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stay alert feature

Stay Alert – A Perfectly Good Message

‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’ is the UK government’s update to ‘Stay at Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’ … and political opponents from all quarters have orchestrated a loud furore about the ‘confusion’ caused by this message.

Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland was quick to complain and refused to adopt it north of the border and the Welsh government quickly follow suit. They complain that no one will understand what ‘stay alert’ means.

What poppycock.

‘Stay alert’ is perfectly clear (in context) and a perfectly good message.

stay alert

Stay Alert: The Role of a Top-Line Message

Short pithy phrases make good ‘top-lines’ for messages. They rarely encompass the whole story. In fact, it is often better if they don’t. So long as they are memorable and relevant then it is often useful to spark some discussion about the detailed meaning. I think of it as opening the door to an argument. In time the top-line phrase may become the shorthand for the whole argument or narrative. Think ‘shielding’ in the COVID context. Think ‘a dog is for life, not just for Christmas’; think ‘keep calm and carry on’; think ‘dig for victory’ and so on. I suspect all my readers could explain the thinking behind each of these phrases. But anyone working on a literal translation would probably struggle to understand.

The tricolon ‘Stay Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’ was similarly incomplete. For example, what does ‘protect the NHS mean’? Should we arm ourselves and stand in front of hospitals? No, of course not. Government spokespeople needed the top-line ‘protect the NHS’ to open the door to understanding the importance of ensuring the health service was not overwhelmed as had been seen in Italy. Everyone got it.

‘Stay alert’ as an update to ‘stay home’ is not at all confusing. It obviously means you no longer need to stay home but things are far from normal. In the detail there is stuff that needs to be explained; new rules about what we can and cannot do.

Of course, the government could have said instead ‘be careful’ or ‘stay aware’ or ‘be vigilant’ or ‘pay attention’ or ‘keep your wits about you’ and so on. But ‘stay alert’ would be my favourite of all those.

So why the loud complaints and sniping from the side-lines? The answer, I think is that there are political opponents who want to ensure they are seen to be active. But of course, it is very difficult to criticise too heavily when, to do so, might risk the current compliance and the life-saving consensus. Simply put: they have to find something to complain about.

For students of PR, it is worth understanding that even when people criticise a message – it doesn’t necessarily mean it is not effective. To take a controversial example from history (which I strongly disapprove of), Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ phrase was massively criticised. But it was also hugely influential. The Brexit campaign’s £350 million a week claim was again hugely criticised, for good reason, but undoubtedly influential.

Top-line messages need to be short and memorable and open the door to an argument. As anyone who has worked with us knows, we favour metaphors, similes and analogies in this role but the important question is does it do the job? And here is why this is important. If, as a spin doctor or slogan writer you are too cautious, you will end up with something wordy and worthy that everyone can agree on, but no one remembers.

There are many things the government – perhaps most governments – have got wrong in this crisis. Mistakes that have cost lives. Bitching about the message is just a distraction.

coronavirus messaging feature

Coronavirus Messages Are Missing The Under 30s

Guest Blogger : Raff Marioni

Coronavirus messages are not reaching people under 30. At 23 years old, I’ve obviously had a lot less experience than a Whitehall spin doctor; but I can say with total confidence that the government isn’t speaking young people’s language and they are not finding me or my friends online.

Raff photo coronavirus messaging

Meet Guest Blogger Raff Marioni. He says government messages about COVID 19 are not reaching his generation.

Looking at my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feed – the most important gauges of what my friends are talking about – Covid-19 is still considered only a danger to old people and there’s minimal government-led messaging on important details we should know.

The Media Coach asked me to share my thoughts on this problem. I am 23, in my first year of working for a PR firm. Before that, I was president of Newcastle University Students Union. I was introduced to the world of messaging and media management when – while at Newcastle Uni – I was trained by the Media Coach’s Jon Bennett. Jon, who is a Newcastle Uni alumni and a trustee of the SU, recently asked me if I thought young people were ‘getting the message about COVID’ and my answer was an emphatic no.

