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Metaphors for Persuasion

Metaphors are one of those things: the more you learn about them the more they reveal themselves as a secret, powerful influence on the way we as individuals and as a society think.

Violent Crime as a Public Health Issue

In the last couple of weeks, the idea of treating violent crime as a ‘public health’ issue has garnered a few headlines.

Metaphors for Persuasion

Here is the FT reporting on an initiative being announced by Sajid Javid. This announcement followed a similar one from the mayor of London Sadiq Khan last month.

It is not a new idea but the government is launching a consultation on using it as a country-wide approach to serious violence.

It’s a system pioneered originally by a US epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who worked in the 1980s on the spread of cholera, TB and HIV in West Africa. By plotting new outbreaks on a map, he and his team knew where to intervene to stop an isolated case becoming a new hot spot.

Gary Slutkin, a Professor of Epidemiology and Founder and CEO of Cure Violence.

Slutkin then returned to his native Chicago where the murder rate was rising and he used the same technique to tackle violence. Plotting murders and gun crime on a map allowed specially trained teams to intervene and ensure one potential ‘trigger’ event was not allowed to spark a whole range of follow up violence and murder. The full details are explained in this Ted Talk.

The public health approach to violence has since been piloted in Glasgow by something called the Violence Reduction Unit and Strathclyde became the first police force in the world to formally adopt a public health model.

From Metaphor to Policy

In this case, the comparison between epidemiology and violence has developed from metaphor to policy. But to me what is interesting is that by thinking of one thing (violence) as another (outbreak of disease) hundreds if not thousands of people have been able to think differently about a solution to a problem.

Using a metaphor changed the way people thought. And actually, this happens, for good and bad, every day.

War Metaphors for Tackling Cancer

In 2012 the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an article from an oncologist entitled ‘Stop using military metaphors for disease’. Natasha Wiggins was not the first to suggest that military metaphors can unhelpfully influence a patient.

A decade earlier the journalist John Diamond who subsequently died of Cancer wrote:

“I despise the set of warlike metaphors that so many apply to cancer. My antipathy has nothing to do with pacifism and everything to do with a hatred for the sort of morality which says that only those who fight hard against their cancer survive it or deserve to survive it – the corollary being that those who lose the fight deserved to do so.”

Others have suggested that a fighting attitude to cancer is not always conducive to recovery and not helpful in facing terminal cancer were ‘losing the battle’ is internalised as a failure.

Do War Metaphors Serve Politics

And then there is politics: In this Guardian piece from 2015, Margaret Simons argues the use of war metaphors for describing politics helps to alienate voters. She writes:

“Our use of battleground metaphors obscures the fact that politics is largely about working out how to live together – how to build wealth, and how to share it. How to balance freedom and responsibility for others. It is about ideas, communication, persuasion and process – and nothing to do with war. We have wars when politics fails.”

The Power of Metaphor

I became aware of metaphors as a media trainer and then whilst facilitating messaging sessions. Helping organisations with messages is now almost half my work.

Metaphors are hugely useful for crafting a quote that journalists will write. Simply describing something as a ‘new dawn’, a ‘game changer’ or naming a trend as a ‘turning tide’ or dubbing an economic outcome as a ‘deal dividend’ will almost always influence journalists. What has become clearer to me is it will also influence people’s reality.

The more you use this amazing tool the more you realise you are not just describing something in a way the helps people understand reality: you are distorting or creating a new reality.

And that is why they are so good at persuasion and also why they have to be used with consideration and care. To be old fashioned I would say – they have to be used ethically. We should all pay a lot more attention to metaphor.

The art of oratory

The Art of Oratory and the Attorney General

The art of oratory is an old-fashioned way of describing the skill of mastering an argument and delivering it to move an audience. And there was something old-fashioned and somewhat extraordinary about a Tory conference speech from someone I had previously never heard of.

Somehow I had missed the story about the richest MP trying to claim 49p for a pint of milk, which seems to be the only previous time Geoffrey Cox made news headlines.  After his speech, The Spectator dubbed him the most important politician you’ve never heard of, and the Mirror called him the ‘Tory Gandalf ‘.

