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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

 

PR Basics

PR Basics: Don’t overpromise  

PR basics include a rule that you don’t promise something you may not be able to deliver. If there was one outstanding headline from last week’s UK budget it was that the Tories had broken a promise not to raise National Insurance. Chancellor, Philip Hammond announced in the budget on Wednesday measures that included a tax rise for the self-employed despite the previous manifesto promise not to do so.

PR Basics, Philip Hammond

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to have broken a manifesto promise not to increase National Insurance

According to the Guardian newspaper: ‘The Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto was unequivocal, promising four times that a Tory government would not increase National Insurance. It did not mention the self-employed and offered future chancellors no wriggle room.’

PR Basics: Avoid public U-turns if possible

For us, the PR Rule broken here is don’t say something that you might later have to backtrack on.

If we want another hugely damaging example from politics we have only to remember the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto promise to scrap tuition fees. This was an election promise made before they found themselves in a coalition with a Tory party.  Personally, I feel that makes a material difference but the electorate is much less forgiving and the tuition fees broken promise seems to have ruined the career of Nick Clegg, one of the most able politicians of his generation. Not to mention wiping out the LibDem presence in the House of Commons. 

PR Basics

Even incorrect forecasting can be damaging. During the Brexit debate in the UK, those who argued the markets would ‘punish’ the UK if Vote Leave were to win, have since been publically lambasted because their predictions did not (fully) materialise. The public often does not make the distinction between a forecast – a best guess about the future – and a firm warning of what might happen. (My mother constantly rails against the weather forecast, which she says is ‘always wrong’. No amount of me pointing out it is a ‘forecast’ and not a promise makes any difference. These people are ‘misleading’ her.)

PR Basics: Avoid any ‘hostage to fortune’ 

Businesses too can fall foul of overpromising. Way back when, I clearly remember the, to me, avoidable pressure on the Chief Executive (later Chairman) of Rentokil who had overpromised. Sir Clive Thompson was always described as the ‘self-styled Mr. 20%’. I am not sure who used the phrase first but Sir Clive was certainly not unhappy with it. He delivered something like 20% growth in Rentokil profits every year for 13 years! But when in 1999 he moved to lower the target investors took their revenge. Even as a journalist I thought Sir Clive crazy to set this near impossible target for himself. He was ‘kicked upstairs’ to Chairman and finally ousted in 2004, apparently for ‘being too obsessed with meeting short-term targets’.  It seemed he could not detach himself from the Mr. 20% label.

It is something we come across often in training. Enthusiastic executives of course have a vision they are working toward. But while talking in broad brush strokes is fine, often it does not do to share the detail of that vision with journalists. The media just love to write that people or companies have ‘missed’ their target, done a U-turn or a flip-flop.

PR Basics

Executives are often tempted to overpromise in an interview

 PR Basics: Highfalutin promises can cause negative headlines 

Good PR people always caution against this. They know that being too clear about targets or making highfalutin promises can often cause negative headlines further down the line. Here is an incomplete list of mundane things we would advise against being too definite about.

  • There will be no further job losses. Who knows there might have to be?
  • We are expecting 20% growth in sales/profits etc. You might be confident but such a public prediction turns a 10% increase into a failure.
  • We want to be number one in the market within two years. Better to say one of the leading players in the market.
  • We expect to be profitable by Q4 2018. This is a difficult one because it is the sort of information you have to share with investors and therefore it may already be in the public domain. My advice would be not to lie if asked outright – stupid if it’s already published – but if possible not draw attention to it in media interviews, and if asked be cautious about it rather than bullish. If it is a major important element of a story that won’t help but hubris is easy to spot and may lead to mischief from the journalist. All in all, this would be more of a judgment call and our advice would depend on what else you have to say.
  • Margins are set to rise to 25%. Here again being vague is the standard. Unless they are published in your annual accounts you may be best to avoid talk of margins. Again you may have an internal forecast but is there really any benefit to being specific?

