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Arnie

For Leaders in Lockdown: Arnie shows how to deliver a script

If you haven’t seen this Arnie movie I recommend it right now.  A seven-minute-long piece to camera, which shows just what can be done with minimum tech and minimum production. At a time when corporate and organisational leaders are looking for ways to connect with their teams via videos or zoom town hall meetings, there are few great lessons we can grab from this.

Ok, I know he is a senior politician and an actor – so he knows a thing or two.  That is why of course, it is a masterpiece.

Here is my list of the transferable highlights:

  1. Start with a personal story. If you can include emotion it will make it memorable.
  2. Expand the anecdote into the public narrative formula: the story of me, the story of us, the story of now (or our challenge for the future). If you are speech writing it is worth becoming au fait with the public narrative style. It is super simple and effective.
  3. Use short sentences. There is barely one example of a sentence more than 16 words in this video.
  4. There is absolutely no jargon or difficult language in this. The one German phrase is clearly explained.
  5. Paint a picture with your words. (For example ‘pound it with a hammer, heat it in the fire’ – 5 mins, 20 seconds into the video).
  6. Use a prop. Conan’s sword (explained here) was a prop that reminded the audience of the politician’s film career but also served as a clever and powerful metaphor.
  7. Understand, a good speech is all about emotion.
  8. Be prepared to use repetition. It can lift a speech from prose to poetry.
  9. End on a positive, forward-looking note.
  10. Include a call to action. He asks people to lend support to the president-elect, whatever their political beliefs.

Some other thoughts:

  • Arnie is reading a script. A carefully written, fine-tuned, masterpiece of a script.  It is on autocue. Most people cannot read autocue without being trained or training themselves. One of the benefits of short sentences is that they make reading aloud much easier. So the script is written to be spoken, not written to be read. (We teach this.)
  • The background is relevant and personal, his study. But it is way too busy and distracting in my view. I prefer a cleaner image.
  • I suspect this was not done in one take. You will see that there are what is called in the trade ‘cutaways’. A different view – from the side. Cutaways allow inconspicuous editing, so it’s likely even Arnie had several goes at it. Planning for cutaways makes life much easier for the performer. In this case, the cutaways are very amateur but they still made for easier editing.

If you want to learn to write for autocue or read autocue well, give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.  We are also helping leaders in lockdown to connect with their Townhall audiences by sharing stories and ad-libbing using a message house. We can teach you how to do this too.

feature communicating strategically

What I wish I had known 30 years ago …

I have been asked to share with a group of young people, future leaders, a few tricks and tips for what I think of as ‘effective professional communication’.

communicating strategically

Nine Top Tips for Communicating Strategically

I think the following rules cover anything from job interviews to fundraising pitches, conversations with teachers or negotiations for an internship. Pulling it all together has made me think – I wish someone had told me this stuff 30 years ago!

Let me know if you think I have missed anything.

Before you Start

  1. There are no rules and there is no perfect. It’s about being the best version of you; or as the Berocca copywriters put it, ‘you, but on a really good day’. (I have to thank my fellow trainer Eric Dixon for this little nugget.)
  2. Have a plan. Know what you want to achieve. 5 minutes thinking about what would be a great outcome from any conversation, what would be a good outcome and what would be a bad outcome, will help you focus. Trust yourself on this. Anything you think is fine.
  3. Also, ask yourself what you know about the other person or the audience. What matters to them? What are their priorities? Do they have problems you can solve or priorities you share? A back of envelope audit about your target can shape your messaging. It can also help with rapport (see point 9)
  4. Having worked out your goal, think about how you want the other side – be it one person or many – to feel, to think and what you want them to do, as a result of the conversation or presentation. Again clarity of thought here will serve you well.

