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Coronavirus Communications – PM could do better, a lot better

Coronavirus communications from the government are being scrutinised by the entire population. I was deeply concerned by Boris Johnson’s performance during yesterday’s press briefing. As my phone went berserk in the aftermath it became clear I wasn’t alone.

Coronavirus communications image

I got texts from friends who were confused by the PM’s announcements, a call from a pub owner who was defiant about closing and messages from parents who felt none the wiser about when schools will shutdown.

Summing it all up was a former colleague who is managing the news-desk of one of Britain’s main national broadcasters:

“That was a f&*%ing car crash”.

Maybe a tad harsh, but he’s right that Boris should be doing far, far better.

A meticulous coronavirus communications strategy, containing carefully crafted messages, is hard to do when things are moving so fast. But it is absolutely vital. There is simply no room for vagueness, ambiguity or improvisation and I think Johnson failed on all three of those measures and just couldn’t resist the urge to wing it.

Effective crisis comms relies on giving clear, decisive, detailed information in the right tone. But that is not what we heard on Monday.

Urging people not to go to bars and restaurants without actually closing them – or being on the front foot about what provision you will make for the hospitality industry – was a confused and confusing message. It generated ill will among landlords and the catering trade, who feel hung out to dry in relation to their insurance, and judging from the pubs I went past last night was counter productive anyway.

That clanger has been widely covered this morning but what worried me just as much was the way that Johnson responded to reporters’ questions towards the end of the briefing. He was asked what he would do to help low income households, a question which gave him the perfect opportunity to land a reassuring message along the lines of “we are all in this together and people will not be left stranded”.

Instead, he responded by talking about improvements the Conservatives have made to the living wage, a party political response which was totally out of place.

He was then asked about the broader impact on the economy and talked about it “roaring back” within months, a sub Trumpian response which seemed neither rehearsed or reassuring.

I agreed with the Guardian’s snap verdict, which said the “roaring back quote came over as naïve utopianism”, and concluded “Johnson made a reasonably good fist of explaining what his proposals were but there was an enormous gap in the statement that a more experienced or strategic prime minister would have addressed”.

What’s required in this sort of situation is discipline and sobriety, traits which whatever your political persuasion is not what Johnson is renowned for and his performance confirmed what were already growing concerns yesterday about his and the government’s communication strategy.

These weren’t helped by the reports, which haven’t been denied by Number 10, that Johnson had made a joke during a conference call to manufacturers regarding the emergency production of ventilators that it could be called Operation Last Gasp.

One of the golden rules of any engagement with the media is to be very careful about any attempt at humour but what this proved was that the PM needs to realise that he needs to avoid careless or flippant comments in any situation in the current crisis.

There have been some good decisions. Ending the self-imposed ban on ministers appearing on the Today Programme was right and necessary.

Flanking Johnson with scientists Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance was a smart move, not only does it portray that the government are no longer sick of hearing from experts, it also gives Johnson foils to whom he can refer questions that require scientific authority, detail never having been his strength. What is his strength is he can deliver a message with authority in a way that gives the press what they need to tell the story the government needs to circulate. Johnson’s use of the line “I must level with the British public” last Thursday showed what he can do when he’s prepped and disciplined. Let’s hope the clarifications come swiftly and the lessons have been learnt.

The Media Coach team have now switched to providing training and coaching online. Clients planning their own coronavirus communications are booking in two hour slots of Skype, Zoom or Webex coaching. If you think spokespeople need coaching before talking to the media or staff – or if they are to do videos – we can help. We can also provide camera operators in London, the South East and the Midlands if should they be needed. Call us on +44 (0)20 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

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!

Abdallah

Abdallah Touqan from Dubizzle wins our Message in a Minute Challenge

In case you couldn’t work it out from Twitter, Lindsay and I were at the European Communication Summit in Brussels last week.

While there we ran the first Media Coach Message in a Minute competition in which we asked the professional PRs to describe their organisation in a colloquial and interesting way in 60 seconds and record it on our onsite camera.

Many people often forget the value of an efficient Message in a Minute, or elevator pitch. They often (wrongly) assume that people know what they do (even after an hour of talking to them) when actually they only have a vague idea.

Abdallah

Abdallah Touqan did an excellent elevator pitch for Dubizzle

So doing it well can be a challenge but is worth getting right.

Even by the standards of professional communicators, we had some unusually strong entries and were really impressed by what people came up with virtually on their spot.

Although it was a tough call in the end we gave the prize to Abdallah Touqan for his description of Dubizzle, the company where he heads up communications.

What clinched his win was his arresting and imaginative use of numbers, examples (e.g. Egyptians having the equivalent of Swedish GDP in unused goods in their homes) and enthusiastic but measured delivery. He also managed to convey Dubizzle as a ‘movement’ in the ‘collaborative economy’ rather than just being  a company, which was very effective.

He was just a great spokesperson in terms of content and style.

Well done to everyone who took part and we hope you enjoyed it.

See you next year.