Barnstorming Speech

The recently appointed Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox spoke for a little over 11 minutes, as the ‘warm-up’ act for the Prime Minister. He spoke without notes in a barnstorming performance that was entertaining and uplifting. It was a call to arms for an embattled Prime Minister.

As ever, I am not commenting on the politics of what Geoffrey Cox says, but feel compelled to call out the fact that he said it really well. Those of us who aspire to be really good communicators can learn a lot from watching someone who really can deliver a speech.

Here is the speech:

Speakers Notes

This is what I see in this speech.

  • Within seconds of arriving on stage, the speaker connects with his audience, with a self-effacing comment. You feel he is really talking to the people in the audience, not broadcasting.
  • Because he speaks without notes he is able to stand beside the podium not behind it. One of my colleagues, Eric Dixon, always advocates this as a way to give you a better connection with an audience.
  • He is incredibly relaxed on stage. He could be standing in his living room, not in a conference hall of hundreds with a TV audience of potentially millions.

A Big, Big Voice

  • He has an amazingly deep and loud voice. Our voices are produced by a muscle and the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Professional teachers nearly always have loud voices, I have a very loud voice, and my camera operators are always having to adjust for it. Geoffrey Cox has spent his life in courtrooms and has a big, big voice. He has also learnt (I assume learnt) to make it melodic.
  • He speaks without notes – immensely impressive.
  • He quickly gets into personal and story-telling mode.
  • He pauses as much as he speaks – he speaks slowly and gives himself lots of thinking time.
  • He articulates every word – even long difficult phrases.

A Wide Range of Tone

  • He uses light and shade. Sometimes he goes quiet, sometimes he booms, sometimes he relaxes and then he is declaiming. He uses a wide range of tones in a very short speech.
  • He is not afraid of overacting or overemphasising. There are many extremely dramatic gestures. For example, he uses his whole body, bending almost double, to emphasis his point that Britain could no longer put up with the EU because ‘the price is just too high’. It is worth noting that most of his body language is very open and even when he gets a bit ‘nasty’ for example when talking about the Labour party, he softens it with a twinkle in his eye.

I could go on. The speech was not about policy detail and it did what always works – he lifted the Brexit discussion to grand phrases ‘this great democratic mandate’, ‘we need not fear self-government’, we will ‘step out as a free independent and sovereign partner to the others’ and so on. He said a lot of sweeping things that it is difficult to disagree with but do not help with the detail of what to do about the NI border or the Galileo space project. But to be fair that was not his brief. He was asked to galvanise those at the conference to follow their leader for a noble cause. And he did.

Others have called him out as a future Tory leader but I doubt it. If he had wanted the job he would not have chosen to quote Milton. It is too old-fashioned and plays too heavily into the stereotype of a public-school-educated, born-with-a-silver-spoon, out-of-touch-with-ordinary-people Tory stereotype. It seemed to me like he was just having fun.

Preparing for a media interview

Preparing for a Media Interview: 5 Key Steps

Preparing for a media interview is common sense but knowing exactly what and how to prepare is less clear to most people. Almost all of us are time poor; knowing exactly what to do in the one or two-hour window allocated for interview preparation is not so obvious.

Pre-flight Checklist

So here is our five-step pre-flight checklist. If you are lucky enough to have good comms professionals around you, this will be a joint venture – but it is not something that can be delegated.

Preparing for a media interview

Like a pilot preparing for take-off, an interviewee should run through some disciplined pre-flight checks.

Step 1: Your Objectives

The first step is to be clear about your own or the business objectives of any media engagement. Why are you doing interviews? It may be something as general as ‘profile raising’ or something much more specific such as driving sales of a new product or trying to get a change in some regulation. Whatever it is, you should know before you start.

Step 2:  Ask Who is the Journalist? What is the Story?

Next, you need to know who you will be talking to. Who is the journalist, who is their audience and therefore what story will they be interested in? The journalist is never there to do your advertising for you. They will have a different perspective on the subject and you as the interviewee need to know what that is.  If you are dealing with a number of different journalists, for example at a media event or for a big launch, you must be aware of the different agendas of the different journalists: the Pensions Weekly freelancer will likely have a different angle than The Guardian columnist.