PR Basics: There are always exceptions

As with all rules, there are exceptions. I have taken part in discussions where CEO’s or other senior bods have weighed up the pros and cons of a ‘hostage to fortune’ pledge and decided to take the risk  – because the benefits outweighed the possible costs.  That is sensible and their prerogative.

Often our role is to bolster the PR advice and ensure ‘enthusiastic’ interviewees don’t make casual public promises or forecasts without understanding this basic rule of PR: avoid a hostage to fortune comment unless there is a very good reason not to.

Don’t forget, if we can help you prepare your spokespeople for a public announcement – results, product launch or a new direction – give us a call 020 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

Photo used under Creative Commons Licence

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The Wealth of Language

Will Self is one of Britain’s most idiosyncratic journalists.  Most popular writers would think twice before using words like rodomontade, juvenescent, irenic or febrillity in a 10-minute radio blog (Jan 15th). Think twice, and then delete them, substituting more common alternatives – bluster, rejuvenated, peaceful and feverishness.

The Wealth of Language

Journalist Will Self

And most popular writers would be right. Communication, especially in our hectic modern age, is all about reaching the largest possible audience in a form which is easy and pleasant to absorb. Spoken or written, it’s all the same.

The Wealth of Language: Keep it Simple

The advice most commonly given is to Keep it Simple – use common, everyday language, avoid complex terminology and grammatical structures, keep your sentences short.

Simple, however, does not mean dull, and we can learn a lot from Will Self in that respect. One of the pleasures of listening to him is enjoying the skill with which he deploys the enormous resources of the English language. He uses the breadth and depth of the language beautifully, with a wide range of better-known vocabulary and a wealth of cultural and political references.

English is an enormously rich language and if we want to keep our audience engaged and, when appropriate, stir their emotions, we need to use it imaginatively. So:

  • avoid repetitions of the same word. Use synonyms. If you have referred to “hens” a couple of times, try “chickens”, “poultry” or simply “birds”.  If you have already used “reform”, try “improve”, “upgrade”, “enhance”, “redesign”, re-make” – any number of alternatives.
  • steer clear of that bland, bureaucratic style of language whose over-use so irritates the general public. Address envelopes, not issues. Appeal to people, don’t reach out to them.  
  • throw in references to events or people that all of your audience will find familiar.  Add richness to your message with a mention of Mozart or Julius Caesar, Beyoncé or David Bowie, Nine-Eleven or the Brexit vote, Lionel Messi or Tiger Woods, the 2008 Crash or the Greek debt crisis.  
  • vary the tone. We always encourage you to illustrate any point you make with an example, usually involving individual people and often from your own experience. This is a good opportunity for a change of tone, make it personal, wield that most powerful of words – “I”.

If you or your team would like help with some of these elements or other ways to tighten up your grammar, enrich your writing style or lift your corporate writing from the mundane, the Media Coach can offer short, bespoke workshops.

There is always something that can be improved, even if we cannot hope to have you writing with the mastery of a Will Self, a writer who blends serious messages with a familiar, personal style that entertains while it informs.

Incidentally, it is important also to note that when he slips in words like recondite or factic, you can usually tell from the context roughly what is meant. He does not put them out in a vacuum. You may not get all the subtlety of a certain word, but you get the general drift.

To less talented writers – and that is virtually all of us – who are tempted to reach for the dictionary for some rarely used language, we simply say: “Don’t try this at home”.

Photo used under creative comms licence

How to survive a TV debate, David Cameron

How to survive a TV debate 1: Cameron the smooth

Those wanting to study how to survive a TV debate could do a lot worse than dissect the performance of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a high-profile, live-grilling on Sky News. However, the headlines Cameron got after his one hour marathon by both a political correspondent out to make his name and a live audience, were universally negative. The Week ran ‘Cameron mauled by TV audience’ and most of the coverage focused on a rather rude student who accused the PM of ‘waffling’.

You can watch the whole one hour here.

