here.

How to survive a TV debate: anticipate the tough questions

For students of the PR lesson, it is important to understand that one of the tricks of the journalist is to find a damning nugget of information and then go on and on about it. If the question hasn’t been anticipated the interviewee is left struggling to confidently and credibly answer. The problem is, of course, that there are a huge number of possible ‘damning nuggets’. Faisal Islam started with the manifesto promise from 6 years ago that net migration would be reduced to tens rather than hundreds of thousands, something that the government has failed to deliver on. He moved on to the recent promise that VAT would not rise and noted that the European Court of Justice had overruled a UK law that made solar panels VAT free, suggesting that UK government did not have sovereign control over its VAT rules. He also tried to challenge the Prime Minister with the number of times that the EU Council of Ministers had over-ruled the British government. None of these were questions the Prime Minister looked surprised by or did not have a clear response to. He dismissed the last as a ‘totally spurious figure’ before Islam could actually say it.

Once the set piece political interview was over the PM faced a studio audience. The problem with responding to a public audience is they are, by definition, very diverse and you have even less idea what is coming up. Cameron faced questions about issues as unrelated to the debate as the funding of mental health and his previous pronouncements on the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Again he had clear credible arguments to all of these questions.

How to survive a TV debate: use examples

The Prime Minister not only answered questions credibly but repeatedly landed his main message, that leaving the EU would be ‘an act of economic self harm’; he used lots of examples to back up his points. He talked about why Britain sells no beef or lamb to the US (no trade deal), how the UK’s car industry currently sells all over Europe but outside the EU it would be likely to face a 10% tariff. He also explained that it is easy now for someone from Bolton making fan belts to sell them to all 28 countries, rather than outside the EU trying to meet 27 different sets of rules.

How to survive a TV debate: stay polite

When dealing with the audience he was endlessly polite. The question from the student who accused him of waffling was incoherent and much more waffly than the answer. And despite her rudeness the Prime Minister did his best to answer her.

I saw no evidence of mauling.

I do happen to agree that the missing bit from the whole Remain campaign has been an articulation of the positive vision for a better functioning EU. But this cannot be a mistake. The campaign must be polling, researching which arguments play well, and must be concluding that the positive vision piece just doesn’t work. Perhaps the EU fails in so many ways it is better to not draw attention to what it could do and could achieve.

The question remains, if the Prime Minister did such a good job why did he get negative coverage for the debate and why did it not get ‘cut through’.

The answer, I suggest, is that no one believes anything he says. This is not just Cameron’s problem. It is a problem throughout the world. Since the financial crisis of 2008 cynicism about politicians in power and anything that can be called the establishment has never been higher, at least in the countries commonly called ‘the west’. In the wider Brexit debate there is an endless call for real facts and yet every attempt to deliver serious analysis, projected numbers or explanations are dismissed as unreliable or untrue. It is difficult to see how democracy is going to adapt to this new reality.

How to survive a TV debate, Michael Gove

How to survive a TV debate 2: Gove the fearless

Students of how to survive a TV debate would learn rather different lessons from watching Michael Gove, a leading spokesperson for the UK’s EU Leave campaign, compared to the first debate in the series with Prime Minister David Cameron.

You can watch the full one hour debate here.

How to survive a TV debate: good humour and grace under fire

This was another polished performance, full of good humour and an ability to handle aggressive questioning with toughness, but also good grace and prepared lines. But where the Prime Minister apparently answered questions, Michael Gove sought to move the debate onto different grounds. This is what you do when you have less facts and less third-party endorsements than the opposition. Gove rarely responded directly to questions whilst waiting for the opportunity to land his message: he went from question to message in a heartbeat.

Here is an example.
How many independent economic authorities share your dream of Britain outside the EU? Can you name a single one?
If you are talking about the economic authorities that have already weighed into the debate, they are people who have been wrong in the past and who didn’t predict the global crash in 2008…I prefer to take the views of business people …

Michael Gove repeatedly landed his messages. Here are the ones I spotted with links to other commentators who saw what I did.

How to survive a TV debate: deploy metaphors

One of the best lines of the debate came from a member of the audience. He argued ‘You are asking us to vote for a divorce and sort out the financial settlement afterwards. That makes no sense to me, you negotiate before (you leave). And with respect Mr Gove, you are like a First World War general, waiving the flag, saying ‘over the top men’. But you have no idea what is going on on the front line or what the casualty rate will be’. Gove listened to this patiently and then answered respectfully and skillfully moving the conversation on to his message about putting faith in the British people.

Gove had good metaphors of his own. He suggested that the UK, ‘rather than being a difficult lodger in a house we didn’t design could be a friendly neighbour in a home we could call our own’.

As we have noted many times before in our blogs, metaphors are mighty powerful weapons of war.

What was missing from a spin doctors point of view were the numbers and the everyday examples. Where was the fan-belt maker from Bolton and the car exporters from Sunderland?

How to survive a TV debate: rhetorical flourish

There were however, some clever rhetorical flourishes. Gove challenged us all to name the five presidents of Europe. He asserted that none of us could. ‘The European Union’, he said, ‘is not a democracy, no one is elected, no one can name the presidents and none of us can sack them’. He went on: ‘The most powerful symbol of our democracy is the removal van that arrives outside 10 Downing Street every five or ten years’. Examples of prepared, powerful, clever, rhetoric.

Interestingly, while the questions from the audience were just as tough as in the previous programme, overall the audience were much more supportive of Michael Gove than they were of the Prime Minister. While the set piece interview for Gove was more manic, with more interruptions and more heated, the discussion with the audience was much friendlier and more respectful.