    Plan the words – or some of them

  5. Having worked through points one to four above, you can work out what you want to say and how best to say it. There are no rules, but clearly articulated ideas will help everyone. For example, if fundraising: ‘we know how to help, we just need the funds’ or if in a job interview: ‘if you gave me this job, I could transform your social media’.
  6. Having identified a few key assertions or toplines – find ways to ‘prove it’. In the example above you are looking for either facts, numbers or anecdotes that will ‘prove’ you can transform your potential employers social media. A fact might be: correct use of tags on Twitter typically increases ‘shares’ by 30%. An anecdote might be ‘I helped a shoe shop in my high street double the number of customers simply by using social media to talk about footwear trends in Gosport.’
  7. And that brings us to stories. Tell more stories. Learn to tell stories. Try them out on friends and family. Stories, anecdotes and examples will influence people much more than real hard evidence. They will also make you a better leader, help you sound more authentic and above all make you more memorable.

    And then …

  8. Once you have considered the substance of any message, rehearse it aloud. This may make you feel silly, but it will really help.
  9. Finally; study rapport*. Learn ways to make a connection with people you don’t already know. Rapport is key to so many conversations and while it is no silver bullet, building rapport will never be a bad thing.

The Media Coach provides bespoke training in Effective Communication in many different ways. Media Training, Presentation Training, Personal Effectiveness Training and Video Skills for Business. Please email enquiries@themediacoach.co.uk or call us  +44 (0)20 7099 2212 if you want to discuss your needs.

*As I have said before, if you don’t know what is meant by rapport (and can cope with more than an hour of full-on Tony Robbins) this OTT video will give you more than you ever need to know.


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Two_young_people_demonstrating_a_lively_conversation.jpg

boomerang phrases,

Boomerang Phrases and the Art of Influence

There it is again, leading the news. I have lost count of the number of times I heard the ‘reset’ phrase in the last week.

As Lee Cain walked out of Number 10 the phrase started to do the rounds: When Cain was followed by Cummings, every political player or commentator it seemed, led perhaps by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, used the phrase ‘chance for a reset’.

Boomerang Phrases

This is what I think of as a ‘boomerang phrase’.  A phrase that someone comes up with, which just captures the moment, or the message, or the circumstances: and then everyone starts using it, and within a couple of hours it is being used right back at you.

boomerang phrases

Boomerang phrases can be organic. As far as I know ‘the new normal’ did not come from a spin doctor. But a good spin doctor will, from time to time, come up with phrases that both resonate but crucially also make people see the existing facts differently. That in turn will influence a million micro decisions and some huge ones.

If an audience both recognise something in the phrase but also see things differently because of it – the author has a good chance of achieving change.

Of course, great phrases don’t always catch on. But, if they work they can have extraordinary power and in some cases are repeated down through history. Repugnant though it still is, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of blood’ phrase is not just remembered but it had huge influence. Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ is in the same category.  The triplet ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité was influential way beyond the borders of France and the simple phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ ignited protest and policy responses around the world, earlier this year. There are thousands more I could use to illustrate the point.

‘Reset’ is clearly not in the same premier league of history-changing phrases as those listed above. But it was a good attempt to capture the moment and spin something positive out of the political shenanigans. I don’t know who first used it to define the post Cain and Cummings mood, (Carrie Symonds perhaps) but it was already doing the rounds before it was picked up and applied to a small domestic disturbance at Number 10.

Reset is A La Mode

‘COVID 19 – The Great Reset’ is the title of a book out earlier this year and refers to resetting the World Order after the pandemic. The phrase may have originated from Klaus Schwab – who runs the World Economic Forum or perhaps his co-author Thierry Malleret. Or perhaps their publisher.

boomerang phrases

But it doesn’t stop there. It is easy to find a dozen headlines for ‘reset’ as applied to the departure of Cummings and Cain but many more applied to Biden’s presidential victory. It doesn’t matter that it is a repurposed phrase: it can still do the job. One of my clients many years ago referred to reusing other people’s phrases as ‘stealing with pride’.

boomerang phrases

 

boomerang phrases

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leadership Skill

Boomerang phrases are a powerful leadership tool. They are just as influential amongst smaller groups and within companies or organisations, as they are on the political stage. Being able to craft a phrase that everyone else can hang their hat on, is a real and rare skill.