Coronavirus messaging

Coronavirus Messages Generation Gap

What is clear to me is that for my generation there’s a gap: coronavirus messages are not cutting through. Under thirties are not changing behavior. And I blame that on old fashioned comms that are completely unsuited to a digital world.

It’s as if the government dusted off a pre-internet pandemic media strategy from the 80s and put it into action, focusing on adverts in papers, TV news interviews and marathon daily briefings. That might be what you need to reach the over-40s, but it’s totally outmoded for my generation.

For me and my friends, the idea of buying a newspaper is about as foreign as the idea of ever owning our own home. We also don’t tend to have allegiances to traditional outlets either; there’s rarely such a thing as a Guardian or a Mail reader. My mates are much more likely to self-identify as a Twitter or a Facebook user.

So if you want to talk to us, you need to go to where we are – and young people consume their media almost exclusively digitally. And they want something fresh and authentic.

A really notable example of where old media jumped the divide into new media was Emily Maitlis’ opening monologue on Newsnight on 9th April, it went viral across UK social media because it departed from the usual safe bi-partisan format.

 

Social Media Timelines Keep Us Informed

It’s not that my generation never watches TV or cares about news, in fact, I’d argue the appetite for information is huge. It’s just that – because we have social media timelines, live updates from news apps and friends sharing links in group chats – by the time the evening news comes around we already know what’s happened throughout the day.

It means we also want something more than just an old-fashioned bulletin. We want news and views and I think broadcasters are starting to realise that.

Aside from getting the traditional headlines pinged to us on our phones, we’ll actively search Google or Twitter for what we want to know. A scan of the first few results on each usually provides us with the nuggets we need. We’ll only click for more detail if our interest is particularly spiked.

Another key source of information is the shared or sponsored articles on Facebook or Twitter timelines. To illustrate how times have changed, LadBible – a source of news, viral videos and funny stories – has 37 million Facebook followers, while The Sun has 3.3 million.

If the government wants to talk to us, they’ll find us online. But it’s a noisy space and in an age of relentless scrolling, we need something that will make us stop and listen.

If someone asked my advice – I would suggest designing a targeted campaign that outlines that young people are still dying from Covid-19, combined with stark, sponsored ads explaining how ignoring the lockdown means we could kill our loved ones. It shouldn’t take losing a grandparent (or a job) to have grasped the severity of this pandemic, but for many young people, it has.

My Generation Grew Up on Spin

I am from a generation attuned to, and drained by, spin. We’re massively cynical about government soundbites because we grew up with Blair and Iraq, the tuition fee fiasco and the Brexit bus farrago.

It’s why we’ll listen to Chris Whitty, but when Johnson or Hancock muscle their way into frame, we return to scrolling.

Ultimately, young people are used to looking ahead, but we’ve suddenly lost momentum in our lives. Tell us what the future can look like if we all get this right. Just do it clearly, concisely and in our language. Oh, and don’t expect us to spare you an hour.

Photo: Image © Acabashi CC-BY-SA 4.0
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:One_form_of_exercise_social_distancing_Tottenham_style_Covid-19_pandemic_7.jpg

message building

A Minute With The Media Coach: Message Building

As we continue our summer holiday mode, instead of bringing you our usual blog this week we bring you number four in our series ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’, where fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss message building. This is the one to show those senior executives suspicious about ‘being told what to say’.

 

misspeak

Another Misspeak: Strachan Reminds us that Stream of Consciousness is Dangerous in a Media Interview

Another misspeak this week has landed a respected former football manager in hot water.

Strachan’s Confused Misspeak

If you watch TV sport, you are probably aware that Gordon Strachan, a former Scotland and Celtic manager, has been dropped as a pundit on Sky Sports after drawing a comparison that has infuriated many. He has apologised but the story is still running after several days.

misspeak

What actually happened? Well early in the Thursday night programme, The Debate, panellists had been discussing the problem of racism in football, prompted by Spurs and England defender Danny Rose, considered to be one of the most talented players of his generation. He said he couldn’t wait to see the back of football because of the racist abuse he suffers – and because of the lack of action taken against offenders.