Step 3: Prepare your Argument

Once you have completed step one and two you are in a position to pull together your messages. This is an essential step when preparing for a media interview. We write a lot about ‘messaging’ as we call it, so no need to go into it here. However, it helps to understand that you want a smorgasbord of an argument or a Chinese buffet. Each little bit of the argument is carefully prepared and ready for serving, but what exactly gets served in what order will depend on how the interview goes. Despite that, it is crucial that your prepared argument is crystal clear.

If you want to make any bold statements, look for ‘proof points’; include anecdotes and examples and above all keep the language simple. Remember, the journalists’ two favourite questions, often not articulated quite as bluntly but there none-the-less, are: ‘so what?’ and ‘can you prove it?’

Preparing for a media interview

Once you have done the preparation for an interview, you can be confident, in control and above all compelling.

Step 4: Plan for Tough Questions

Once you know what you want to say, you need to then think about the difficult questions and plan the responses. There may be challenging questions related to your messages but there may also be uncomfortable questions about wider issues – journalists can ask anything and are always looking for a headline or a good quote. Anticipating these is all part of preparing for a media interview. Generally, on these anticipated negative questions, you want to make a convincing but dull response in as short a time as possible.  Remember, you don’t want the journalist to focus on the negatives. Depending on the circumstances, another option may be to simply tell a journalist that it is not appropriate for you to answer such questions, perhaps the issue is confidential or simply outside the scope of your role. If so, say so.

Step 5: Rehearse

Finally, we think a few minutes rehearsing aloud is worth several hours talking about your interview with advisors. Role-play is uncomfortable but effective. Don’t be afraid to change your messages if they don’t work. Anyone can ask the questions, it is the act of getting your tongue around the messages and articulating the reactive lines that is valuable. So, give the list of tough questions to your teenage son, if you have one, and ask him to role-play being a journalist. I think of it as creating the neural pathways in advance so that you don’t have to do all that thinking in the interview.

After Thoughts

My last thoughts refer to after the interview rather than before. If you are senior in a big business many things in your world are tightly controlled and outcomes are predictable. If you tell someone to do something, they do it. Media engagement is not one of those things. The outcomes are not entirely predictable.

We often come across execs who have been upset or infuriated by journalists in the past. We also come across plenty who, while not being devastated were mildly annoyed or disappointed by some write up or broadcast. Preparation will limit the risks and potential for disappointment – but in the end, you are not buying advertising and you cannot tell the journalist what to write. If it goes wrong put it down to experience.

Above all do not blame the press officer! They have no more control than you do, but just like a professional investor, they do understand the risks and rewards better. They are advisors, not magicians and only a fool alienates their expert advisors.

Every day The Media Coach team help people preparing for a media interview. We also help organisations embed a media-aware culture, so media engagement becomes part of business as usual rather than something squeezed in after the day job. If you think we can help your organisation please give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Photos used under creative coms licence
Pre-flight Checklist  – Credit US Airforce
Thumbs up – Credit Centre for Aviation Photography

 

 

body language

Body language always tells a story

Body language is in the news this week.

The rich and famous spend their life in the public eye and with cameras always on them and plenty of paid pundits to give an expert opinion it is difficult not to offend someone somewhere.

The brain is wired to take in and interpret visual information above all else. Neuroscience has in recent years confirmed what many had already deduced.

Body language – why we notice

It’s said that 50-60% of the brain is involved in processing visual images and that the brain will not only see but interpret an image in about a tenth of a second.

So it is not surprising that relatively subtle visual clues can set Twitter alight.

Trump’s misstep sets Twitter alight

And that is what happened when President Trump apparently walked in front of the Queen while inspecting her honour guard at Windsor Castle.

And this is how the New York Times reported the incident.

Body Language

It was really just a few seconds and if you watch the start of the video you can see The Queen gestures to Trump to go in front.

