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Feature hostage to fortune

Hostage to fortune: 20 thousand deaths would be ‘a good outcome’

The phrase ‘hostage to fortune’ is an English idiom which we use a lot in media training. Experts of all sorts are prone – when asked their opinion – to give it, as best they can. It is utterly reasonable but in the public domain often ill-advised.

As most people will know the phrase ‘hostage to fortune’ means something that will cause difficulties in the future. This is a particular risk with journalists who are always looking for a story and in particular evidence of failure or disappointing outcomes. Being too precise in a prediction can play right into their hands. And of course, any big bold numbers will always be a potential headline.

hostage to fortune

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, faced questions from the Health and Social Care Committee on Tuesday 17 March 2020

Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser, was asked on 17th March – by Jeremy Hunt MP – to outline how many deaths could be expected from coronavirus. He explained that 20,000 deaths would be ‘a good outcome’. (He was careful to say this was horrible and ‘an awful thing to have to predict’. He did not forget to show empathy.) This was a select committee rather than an interview, but I thought at the time that he might live to regret being quite so precise.

A few days ago the number of hospital deaths from coronavirus passed the 20,000 mark and, as all would expect, this was a focus of much of the questioning and the coverage. Does the fact that we passed 20,000 mean the strategy should have been different? etc.

Of course, those questions would have come and will come in the future anyway. But it is a good illustration of the principle: Give a prediction and then fail to meet it is a sure way to get a negative headline.

hostage to fortune

Health Secretary Matt Hancock

A similar but different example is Matt Hancock’s promise on the 2nd April to be able to provide 100,000 coronavirus tests a day, by the end of this week. However, while this may, in the end, prove an embarrassment or at least another ‘failure’ headline, this number was not given by accident. Hancock is a seasoned politician and he did not make this promise casually. Many at the time believed the promise was rash but he appears to have deliberately set what is called in the jargon a ‘stretch goal’. Clearly, he felt it would concentrate minds and demonstrate commitment. Some credit the target with reversing a sense of government ‘drift’.

There should be no absolute ban on spokespeople sharing targets, internal goals, or just a personal assessment. But those speaking in public need to understand that what might have been a ‘finger in the wind’ type guess by an expert – can seem so much more definite and considered when it turns up in a headline.

A new PR term: Astroturfing
I learnt a new word this week: astroturfing. In the US, there is a suspicion that protests against the coronavirus lockdown may not be spontaneous grassroots-led protests but have in some way been orchestrated by right-wing lobby groups. Apparently creating something that looks like a grassroots movement when it is not is called – astroturfing! Who knew?

 

Image of Sir Patrick Vallance – YouTube
Image of Matt Hancock – Wikimedia

Political gaffes: Don’t show your briefs

Political gaffes: Don’t show your briefs

Don’t show your briefs, Jeremy! The Health Secretary’s recent gaffe highlights the importance of preparing briefing documents but not sharing them with the world!

Political gaffes: Don’t show your briefs

What is it with Government ministers and briefing papers?

Why is it on the (often short) walk between Number 10 and ministerial car, or Government department and meeting venue, they let the content of papers – regularly carried unprotected under the arm – become visible to all and sundry?

Especially when the ‘sundry’ concerned is press photographers with long-range lenses, easily capable of picking up the contents of A4 sheets of paper with words in a standard 12-font.

The latest in a long line of MPs to allow this to happen was Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was snapped earlier this week holding notes he and his team had prepared on Brexit. One italicized line, in particular, stood out: ‘Hard Brexit means people fleeing UK’. Whilst Jeremy Hunt campaigned to remain in the European Union, it’s hard to believe that this was his own view – particularly as leaving the single market and customs union is official Government policy.

Preparation is good

I am going to make a small leap here but I am pretty sure this was a briefing document containing examples of criticism or tough questions Hunt might hear from opponents in the Chamber of Commons. What is written underneath will be his prepared response – what we at The Media Coach call ‘reactive lines.’

These are an essential for Ministers but also an important part of planning for a media interview. They ensure the interviewee is fully prepared for the type of difficult questions, which he or she might be asked, and will have practiced answering them when it comes to the interview itself.

It is not just about the questions

Of course, as highlighted earlier in Lindsay’s blog – your focus in a media interview should not be solely on questions you expect the media to ask. Such an approach leaves you on the back-foot, only ever responding to the enquirer, rather than proactively making statements reflecting the point of view that you are trying to get across. Anyway, the truth is that no amount of preparation can guarantee to predict every possible stance the media may choose to take – from the unintentionally irrelevant to the unexpectedly left-field.

Helping spokespeople and their PR teams craft the ‘reactive lines’ and stress test them is very much part of what we do in any event-focussed media training. It is usually a lot easier than people realise and there are many tried and tested formulas for answers to tricky questions.

In short, Q&A documents have their place. Indeed, they are an essential part of an effective media strategy. However, preparing messages and knowing how to land them is even more important. But don’t let the written evidence of your preparations go on show to the outside world.

Some links

Here are a couple of relevant links for further reading

What is a Q and A document – useful how to for PR novices.

Another take on how to write key messages (but our message house system is much more comprehensive than this!)

A list of journalist common question types