The irony is that Cain and Cummings were brilliant at it. ‘Take back control’ and ‘Get Brexit done’ were probably among the most influential boomerang phrases of recent history.

At The Media Coach, we eat, breath and live effective communication. Email me at lindsay.williams@themediacoach.co.uk to start a conversation about how we can help you or your team. Full details of all our bespoke coaching courses can be found at themediacoach.co.uk.

emotion

A Catch in the Throat

Watching Kamala Harris’ victory speech from my settee on the other side of the Atlantic, I felt emotion rise in my chest to the extent that for a few moments I couldn’t speak.

And yet this is a woman I know very little about. I am not an American and while I care about the presidential election, it is not central to my life.

The Power of Emotion

It was the emotion of the speech that caught me.  The crafted emotional narrative of significant victory after a long struggle. And yet there was no over claiming and a real sense of humility.

I am sure there are women leaders before who have chosen not to hide their emotions and instead use them to pull people in behind them, but I can’t immediately name them.

The sort of women leaders I have been watching for the last thirty years are those who chose to hide emotion; to look totally professional. They projected reason or logic and strove not to give ammunition to people who think leaders don’t cry, don’t emote. I am thinking of Margaret Thatcher, the original iron lady, Theresa May, Angela Merkel.

How refreshing and how right for the moment to hear a woman speak with warmth and emotion. In this case sheer joy.

Scientists Jump for Joy

There was another unusual display of emotion this week. From the Chief Scientist at Pfizer talking about the success of COVID vaccine trials.

emotion

It was a short clip (which can be seen in this video at 1’ 38”) but the emotion was authentic and unusual. As many of you know, persuading scientists and policymakers to share stories or anecdotes, let alone emotion, can be an uphill talk. But here we have a scientist talking about jumping for joy.

Having said I could not think of another female leader prepared to share emotion … there is another.   New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has shown us several times she is prepared to share emotion, good and bad, in her public speeches.

Her victory speech at winning her 2020 General Election was full of joy and can be found here, but she is also famous for sharing sorrow. I find this clip the most astonishing. Not a speech this time but still an act of humanity and leadership.

 

The Media Coach team can help you prepare for an event, craft a narrative and pull together media messages. Give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

The two faces of negotiation

The Two Faces of a Negotiation

Brexit talks remind us that there are always two faces to negotiation. What you say in public and what you say in private.

In western democracies, there is an assumed right to know what is going on in negotiations involving governments, unless there are very good reasons why not. Journalists shout questions, ask repeatedly and people scream on Twitter about conspiracies and hidden agendas.

The two faces of negotiation

You Cannot Negotiate in Public

Any intelligent person knows that you cannot negotiate in public. Negotiation requires compromise and today’s expected outcome will be tomorrow’s cat litter. Commercial organisations almost always reserve the right not to discuss deals until they are signed. Stock market rules support them: if a deal will affect the share price it is essential that all investors and possible investors know at the same time, to prevent unfair or insider trading.

But politicians have an impossible situation to manage. They must negotiate in private but update, at every stage, in public. Very few negotiations have had as much public scrutiny as the Brexit deal.

There is an added wrinkle to this negotiation in particular – public opinion almost certainly influences the negotiation. That means it is in the interests of both sides to influence public opinion: and opinion is, of course, being deliberately influenced by the, now daily, updates on the negotiations.

There is a procession of headline-grabbing quotable phrases from both sides. This clip includes several carefully crafted phrases from Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

 


To pull out just one: ‘After 45 years of membership (the EU) are not willing…to offer this country the same terms as Canada.’

Some more of the phrases used by the UK government spokespeople in the last few days include:

‘Time is running out’. Boris Johnson specifically to business leaders urging them to prepare for Brexit.

The EU has not shown ‘the respect and flexibility’ expected in international negotiations. Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick.

‘Door is still ajar’. Michael Gove and Robert Jenrick.

