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.
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.
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