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News Management – the Brexit Deal Case Study

News Management is something we are going to be very aware of in the UK in the next couple of weeks. By all accounts ‘Selling the Brexit Deal’ is going to be a full-on political campaign.

The Prime Minister, having finally and somewhat amazingly ‘got a deal’ with the European Union, now has the daunting task of getting it through Parliament. This make-or-break parliamentary vote will take place on December 11th, just two weeks away.

News Management

PR Blitz is Planned

Before that, we are told, Theresa May will embark on a tour of the home nations followed by Question Time in the Commons and many more media appearances including a possible TV debate with or without Jeremy Corbyn.  (See the Telegraph headline here: Theresa May demands Brexit TV debate with Jeremy Corbyn as PM begins campaign to win Commons vote on deal.)

News Management

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn may be invited to debate the Brexit Deal with The Prime Minister in a TV debate.

News Management Project of Highest Order

Co-ordinating all this activity, having a plan but also responding as things happen, trying to win hearts and minds, is a news management project of the highest order. In this day and age it is also 24/7. I notice the Number 10 rebuttal of Trump’s unhelpful comments last night was out very early this morning. News management is both proactive and reactive.

Media Training does not teach News Management

People often call us to ask for Media Training when what they need is News Management training. Typically, such calls come from entrepreneurs, CEOs of smaller organisations or people who have come from some other professional background, but now have PR or media in their title and are not quite sure what the job entails.  I usually try and point these people in the direction of a professional PR person or agency.

Established PR people see Media Training as having broadly two uses: Firstly, the preparation for new spokespeople as they step into a senior business role that may require them to speak to the media. Secondly, something that is available to top up that basic training and help individuals prepare for a particular launch or issue or interview. (The Media Coach team also offer something different than this, which is Facilitated Message Building, related to but not the same as Media Training.)

In the case of ‘the Brexit Deal’, news management is the job of Robbie Gibb, the PM’s Communications Chief. I wrote about his appointment here last year and have been waiting for his behind-the-scenes role to become more public. Now maybe the time.

I quote here from Monday’s POLITICO London playbook, written by Jack Blanchard, which drops into my inbox every morning.

Blitz Spirit: Theresa May returns to the Commons today to face another extended mauling from MPs over her newly minted Brexit deal. 

….

It marks the start of the next phase of the big No. 10 PR blitz to try to sell this Brexit deal to MPs and the wider public, which has already seen the PM endure two three-hour stints in the Commons, two live radio phone-ins, two press conferences, two speeches, two jaunts to Brussels and sit-down interviews with Sky News and Remoaner bible the Daily Mail.

Team sports: Before this afternoon’s expected Commons marathon, May will first convene a rare Monday morning Cabinet meeting to brief her senior ministers on yesterday’s summit. The meeting is expected to include a presentation from May’s director of comms Robbie Gibb on how to sell the deal on the airwaves over the next two weeks.

It is Robbie Gibbs who will be the guiding hand behind this frenzy of activity from Number 10 and he won’t just be coordinating the PM’s media appearances but that of all the loyal cabinet members too. It’s a big job.

No Hard Sell

From a PR perspective, the one thing you can guarantee is that most outlets will say yes to having face time with the PM. No one is having to do a hard sell to get the boss in front of the cameras on this one.

 

Corbyn photo from Flickr – Credit Gary Knight used under creative comms licence.

May feature photo from Flickr – Credit DonkeyHotey used under creative comms licence.

 

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!

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.