From the EU:

The British ‘are much more depending on us than we are on them’. President Emmanuel Macron.

‘We want a deal, but not at any price.’ ‘It must be fair’. This was said by a number of European leaders after talks last week. The BBC did a brilliant edit to illustrate consistent messaging from the EU side. Sorry, we can’t insert it but it was posted at 20:47 pm 15th Oct (click the link and scroll down until you find the video entitled A few words on Brexit). It is worth a watch.

And we also have off-the-record briefings. Also designed to influence public and political opinions. Unofficial comments that I have seen include:

  • The FT quoting a senior UK official with knowledge of the talks saying the mood on the British side was ‘very gloomy’.
  • The Express claimed that chief negotiator Michel Barnier and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were ‘fed-up’ with France’s Emmanual Macron for digging his heels in on fishing rights.
  • And Politico reported a senior German official who knows Merkel well, summed up thinking on Brexit as ‘Better if in, but if not then close’.

Is it All for Show?

I am sure there are plenty more on and off the record quotes. All part of the theatre of international trade negotiation.

But here are some quotes about the negotiation process that I personally give weight to.

“There is now too little separating the two sides for either to afford a no-deal outcome. Of course, Downing Street will inflate their language to put pressure on the EU. But my judgment is that Johnson is too weak politically to have the commotion of no-deal coming on top of the Covid mayhem.” Peter Mandelson, former EU Trade Commissioner. Quoted in the FT behind a paywall.

And here is a snippet from Politico’s Sunday Crunch:

Perhaps worth remembering … former Brexit Secretary David Davis’ words at the end of 2018, when we were nearing the deadline for a draft Brexit divorce deal: “We’re going to have a very scary few months — from now until about November it’s going to be really scary,” he said. “Everybody’s going to be calling each other’s bluff, there’s all sorts of brinkmanship going to go on — that’s normal, that’s the European Union’s daily bread and that’s what we’ve got to be ready for.”

If you or your team would like help with media training please do give us a call on: +44 (0)20 7099 2212

Images: YouTube

 

David Lammy

David Lammy MP – One to Watch

David Lammy MP is a new name on my list of good media operators. He seems to strike the right balance of being no-nonsense, plain-speaking and colloquial without losing party discipline. He is also very gutsy about not answering the questions he doesn’t want to answer.

David Lammy appeared on the Andrew Marr Show (again)

Here he is on this weekend’s Andrew Marr Show, where he is something of a regular.

Why Lammy comes across well

Here is why I think Lammy is a good media performer.

  • He is a high energy communicator. We look for warmth, authority and animation and he has all these qualities.
  • He always addresses the question – not the same as always answering it, but he doesn’t do what so many do, which is just make statements. He says something to the question.
  • He looks to me as if his answers are prepared. Responses are always high value and appear thought-through with the evidence to hand. Of course, he is a trained barrister, so perhaps what you would expect but it is noticeable.
  • He has the numbers at his fingertips. Again, like any good barrister, he lines up the evidence.
  • He uses personal anecdotes. He talks about his university, often mentions football and always, always mentions his constituency.
  • He manages to push back against aggressive or repeat questioning, without getting too aggressive himself.

Lammy spends a lot of time in broadcast studios

Another thing that is clear to me is that Lammy makes himself available to the media – a lot. He even has his own show on LBC. That means he is very familiar with the interview process, studios, etc.

David Lammy

Here is a link to that call.

My advice for Lammy

Just to be clear, Lammy hasn’t asked for my advice and probably doesn’t need it but …David Lammy

  • I do worry that he defaults to always having a strong point of view and often sounding irritated. As if the answer to every problem was blindingly obvious, rather than complicated and nuanced. This may undermine his authority somewhat, especially over the long-run. It’s difficult to trust people who are always upset about something. It’s difficult to have respect for those who oversimplify or are too obviously tribal.
  • There is such a thing as too much media exposure. You can become seen as a ‘rent a quote’ by both journalists and audiences. Having established himself so well, and built so much experience in studios, maybe it’s time to target more thoughtful programmes and media interactions.