Later in the same programme, the discussion turned to whether Adam Johnson, a footballer who has been released from prison after serving 3 years of a sentence for child sex offences, should be allowed to play again. He was found guilty of having sexual contact with a 15-year-old fan.

Strachan, who has said he would be happy to sign Johnson given that he had served his time, appeared to draw a comparison between the racist chants and the potential for abusive chants if Johnson appeared back on the pitch. He posed the question:

“If he (Johnson) goes on to the pitch and people start calling him names, have we got to do the same as it is to the racist situation?” Strachan said. “Is it all right to call him names now after doing his three years – have we got to allow that to happen?”

Misspeak trouble can come from nonsense

It’s a fairly non-sensical sentence and certainly not a thought out position. The nub of the argument is that many believe Johnson deserves abuse while (clearly) black players do not.

Whilst Strachan’s comments were ill-advised, and clearly not well thought out – the sentence barely makes sense – it is clear to me that it is extremely difficult to pick wise words all the time. It is extremely easy to say something stupid, or non-pc or just plain wrong in a longish conversation, in which you are being treated as an expert. We see it time and time again. It is not easy to be a professional pundit and in the age of Twitter, it is easy for anyone to misspeak in public or in the media, and kick up a hornet’s nest of fury.

misspeak

Misspeaks: a Long List

So next time someone tells you that they do not have time to ‘work on their messages’ ahead of a media interview, and they do not need Media Training, remind them of this long list of people who misspoke in an unguarded moment. Some just had an uncomfortable few days, others lost their jobs or ended up in court.

If you can remember some I can’t, please do share.

 

Is your message boring image

Is your Message Boring but Important? Important but Complicated?

Is your message boring or overly technical? What can you do to make it more digestible?

Making the Boring Digestible and Memorable

Those of us who care about communication –  and who work with businesses or organisations –  are constantly challenged to make something inherently complicated, easy to understand. It is not unusual to find organisations who have struggled for years with this core problem. Sometimes the spoken word really is just not enough and there is a need to be more creative. Here are some random examples of clever ideas, which I share, hoping they will provide all of us with inspiration.

BA Comic Relief Safety Video

I have been doing a bit of travelling recently and one cannot but admire the brilliance of the British Airways Comic Relief Safety video. Trying to get frequent fliers to pay attention to flight safety (whilst also getting them to donate money to Comic Relief) must be one of the biggest message challenges there is – particularly as the obvious option of scaring the bejabbers out of passengers – is not available. If you haven’t seen the second edition of this, the Director’s Cut is here:

Information is Beautiful

Information is Beautiful by David McCandless is a fabulous coffee table book which I think I must have lent to someone (if it’s you can I have it back please). It has literally hundreds of examples of different ways to present information visually. To reach the standards of ‘beauty’ demonstrated in the book would require a designer and a reasonable budget, but if you are just looking for inspiration for the latest PowerPoint presentation, you might find something you can replicate.

Is your message boring image

Is your message boring image

Of course, there are many other sources of inspiration for graphics. Infographics have come of age in recent times and can be a great way to get a message out. It seems to me you will still need a creative designer and a budget, but they can certainly have an impact. Although the word inforgraphics is modern, the idea has been around hundreds of years. This is a blog about graphics that changed the world – including the Florence Nightingale one pictured below. Nightingale’s charts illustrated month by month, the overwhelming number of deaths in Military Hospitals caused by preventable diseases. It changed hospital practice forever.  Others mentioned in the blog are Mendeleev’s 1869 Periodic Table and Harry Beck’s 1931 London Underground Map.