The actual incident doesn’t seem to me to warrant the storm of protest. And in fact, at least one commentator suggests that Trump was really trying to obey the normal rules of etiquette during this short visit with the Queen and mostly did rather well.

Royal sisters-in-law body language made the news

There was a similar rush to interpret the body language when Kate and Meghan – Royal sisters-in-law – got together at Wimbledon. This was written up in the Mirror, the Express and the Daily Mail.

This is probably not the sort of news that I normally care much about but it does illustrate an important point. People are wired to read body language and they cannot help themselves interpreting it.

People are wired to read body language

People often ask me for specifics on how they can change their delivery style to appear, for example, more authoritative, or more approachable. I have learnt that saying smile less, nod your head less or lean forward, has a limited impact. You need to change the mindset. Just as an actor needs to get into character, so does a presenter or an interviewee. If it’s you, try imagining you are delivering this presentation as an older sister or doing this television interview in front of your son’s classmates. Change the programme running in your head and the body language will sort itself out.

If all else fails you could try ‘power posing’. I am told it is a discredited theory (Wikipedia is clear on this point) but I know therapists that still advocate it. Stand in a powerful pose for a minute or so (perhaps in the cubicle of the loo to avoid embarrassment) and see if it changes the way you feel.

Body Language
I have written before about what sort of on-air presence gives the best television interview. To read this blog click here.

If you would like help with your presentation or on-camera interview style we have a stable of excellent coaches who would be delighted to help. Just call us on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Power Pose image used under creative commons – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

 

 

 

Answer the question

Answer The Question! A Media Training Basic

Answer the question! A phrase that must be shouted at the radio and television hundreds of times a day. It is also a plea used by many a frustrated political interviewer. But last week interviewer Richard Madeley (of Richard and Judy) went one step further and after several attempts to get Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to answer a question announced ‘interview terminated’ – out of sheer frustration.

I must admit I missed this storm in a teacup initially but by the end of the week, everyone was talking about it. And since then Madeley has written about it in The Guardian  (apparently it was the most popular thing he has ever done on television) and Charles Moore in the Spectator has stepped in to suggest that Madeley was in the wrong, not Williamson.

Just in case you like me missed it, here is the end of the Good Morning Britain interview. (The elephants in the background were explained earlier – Williamson was doing the interview from a Safari Park.)

This ruckus highlights something that has puzzled me for a very long time. Why have our politicians all been taught (and surely they must have been taught this) not to answer a question?

In our sort of media training, there is very strong guidance against ignoring a question. It is bound to lead to the journalist obsessing about the point and often prompts downright aggression. Much better to answer it and then also add something you want to say.

[I blogged here in September 2016 about the Prime Minister Theresa May’s mistake in constantly refusing to answer a question.]

In last week’s case, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was being asked by Madeley whether he regretted his ‘Trump-like’ choice of words when, back in March – in the aftermath of the nerve agent attack on the Skripals – he said ‘Russia should go away, it should shut up’.

Had Williamson anticipated this question he could have had a prepared phrase (or what we call a reactive line) such as:

“With hindsight, the choice of words was perhaps injudicious but people will have understood my frustration and anger at the attack on British soil…”

Or he might have chosen:

“No, I don’t regret the choice of words. There are times when straight talking is the right thing to do. But I don’t think the exact choice of words is the important issue here…”

Either way it is difficult to see what the long-term damage would have been and in fact, it would have been less of a news story than the actual refusal.

When we run message building sessions it is the preparation of arguments that takes the time. Preparing short responses to possible tough questions is usually fairly quick and straightforward. The trick is to try not to be quotable in your response. That can be hard if you are a high-profile politician (either of my suggested responses from Williamson could have made a news story but with little long-term impact) but much easier for everyone else.

The important thing is not to just ignore a question. A frustrated journalist who thinks he has the audience on his side is a dangerous thing.

Live Broadcast Interviews

Live broadcast interviews: Keep calm and stay sharp

Live broadcast interviews can be nerve-wracking at the best of times and can also be a minefield if not taken seriously.