The Bigger Picture

Public perceptions of Lammy will not just be shaped by mainstream media. He is very active on Twitter, which means it is easy to know what he thinks about almost everything. On Twitter, he mixes national politics with the personal, in a way that gives colour and shows humanity but avoids being too tediously prosaic. He has also written a book, Tribes: How our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society, published in March 2020. In this, he explains his complicated heritage and stellar career path as well as providing a thought-provoking contribution to two of the great problems of the age: loneliness and extremism, and how these are tied together by social media.

In fact, I can’t help wondering if Lammy’s book wasn’t inspired by Obama’s Dreams of my Father as it mixes the personal and the big picture in a similar way. Perhaps suggesting that Lammy has eyes on the top job eventually!

 

 

comms team feature

12 Ways to Prove you are a True Comms Professional

PR people are so often overworked and under-valued. One of the big – not so obvious – benefits of Media Training, is that it opens the eyes of executives to the role and the work of the comms team. But if Media Training is not on the agenda, here are 12 ways you can prove you are a true comms professional.

comms team

Be Prepared to Challenge

1. Ask repeatedly until you get a clear defined answer: Who is the audience? What do we want to achieve? So many PR initiatives fail because of woolly or ever-changing objectives. Senior people love demanding that something happens without being clear what the desired specific benefit would be. Phrases such as ‘get me some press coverage’, ‘get me some good PR for this’, or even ‘can’t you just give me the journalists’ mobile numbers’.

2. Ask: How will we know we have achieved that objective? What metrics will we measure? It can be difficult to measure PR impact or outcomes and it maybe there are no satisfactory metrics to log. But it is worth always asking the question, not least because it gives the PR professional cover if the coverage fails to wow.

3. Hold everyone to account for writing and speaking in plain English. It is no good you working your socks off to get people in front of journalists if, once they start, they can’t explain the project or product in ways that mean something to the audience. It is often uncomfortable reminding senior people to use more colloquial language, but it will pay dividends (assuming they listen).

4. Repeatedly ask: Is that true? Can we prove it? Can we evidence it? Some teams are overly cautious, while some leaders are way too gung ho. Given it is the PR team who will be fielding the calls if bold claims cannot be substantiated, it’s worth insisting that you have the proof points before you go public.

Know your Market

5. Know your journalists. Names and biographies of the top 20 or 30 journalists or bloggers on your media list should be well known to you.

6. Keep an eye on key competitors and remind your team what they are doing and saying. Many people are too busy doing the day job to properly keep across market issues. Those that do manage to do this will give themselves and the team an edge. Observations can be as simple as how active they are in the media, to what they are talking about, to the detail of which spokesperson is saying what. This may provide media opportunities, warn of ‘while I’ve got you…’ questions and much more. Above all, it will convince the business it is worth paying your wages.

Set your own Standards

7. Read everything you or a colleague writes, at least twice: once for sense and once for grammar and spelling. If you are about to publish externally, ask for a second pair of eyes wherever possible. This is especially important for me. I do not see grammar and spelling mistakes. I can read things as carefully as I like and I always miss something. Fortunately, I have people in the team who rarely miss anything.

8. Project plan everything. Diaries, dates, personal deadlines and to-do lists are the bedrock of professionalism. Even if you are doing this for yourself rather than a team, and even if you get knocked off course most days, working to a prioritised to-do list, and creating a simple timeline for everything, will keep you ahead and make you look efficient.  It also tends to provide great motivation and guard against distraction.