Is your message boring image

Tell a Story

I am not going to reiterate all I have said before about story-telling and how important stories, examples and anecdotes can be in message building. But there are people out there who are going one step further: weaving important information into a fictional story. This strikes me as being very hard work but is something of a specialism for the author Patrick Lencioni. He writes about business management and teams and I have read and enjoyed ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – A Leadership Fable’.

Is your message boring image

 

Most of the book is the fable or fictional account of the challenges faced by a new CEO tasked with turning around a cash-burning start-up. In the end, there is an analysis of the story explaining the ‘best practice’ that can prevent or deal with the problems faced. It’s clever and makes the otherwise dull topic, very digestible.

Another clever person trying to make learning easier is Matteo Farinella. He combines storytelling with comic style drawing using fantastical drawing to explain neuroscience in his book  Neurocomic.

In this example of his style covered by a creative commons licence, he is illustrating the water cycle.

Is your message boring image

The Humble Metaphor

It is not possible to leave out from this list my old friends – metaphors, analogies and similes. So often they explain things very well, either verbally or visually.

When Sir Ian Cheshire, Chairman of Debenhams wanted to kill a story that the company was insolvent this is what he said.

“The only analogy I can have to 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 the cause of death and everyone’s looking forward to the funeral.”

Social Media Videos

Finally, let’s return to videos but with rather lower production values than the BA example, we started with. I am a huge fan of the World Economic Forum’s bite-sized videos that appear on LinkedIn. An archive of them can be found here. As you can see they are very simple but very effective.

Here are five cognitive biases that could be holding you back at work

Studying your subconscious mind. 📕 Read more: http://bit.ly/2Hk9OSN

Posted by World Economic Forum on Friday, March 8, 2019

So now all we need is a story, or a novel, a graphic or a video, to explain the difference between World Trade Rules, Canada +++, Norway style deal etc. – just in case we have to vote on which one we, in Britain, want.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue passport

The blue passport and the power of the tangible

The blue passport has been called an icon of British Identity. And we are going to hear a lot more about that icon in the coming weeks.

The blue passport: why all the fuss?

The blue passport was discontinued in 1988, although given the lifetime of passports there were probably a few around for 20 years after that. But this does mean roughly 20 million of the 65 million population of the UK have never seen a real UK blue passport. However, it is clearly viewed with affection by many amongst the older generations. As you are almost certainly aware, blue passports are due to be reintroduced – or an updated version will be introduced – in 2019 when Britain leaves the EU.

Blue passport

The controversy comes because the contract to print these new passports is about to be awarded to a Franco-Dutch company Gemalto. The specialist British printing firm De La Rue (an ironically French name) which, it seems, lost out in the tender process, has very unusually taken the view that this is a decision worth fighting and in public.

The legal case to have it printed in the UK and not in Europe is going to get a great deal of coverage. There are lots of reasons for this. One is clearly that the dispute neatly encapsulates the pro/anti EU argument in a simple way. But another key factor is that the blue passport itself is tangible. By which I mean you can picture it. And that is a key reason why this will run and run.

The power of the tangible

Tangibility helps people, all people, engage with this argument much more easily than with the arguments about other important elements of the Brexit process such as possible tariffs on financial services.

You can picture the passport in your mind in the way you can picture a pot of money, a bridge, or a car but you can’t picture a pension, infrastructure or the automotive industry. Being able to picture something makes it easier to grasp and easier to remember.

This is not the first time the controversies of the EU has been reduced to something we can picture. Myths about a threat to straight bananas, British sausages and a proposed ban on the word ‘yoghurt’ all became symbols of exasperation with the EU and in all cases it was a myth but the arguments live on. The BBC among others did an expose of this in 2007.

The take away: find something tangible

If you are communicating to external or other non-specialist audiences, including tangible items – examples you can picture – is a very simple way to make an argument more memorable or sticky.

Blue passportBlue passportIn a recent training my colleague Catherine Cross compared a description of a company that was doing the rounds on LinkedIn with a quote about engineering from former BP CEO Lord Browne. Both are attempting to explain a professional concept. But we think Lord Browne wins hands down because he gives examples that people can visualise and this is much more powerful than a lot of conceptual words.