At the other end of the scale, there are the hidden traps that regular media commentators can fall in to – mainly, familiarity breeding contempt. As Sainsbury’s CEO, Mike Coupe, illustrated recently, if you have several interviews lined up one after the other, the problem can be not so much nerves as tedium:

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But he’s not alone in falling into the trap of thinking you can let your guard down near a camera or microphone, even if you think the interview hasn’t started yet or has finished. From John Major’s infamous “bastards” comment 25 years ago, to former England Rugby Captain, Will Carling, colourfully describing the game’s ruling body “57 old farts” – and being sacked shortly afterwards – the lesson to remember is that the camera is always on, the microphone is always ‘hot’.

Live broadcast interviews – beware the sound check

Even the obligatory sound check can also be a potential disaster if you don’t act professionally, as Ronald Reagan discovered when he decided to joke that “We begin bombing Russia in five minutes” and it was later leaked to the media. (Bonus tip – humour and sarcasm hardly ever work in interviews so play it straight at all times. It is so easy to misspeak, particularly in live broadcast interviews, as we have written about before.)

So here are three other tips for live interviews:

1. Preparation, preparation, preparation

At The Media Coach, our training sessions hammer home the importance of preparing thoroughly with three carefully crafted messages and ‘sizzle’ (media-friendly soundbites, metaphors or alliteration to make them stand out). And for a live interview, preparation AND rehearsal are absolutely vital when you may have at most a couple of minutes to make your points. A live interview is no time for original thought! Nor do you want to waste those valuable seconds waffling while you get to the point.

2. Interviews need substance AND style

While a broadcasting studio can feel quite intimate don’t forget you need to deliver your messages with a bit of ‘oomph’: passion, energy and animation. But try not to nod during a question – it’s a natural body language which signals understanding and a willingness to engage. However, unfortunately, if the question is hostile or negative, it can look to the audience like you agree with it, even if you then go on to disagree. On TV, don’t forget you may still be visible to the audience when the presenter is speaking so don’t react physically during a question, for example grimacing, shifting in your chair or rolling your eyes. And remember, you may still be in shot after your last answer so don’t rip off the microphone, leap out of your chair, turn and walk off or joke about how awful that was until you are sure you are off air or are directed to do so.

3. Keep calm and carry on

While this may not want to hear this, you need to bear in mind that live broadcasting is often controlled chaos – and sometimes not even that controlled! Things can and do go wrong so keep your wits about you. And this goes for TV professionals too as BBC Sports presenter Mike Bushell demonstrated when he took an unexpected swim during a recent live interview:

So, if you have done your preparation, act professionally at all times and expect the unexpected, live broadcast interviews should hold no fears!

elevator pitch

Why we all need an elevator pitch

I have come to the conclusion that each of us who represent our business to the outside world, however that is defined, needs to have a honed and perfected elevator pitch.

elevator pitch

Can you describe your company in the time it takes to move between floors in an elevator?

What is an elevator pitch?

It is a succinct, thought-through and rehearsed explanation of what the business does.

Why do we need one?

Because the world is complicated and we all assume too often that others completely understand where we are coming from and what we do. Most people interviewed at the start of media training make assumptions about the knowledge of the trainer-journalist. Once this is pointed out, it is obvious.  But it is not just relevant for journalists.   I am always using my elevator pitch when introduced to new people. I lengthen or shorten it depending on the circumstances.

What are the elements?

I think the elements are first an overview or helicopter view. ‘We sell software that helps people cut their use of paper and save money’ or ‘we provide a wide range of personal and business insurance for the UK market’ etc. Second a bit of detail e.g. size of the business, number of employees, range of contracts, key clients etc. and finally an example of a good piece of work you have done.

Do I need to include the history of the business?

I believe the history of the organisation is only relevant if it is memorable and interesting. If it was started in a cow shed in 1901 or was the brainchild of an astronaut, use it, otherwise, don’t bother.

Why is the overview so important?

Because detail makes no sense to people if you don’t provide a frame for it. Once you have the frame you can hang different things on it, but you need the frame.

Why so much emphasis on numbers?