9. Read widely and pull out the PR lessons. For yourself to share with colleagues and to use as quotes or anecdotes in your PowerPoint. Not so easy in a busy life but reading around a subject will always enrich the fertility of your subconscious. I rarely find a book about current affairs that doesn’t teach me something about PR. Sharing nuggets from your reading will also ‘add value’ to team discussions.  (Obviously, be careful not to bore people.) Don’t know where to start? Try political biographies.comms team

10. Think like a millennial, whatever your age. Digital and comms should not be two separate departments. If they are, they need to work hand-in-glove. Imagine you were interviewing someone for a PR job. One candidate says: ‘I know my way around Twitter but I really hate all this social media stuff.’ The other says: ‘social media gives us a really wide range of options, and we can measure the impact of everything if we get across the numbers’. Which one would you hire?

11. Consume media. Stay across the news agenda and refer to it often with less newsy colleagues. As with everything, process will help you here. You could, for example, list 10 websites you flick through every day. Add a couple of TV or radio programmes that you listen to on catch-up – so you can jump through irrelevant items. You don’t have to do everything every day, just do some.

And Finally – Do your own PR

12. PR your own team. Remind colleagues what a good job the comms team does, either keeping things out of the news or winning column inches. Don’t assume colleagues in other departments understand the process or the value. You know the value of PR. Use it to boost the standing of your team. Showcase successes, talk a good game, craft your internal team messages. You never want to hear a senior leader say ‘I just don’t know what the PR team does all day’.

The Media Coach is piloting a new course – Personal Effectiveness Training. It’s all about communicating more effectively. If you, someone in your team or one of your direct reports could communicate better get in touch to discuss a bespoke course: online or face-to-face. Call us on 0207 099 2212 and let’s chat.

 

 

Crafted quotes feature

Choosing Words to Feed the News Monster

Craft your quotes before you go anywhere near a journalist. Use interesting language to highlight a key point but be boring on the stuff you don’t want to see online, in print or on the airwaves. This is how media-savvy people operate.

Crafted quotes from the last week

‘Moonshot’ and ‘Rule of Six’ are both examples in the last few days, of phrases churned out by the government’s spin machine. Both phrases have not just won headlines but also shaped a lot of subsequent debate. ‘Moonshot’ was particularly creative, although many are suspicious that as a policy it will turn out to have no substance, it didn’t stop the news coverage.

Blair and Major pick their words

Also, in the last week, former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major got together to condemn the Prime Minister’s backsliding on the Brexit deal. Their statement claimed the development was ‘shocking’ and it threatened ‘the very integrity of our nation’. They went on: the move was ‘embarrassing the UK’ and ‘irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice.’ All carefully chosen phrases to keep momentum building behind the controversy. (This appears to have been successful as the other three living former prime ministers have condemned the Bill that will potentially override the newly signed treaty – and a substantial number of senior Tories are threatening to vote against it). Here is how all this first came to light.

 

As the clip shows, the Government had its own spin on the issue: positioning the Internal Market Bill, as a minor infraction o international law. One wonders, in fact, whether Brandon Lewis intended to be quite so direct when he said ‘yes this does break international law in a specific and limited way’. He appeared to be reading this response, suggesting it was planned, although that might have been affectation. My point is, he could so easily have said something less direct. His phrasing certainly set the agenda for the news cycle.

Did Brandon Lewis mean to be quite so direct?

The cynically minded might think it was deliberate and designed to detract from the rise in COVID cases; stirring up some anti-Europe pro-Brexit sentiment instead. I am always minded to err on the side of cockup over conspiracy myself, but it could be either.

One entertaining element of this row is that while everyone knows the government is prepared to ‘break international law’, very few people seem able to explain in what way. In this case, the spin has spun a thousand miles from the substance of the argument.

Just as the season changes, so do political fortunes. Johnson appears to be losing his Teflon coating and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Opposition Leader Keir Starmer seem to be neck and neck in the ‘decent and competent stakes’.  But I can’t help noticing that Sunak is better at the soundbites. (As I said last week the Right in politics appear for now to making all the running in the soundbite stakes). ‘Eat out to help out’ may not have been an original Sunak phrase but it has definitely had cut through and was widely quoted and repeated. ‘No tax horror show’ is another strong quote. I have just spent 10 minutes on Google trying to find some comparable Starmer quote, but couldn’t. Apparently – according to Tatler –  Sunak has the help of his own special adviser, Cass Horowitz who is branded ‘a social media wunderkind’.  This may explain why the chancellor is doing well on grabbing headlines and social media likes.