How to survive a TV debate: Cameron did an excellent job

All of which seems unjust if not plain misleading. Not normally a fan of Cameron I have to say I think he did an excellent job. He was superbly well briefed, he did not get caught out by any question, from either the correspondent Faisal Islam or the audience. I am pleased to see that I am not completely alone in my assessment. Rather begrudgingly, the Chief Political Commentator for the Independent newspaper at least, agreed with me as you can read here.

How to survive a TV debate: anticipate the tough questions

For students of the PR lesson, it is important to understand that one of the tricks of the journalist is to find a damning nugget of information and then go on and on about it. If the question hasn’t been anticipated the interviewee is left struggling to confidently and credibly answer. The problem is, of course, that there are a huge number of possible ‘damning nuggets’. Faisal Islam started with the manifesto promise from 6 years ago that net migration would be reduced to tens rather than hundreds of thousands, something that the government has failed to deliver on. He moved on to the recent promise that VAT would not rise and noted that the European Court of Justice had overruled a UK law that made solar panels VAT free, suggesting that UK government did not have sovereign control over its VAT rules. He also tried to challenge the Prime Minister with the number of times that the EU Council of Ministers had over-ruled the British government. None of these were questions the Prime Minister looked surprised by or did not have a clear response to. He dismissed the last as a ‘totally spurious figure’ before Islam could actually say it.

Once the set piece political interview was over the PM faced a studio audience. The problem with responding to a public audience is they are, by definition, very diverse and you have even less idea what is coming up. Cameron faced questions about issues as unrelated to the debate as the funding of mental health and his previous pronouncements on the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Again he had clear credible arguments to all of these questions.

How to survive a TV debate: use examples

The Prime Minister not only answered questions credibly but repeatedly landed his main message, that leaving the EU would be ‘an act of economic self harm’; he used lots of examples to back up his points. He talked about why Britain sells no beef or lamb to the US (no trade deal), how the UK’s car industry currently sells all over Europe but outside the EU it would be likely to face a 10% tariff. He also explained that it is easy now for someone from Bolton making fan belts to sell them to all 28 countries, rather than outside the EU trying to meet 27 different sets of rules.

How to survive a TV debate: stay polite

When dealing with the audience he was endlessly polite. The question from the student who accused him of waffling was incoherent and much more waffly than the answer. And despite her rudeness the Prime Minister did his best to answer her.

I saw no evidence of mauling.

I do happen to agree that the missing bit from the whole Remain campaign has been an articulation of the positive vision for a better functioning EU. But this cannot be a mistake. The campaign must be polling, researching which arguments play well, and must be concluding that the positive vision piece just doesn’t work. Perhaps the EU fails in so many ways it is better to not draw attention to what it could do and could achieve.

The question remains, if the Prime Minister did such a good job why did he get negative coverage for the debate and why did it not get ‘cut through’.

The answer, I suggest, is that no one believes anything he says. This is not just Cameron’s problem. It is a problem throughout the world. Since the financial crisis of 2008 cynicism about politicians in power and anything that can be called the establishment has never been higher, at least in the countries commonly called ‘the west’. In the wider Brexit debate there is an endless call for real facts and yet every attempt to deliver serious analysis, projected numbers or explanations are dismissed as unreliable or untrue. It is difficult to see how democracy is going to adapt to this new reality.

professional blog guidelines

Professional blog guidelines from a grumpy journalist

These professional blog guidelines are provoked by a sense of annoyance and frustration.

Blogs have become a major channel of communication for outward facing organisations of all sorts but too many ignore the basic rules of good writing. So I have put together professional blog guidelines for the sort of blogs I read for work: blogs about pension rule changes, customer service, consumer rights and employee engagement.

professional blog guidelines

Here are my professional blogging tips.

Professional blog guidelines: focus is everything

  • As a journalist my colleagues and I were taught to identify the top-line or the angle of a story. In most news-writing this appears clearly as the first paragraph and the headline. That may not be necessary in a blog but the writer must know what the key point of the article is. And they should know this before they start typing!
  • Stick to one message per blog. A professional blog should not try to deal with more than one key point. Don’t shoehorn in six loosely related thoughts.  Make one point clearly and with supporting arguments. Save the other five thoughts for another day.
  • Read it aloud to yourself. This is the professional way to check the punctuation is correct and everything makes sense.