Numbers allow people to understand scale, whether that’s scale of an operation, scale of the growth, scale of the potential market. Without scale, people are left wondering or guessing.

Do you really need examples?

Never miss the examples, they are always the things people will remember after they forget the overview and the numbers.

Warning! Do not try to be all things to all people!

Sounds daft but this is such a common mistake. A story I often tell from the early 2000’s when I was media training a start-up in the dot-com boom.

Me: ‘What is your website for?’
CEO: (aged 22): ‘It’s for all sorts of things, all sorts.’
Me: ‘Okay, what sort of people do you envisage visiting your website?’
CEO: ‘All sorts of people’
Me: ‘So, what might prompt them to visit the site?’
CEO: ‘Oh, all sorts of things!’

I left after three hours none the wiser what this company planned to do (of course, it is possible they didn’t know either which is a different problem.) Much better to give an idea and then layer in further information later if you get the chance.

Warning! Avoid positive bland!

This is another major problem. People think it is impressive to say ‘we provide a great service for our customers’, ‘we help clients become more efficient’, ‘we help make staff more productive’. No detail and only positives mean it is unconvincing propaganda. You might as well not bother.

Warning! Do not use the org chart

People are tempted to explain how many division and subdivisions there are in the company. This really will bore the pants off anybody. (For CNBC’s advice on putting together an elevator pitch click here).

We ran a competition at a conference (ECS 2015) asking people to do their elevator pitch to camera. We called it Message in a Minute challenge. Even PR professionals found it remarkably difficult to do it well.

Do you need an elevator and a message house?

In my view, typically an elevator pitch stands outside a set of messages or a message house that has been prepared for a product launch, a particular issue or set of results. Sometimes organisations ask us to help with an ‘organisational’ message house. This is most likely to be a new company or a hitherto unknown company reaching into a new market. In this case, the elevator is a shortened version of the longer and more detailed organisational messages or ‘house’. In the end, it doesn’t matter what form you use to communicate your message. What does matter is that the message is thought through, crystal clear and rehearsed.

A version of this blog first ran in March 2016

Journalists are not clients or customers

Journalists are not clients or customers – handle with care   

Journalists are not clients or customers and this seems to confuse those planning to speak with them for the first time.

One of the great advantages of being a consultant of any sort but a media trainer, in particular, is you get a huge variety of experience. We get to see and experience the cultures that have grown up inside the dozens if not hundreds of businesses and organisations we work with.

And from this privileged position I can see, with great clarity, how different people have very different programmes – let’s call it emotional programmes – running when they’re faced with a journalist (or trainer) for the first time.

Journalists are not clients or customers

People vary enormously in how they approach a media interview before they have been trained.

Journalists – how should you treat them?

These range from being much too risk-averse, convinced every and any syllable might be twisted and used against the interviewee or the company – all the way across the spectrum to people who are simply too keen to please. Where a person is on this spectrum seems to bear little relation to how senior they are, or indeed how real the media risks are.

Anyone trained by The Media Coach team will know we think you should approach journalists in a disciplined way, it is never just a chat.

Defensive interviews serve no one

However, those too aware of the risks, and without the information on how to handle the risks, will give a very defensive interview: short answers, usually unhelpful and very determined to be dull at all costs. There are lots of problems with this approach.

  • Short answers mean you give up control of the interview every 10-15 seconds and wait for another question.
  • The journalist is bound to get frustrated and feel they have wasted their precious time. They will have a problem because the interview will be difficult to write up and they may have to do more work elsewhere.
  • The journalist will find it difficult to quote the interviewee and therefore be much more determined to try and put words into his or her mouth.
  • At the very least, they will probably not want to talk to the person again.
  • But it could be worse; the journalist may conclude the interviewee is hiding something and start digging around either in the interview or separately, to try and find the dirt.

There is nothing wrong with being professionally friendly, in fact, we would advocate this as the right approach.

Journalists are not clients or customers

Waiting for a trap to spring is no way to manage an interview.

People-pleasers are more likely to say something stupid

At the other end of the spectrum, the people-pleasers run the risk of being exploited by journalists.