I know politics should not just be about the spin – and many will argue that it is spin that has cheapened and undermined democratic debate. If that is your view you will deplore this chilling paragraph originally from Patrick Cockburn in The Independent, but picked up by The Week.

crafted quotes

 

Images:
Photo of Patrick Cockburn article
Still from YouTube, Brandon Lewis

Tony Abbott

Outspoken, Right-Wing, Thick-Skinned Egotists have Taken Over the News Cycle

As a spin doctor, I teach people how to get the headlines that work for them. It is more art than science but it is a well-understood set of principles.

Somehow or other in the last 10 years those of a right-wing bent have gotten better and better at this game, taking it to extremes that many of us find uncomfortable. And while the right gets bolder and becomes more outspoken, those who are liberal and left-wing have all but given up the game.

Tony Abbott

Abbott: Let Relatives Die of COVID

The row ignited by Tony Abbott’s comments in a speech at the Policy Exchange Think Tank in London last week is just the latest example. His comments about ‘letting people die’ rather than having the economic damage of lockdowns seem to me to be deliberately phrased to get media attention ahead of his appointment as Trade Envoy. Here is the Guardian write up.

And while the media report the headline comments, social media is quick to throw lots of fuel on the fire.

Tony Abbott

In different times, courting outrage would pause the hand of a Prime Minister about to appoint a foreigner to a high-profile advisory position. But today it seems to have either had no influence or helped the cause.

The reality of health economics – how much it is worth spending to keep someone (even someone we love) alive – is a real dilemma that we all have to grapple with at some point in our lives. Whether with pets, elderly parents or ourselves. Society has to grapple with this too. It is a difficult issue and any sane person knows the answer is neither ‘it doesn’t matter how much it costs’ or ‘just let them die’. It is a nuanced sensitive issue that can quickly cause hurt, harm and outrage if phrased badly.

Abbott: Being insensitive and outspoken wins publicity

Most people in public life would be very careful about tackling the question directly. By being insensitive and outspoken Abbott wins a lot of publicity. Here, for example, is a Sky interview with the UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, where 3 minutes is devoted to Abbott’s comments and impending appointment. Aren’t there more relevant things that our Transport Secretary should be asked about? Of course, the tone of the interview is negative. No one does outrage like Kay Burley. And most normal people would find it horrible to be discussed publicly in this way. But I am prepared to bet that Abbott is far from displeased.

 

I have just finished listening to, rather than reading, the book Tribes by the Labour MP David Lammy. He bucks the trend and is an unusually outspoken voice on the left, no stranger to courting controversy himself.  I found the book a somewhat unsatisfactory mixture of big thinking, personal anecdote and discussion of the issue of race but there were some good takeaways. In particular, when talking about how being extreme in one’s views and choice of words is being rewarded by the algorithms of social media and the news cycle – with the effect of pushing us all into one camp or the other, and pushing the camps further and further apart. Why the right seems to be winning this damaging battle is a mystery to me and I would welcome other people’s views.

But in the meantime, I believe Tony Abbott is manipulating the UK news cycle with his ‘let your relatives die’ comments. He would have barely been known in the UK before that speech and his appointment would have had a lot less coverage.

Image: Tony Abbott, YouTube

dominic cummings' lockdown

Dominic Cummings’ Lockdown Drive : Falling Foul of Fairness

Dominic Cummings’ lockdown drive may turn out to be a career-defining episode for the aggressive, plain-speaking and, until now, hugely influential political advisor.

Dominic Cummings Becomes the Story

Political advisors are supposed to know what works with the public: what has cut through, what the public will get behind and in the end how they will vote. It is this nose for the herd mentality and how it will play out amongst the various institutions and players with power – that ‘political advisers’ are paid for. Dominic Cummings appears to have either misjudged this one – or realised he was gambling with his career and drove north to Durham anyway.