Professional cerebral people are often deeply reluctant to add these tangible words to their prepared arguments because they think it makes them look stupid or they think it’s irrelevant and unnecessary. We think tangible elements are hugely valuable in any argument and should be shoe-horned in at any opportunity.

Create a picture in people’s minds and your argument is more likely to be remembered.

The Media Coach is constantly involved in helping companies and organisations create ‘sticky’ messages. If your organisation needs help with please do give us a call on 020 70992212.

For a previous blog on the key elements of prepared messages see our earlier blog: 8 tips for professional communicators. 

 

 

Blue passport photo used under Creative Comms licence.

 

Developing messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing?

Journalists often accuse the PR world of ‘navel-gazing’ when developing messages and trying to sell-in stories. While working in various BBC newsrooms I often took calls from people trying to sell me a story by saying “This is really interesting…” Unfortunately, most of the time it was interesting to them but of little relevance to a wider audience.

Well, this week the boot has been on the other foot. Journalists have found the silencing of  Big Ben interesting but the rest of the country less so. The Big Ben story went on and on for nearly a week. But apart from those inside the Westminster bubble, does anyone really care?

developing messages

Big Ben will remain silent for the next four years – a story that had extensive coverage for more than a week. But who really cares?

Perhaps one reason it got so much coverage is because it’s the so-called ‘silly season’ when journalists sometimes struggle to fill newspapers and bulletins.

Here are some questions to ask when developing angles and messages to sell into journalists.

Developing messages: Ask is the story timely?

In other words is it about an issue of the moment, next week’s news rather than last week’s. Clearly, Big Ben passed this test. Most of the coverage happened before it fell silent not afterwards.

Developing messages: Is your story relevant to people’s lives?

Do your messages pass the ‘So What’ test? In the case of Big Ben, most people have heard of it, so the news it will be silent for most of the next four years might be of some interest. But many people I’ve spoken to outside London remarked that they didn’t really care and found a week of coverage over the top, because it was irrelevant to their daily lives.

When developing key messages and selling-in stories, look for ways to make the story relevant to multiple audiences.

One good example of how to take engineering out of the laboratory and make it relevant was the recent story about replacing concrete blocks in washing machines with water.

Roger Harrabin is a BBC environment analyst (we used to call them reporters).  The first line of his washing machine story is a perfect illustration of the second element you need when selling-in a story to journalists: can you sum up why it matters in one sentence? He wrote:

“A simple device to cut the weight of washing machines could save fuel, cut carbon emissions and reduce back injuries, according to researchers”. Now that clearly passes the ‘So What’ test? Journalists will respond better if you think the way they do and ‘cut to the chase’.

Developing messages: Have you joined the dots?

We understand, this approach is often at odds with the way many people think. An engineer once said in a media training session “You have to understand that, as engineers, we are trained that the facts should speak for themselves”. This, unfortunately, demonstrates exactly why selling-in stories, developing key messages or answering questions in a media interview can go so badly wrong. When speaking to busy journalists don’t fall into the ‘too obvious to mention’ trap: you have to connect the dots and (concisely) spell out the point you want to make and why it matters.

Of course, once you have the journalist’s attention it then really helps if you can back it up with a story, metaphor, anecdotes or proof points to bring your point to life.

A final example of effective communication – making it real – comes from Lord Browne, formerly of BP, who said in a recent talk that “engineering is about creating solutions to humanities most pressing challenges – whether it’s building a bridge, finding new treatments for cancer or tackling climate change”.

You can’t argue with that!

If you want more on this subject Robert Matthews blogged last year about a scientific study that was adapted to fit the Ted Talk formula. The talk was called ‘Can you really tell if a kid is lying’. The blog is here and the Ted Talk is here. 

Photo credit: Big Ben used under Creative Comms licence.