These people, in an interview, will focus only on answering questions in an expansive and helpful way. The problem with this is that journalists rarely know the right questions to ask – to some extent all interviews are a fishing expedition. In a worse case scenario, our helpful interviewee can be bounced around, asked and answering all sorts of questions on subjects that are not core to the organisations interests.

Journalists are not clients or customers

If an interviewee is too anxious to please, they run the risk of being exploited.

  • Helpful people asked a question that they don’t know the answer to,  may end up waffling around trying to be vaguely positive but also stay out of trouble. The longer they are talking the more likely they are to say something ill-advised. So for example, if asked about some controversial aspect of the work of a regulator for your industry, we would probably advise that you close down this line of questioning very quickly.  Say something like ‘this is not my area of expertise’ or ‘that is a question for them’ or ‘we work closely with the regulator but I am not going to comment in detail’. However, if you waffle around trying to be positive you are likely to end up saying something like ‘it’s a very difficult area’,  ‘I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes’,  ‘I know our xyz department really struggles with this’ or even ‘they’ve clearly got this one wrong’. All of these phrases can be used to build a story that suggests your business has chosen to publicly criticise the regulator.
  • Even if you don’t say anything inappropriate you will still have spent a lot of the interview talking about something you would rather not see in print.
  • Helpful people are also easy to manipulate into giving quotes they wouldn’t have chosen to give. They are more likely to pick up language from the question e.g. a journalist might say ‘I understand this is a nightmare for you’ and the people-pleasing interviewee might respond ’well it is a bit of a nightmare yes’ – enough to give a screaming headline.
  • Being overly obsequious may lose you credibility with your tough, streetwise journalist.

So we suggest you are professionally friendly, expansive (up to a point) and use prepared messages whilst closing down or moving away from questions that are not in your interest to answer. Easy really.

Media Interviews? We can help

If you would like help or training in how to handle a media interview positively and safely, we would be delighted to work with you.

Beast from the East

Beast from the East – Wrestling with the Comms

The Beast from the East gave Britain a whole host of challenges and while armies of people were dealing with the practical problems others were wrestling with the communications challenge. The train companies spokespeople didn’t quite reach the nadir of the ‘wrong type of snow’ excuses we saw a few years ago. However, many travellers across the UK have expressed frustration with the lack of information and credible explanations on why things have ground to a halt so dramatically.

Beast from the East

The Beast from the East made driving trains difficult and sometimes impossible. It also posed communication challenges.

I preface everything below with the acknowledgement that hindsight is a wonderful thing and gives you 20/20 vision. Nor am I making light of weather which has resulted in several fatalities:

But here are a few observations:

Beast from the East reporting initially guilty of hyperbole

A key part of crisis preparation follows the maxim that ‘forewarned is forearmed’ and so it was reasonable for the media to start warning people that severe weather was on the way several days before it hit. However, another key part of crisis preparation is getting the tone right. So, I began to get slightly irritated at the very start of the week when I heard weather presenters and reporters talking in terms of Armageddon, with temperatures as “shockingly cold as -5C” and “snowfall likely to reach as much as 5 – 10cms”. This is what us northerners call ‘winter’. Neither rare or shocking.

Predicting the weather and its timing is not an exact science. But with the reporting reaching fever pitch right from the start, and the weather initially only hitting the south-east hard, I noticed in Cumbria considerable ‘weather warning fatigue’. That was just before the worst was about to come and all the red weather warnings were being issued for other parts of the country. The hyperbole early in the week might explain why later people took the decision to travel, despite being told not to. Sometimes with very serious results. A reminder that timing and perspective are vital for effective communication in a crisis.

Beast from the East

Train operators: no credible key messages

During severe weather in 1991, a hapless British Rail spokesman infamously tried to explain in an interview that mass train cancellations were caused by the type of snow. The media instantly pounced on his comments and he was held up to ridicule.  ‘The wrong type of snow’ even has its own Wikipedia page, helpfully explaining that “in the United Kingdom, the phrase became a byword for euphemistic and pointless excuses”.