Watching his performance in the garden at Number 10, many people, especially many parents of young children, will understand the dilemma and his actions. Most will see it as in a different league to the Scottish Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, who twice broke lockdown to visit her second home. In his statement, Cummings provided evidence that what he did was not illegal. Lockdown rules allowed that – especially for those with young children – it may not always be possible for everyone to comply with the strict ‘stay at home’ message.

 

Cummings Falls Foul of the Fairness Principle

The problem is that Cummings’ actions fall foul of the fairness principle. Others did stay at home in difficult circumstances: did not visit their children in hospital, did not see their father before he died and so on. And the fact that Cummings went home to Durham when things got tough, is seen as simply not fair.

A sense of fairness, or fair play, is a very powerful driver of human action. I must admit I hadn’t fully understood this until the last few weeks. But an innate, ingrained and universal sense of fairness has been a theme in two of my lockdown reads. Both stress all human beings are born with this sense of fairness and both stress that you ignore it at your peril.

In the Chris Voss book on negotiation, ‘Never Split the Difference’, the author points out that even in highly unlikely situations – like negotiation with kidnappers (he was an International FBI Negotiator) –  ‘a sense of fairness’ is something that can be used by either side. One of Voss’ ‘tricks’ was apparently to tell the baddies that he wanted to be ‘fair’ with them. He also built a reputation or brand for being a ‘fair’ negotiator, sticking to his word, etc. But the crucial phrase here is on page 122.

dominic cummings' lockdown

Lockdown reading. Both books point out that fairness is an innate and powerful human emotion

‘The most powerful word in negotiation is ‘fair’. As human beings, we’re mightily swayed by how much we feel we have been respected. People comply with agreements if they feel they’ve been treated fairly and lash out if they don’t.’

He later mentions research that even monkeys will throw a tantrum if they don’t feel they are treated fairly. The sense of fairness is in our genes.

A Sense of Fairness is in our Genes

The fairness point also makes a significant appearance in another book ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The authors similarly point out that our sense of fairness is innate and almost certainly evolved as a way to live in harmony with each other and manage conflict. But the crucial point for this argument is that in times of war, governments take action to make society seem fairer. As Wilkinson and Pickett write:

Britain became substantially more equal during both the First and Second World Wars as part of an effort to gain support for the war effort’.

To state the obvious, if the cooperation of the majority of people is thought to be essential there is a need to convince them that the burden and sacrifice are being equally shared. And that is where Cumming’s has tripped up.

And it seems to be this fairness point that really hit a nerve with Church of England bishops. They took to Twitter to lambast the Prime Minister for supporting Cummings’ decision to drive to his parents’ farm during the lockdown. Here is what they had to say. Who even knew there were so many bishops on Twitter … but the fact they were all prompted to get tough by this is story, is pretty telling.

Cummings’ own performance yesterday was not arrogant or belligerent. He did explain his thought processes, but he also refused to apologise. It is the nature of the beast. But so often half an apology is worse than no apology at all.

For anyone who wants to see how to handle aggressive questioning, the Cummings performance is pretty strong. [I feel the FT’s coverage is uncharacteristically misleading] He is calm and respectful although clearly rattled. He is also apparently employing the ‘till they drop’ press conference technique which aims to give journalists as much time and access as they like, in the hope of arriving at the point where all questions have been answered and no one cares anymore. There is a fictional version of this in a West Wing episode that is a great illustration of the principle. I am clearly not the only person who remembers this from more than a decade ago.

dominic cummings' til they drop

At the time of writing it is not clear whether Cummings has done enough to save his job. However, one thing is clear to me. He would have had a better chance if a) he had done the press conference a few days earlier and b) if he had apologised properly.

The Media Coach team prepares people for difficult media interviews, and helps companies with Crisis Communication Plans. If you think we can help you or your team please call me on 020 7099 2212.