So, I can understand why those caught up in a crisis are often reluctant to stick their head above the parapet and face the media. But, on the other hand, most types of crises can be foreseen, even if the exact timing of them cannot. So, while we don’t get bad winters as often as we used to, they are still fairly regular events, and I have found it surprising that, in the coverage I have heard this week, train operators in particular didn’t have more credible and understandable messages prepared to explain the delays and cancellations travellers were facing.

You can tell from the tone of this interview with Adam Fairclough of TransPennine Express on Radio 5Live’s Wake Up to Money on Friday 2nd March – that the BBC journalist is also sceptical of the messages. The interview starts at 37 minutes 35 seconds and is only available for another 24 days.

Clear messages are only part of what is needed to face journalists in a crisis. They will only be credible if you have sufficient examples to make them real and understandable. It’s always an indication that your messages are not fully developed if a journalist starts asking for examples to explain what you mean, as happens towards the end of the interview. Another clue: the journalist starts arguing with the examples given, as happens here with the journalist saying “if traffic lights continue to work on roads why can’t signals on railways?”

Social media: a picture is worth a thousand words

While word pictures are vital to back up your arguments, use of social media in a crisis can really help you get your point across. One good example is the pictures and video Direct Rail Services posted on their Twitter feed which show far more effectively than words ever could what they were having to deal with during “The Beast From the East”.

Beast from the East

 

Images from Twitter

 

 

 

 

 

 

rail passenger communication

Rail passenger communication in the dark ages

Rail passenger communication needs to be dragged into the 21st Century.

Stuck on a train, in the snow, trying to get to a training session on time or catch a flight must be among the most frustrating, the most stressful and the most unpleasant experiences of my life.  And I had a number of those experiences last week.

rail passenger communication

Snow led to widespread chaos on the trains but the communications with staff and passengers was also chaotic and unreliable.

Rail passenger communication was sparse and mostly wrong

What made them a whole lot worse was the complete lack of reliable information from the train companies. It was absolutely clear that the station staff and the conductors and drivers on the trains were also simply not being told what was going on. Information that did come through was late, out of date or just wrong.

It is astonishing that a few inches of snow and temperatures just a few degrees below the norm can cause such total widespread chaos.

In this super-connected world people expect to be told what is happening

But even more astonishing that with all the technology we have today to stay connected, the train companies, in particular, are so bad at keeping front line staff and passengers up to date.

On several occasions, I heard station staff in high vis jackets standing on freezing platforms telling passengers “We’ve got no idea mate!” Before the widespread adoption of the telephone this would be understandable but in the super-connected 21st century it is not.

It wasn’t just the station staff in the dark and out in the cold. Drivers and conductors did not fare any better. Nicky Marcelin-Horne was a passenger stuck overnight after getting on the 17:35 from Waterloo to Poole. It came to a halt somewhere in the New Forest and most of the passengers did not get off until morning. Speaking to the Evening Standard she said:

“The guys on the train were trying to help and keep us informed but they didn’t really know what was happening.”

On my stuck train, the conductor was trawling websites from his personal phone to try and work out what was happening.

Again I am aghast. How can this be so? People on the stranded trains were tweeting and posting on Facebook. Mobile phones were working even if the comms technology on the train wasn’t.  Surely someone from a control room should be telling staff what is happening.

rail passenger communication

For me, all this is a really visceral reminder of how crucial up-to-date, accurate information is to help people cope with unexpected and changing conditions. I made the wrong decisions about which train to get on (repeatedly), and whether to cancel a journey. With better information I would have made better decisions.

Crisis communications need planning and investment

It’s not the same as crisis communications via the media but there are a lot of parallels. Crises or disruption are always going to happen although the exact nature and the timing can never be known in advance. But, as we always say, an awful lot of things can be planned ahead of time. The problem is, it takes investment of time and money and it is human nature to put such investment to the bottom of the to-do list.

But, in both cases, when things do go badly wrong there are expensive enquiries, angry customers, huge loss of brand value and lots internal people saying ‘but we told you this could happen’.

 

Images from Twitter