Professional blog guidelines: short sentences, short paragraphs, just short!

  • Keep it short. The guidance on this is a bit mixed as there is some evidence that high quality long blogs are read and shared more than short ones However, I would rarely read a 2,000 word blog and I am much more inclined to read shorter ones. 500 words seems to me a good length unless you have a lot of important data to share.
  • Short sentences are preferable to long ones. Limit the number of sub clauses.
  • Short paragraphs are favoured by readers, particularly those reading on their phones.

Professional blog guidelines: blogs versus documents

Here we start to depart from the basic rules of good writing into some blog specifics.

  • Identify your key words and put them in bold. This is not so much for the reader as for the search engine robots. There is a whole science of how to appeal to the ‘bots’ and it is not the subject of this article. My concern is that once I have found a blog I want to read, I can get through it with out grinding my teeth and wanting to start editing it.
  • Include links. Links to other web resources are the great advantage of blogs over documents. One click reveals supplementary material for the reader who cares but keeps the main body uncluttered for those just scanning.
  • Consider whether you should use the first person – by which I mean should you use the ‘I’ word. g. ‘I was thinking yesterday…’ or ‘I wondered…’  This is certainly more acceptable in a blog than in other types of professional document but I observe that it’s falling by the wayside somewhat, as professional blogging becomes part of the mainstream.

Professional blog guidelines: check, check and check again

  • Remember blogs live forever! Well, maybe not strictly true but they may well still appear in online searches in 10 years time. So check, check and check again before you publish. Of course, unlike 20th century publishing you can go back and correct a mistake after you have published.

Professional blog buidelines: other resources

Here are some good professional blogs:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/academy

huffingtonpost.com

drudgereport.com

Here are some more good sites about blogging

http://allindiewriters.com/about/

http://blog.thewholebraingroup.com/sensible-blogging-checklist-infographic

copyblogger.com

Allsorts 23

In defence of clichés

Allsorts-23-300x211Clients often express horror and disgust at the idea of using a cliché in an interview. They feel, as serious professionals, that they should not be using what they see as trite, overused and near meaningless phrases to talk about their important issues.

Well, there are some clichés I hate and would never use but in general I find clichés very useful.

Divided team

This is a subject that divides Media Coach trainers. Some of these professional wordsmiths, whose writing skills were honed at Reuters and the BBC, are reluctant to write anything that might be seen as ‘lazy’. Others, like me, are delighted when technical people can tell their story in colloquial language.

Arrogance

A knee jerk dismissal of clichés is, for me, an arrogance of the chattering classes.  Cliché’s communicate meaning quickly and in a way that is familiar and inclined to provoke empathy. Clearly that is not true if it is your pet hate cliché (mine is ‘at the end of the day’ which I once counted 17 times in one interview on Radio 4.) But phrases such as,

‘It’s like buses, nothing for an hour then three come all at once’
or
‘Horses for courses’
or
‘There is no one size fits all’
or
‘There’s a time and place for such things’

All of these are instantly recognised in the UK and communicate meaning very quickly.

Owned by the people

Madeleine1

Trainer Madeleine Holt believes acceptable clichés have to be in common parlance

My colleague, Madeleine Holt, says clichés are bad news unless they ‘owned by the people and routed in our history and common parlance’. She cites ‘don’t rob Peter to pay Paul’ as being a good example. She avoids, in messaging, anything that echoes known ‘spun’ phrases. So ‘Education, Education, Education’ she sees as having strong echoes of the Blair era of spin and therefore to be avoided at all costs. Similarly, we would probably all agree that ‘green shoots of recovery’ should not be used because when Norman Lamont used it he was lying, or perhaps misguided. Either way the folk memory has negative connotations.

Laura Shields in Brussels wrote a whole blog on how ‘game-changer’ was a grossly overused and now a meaningless phrase. I happen to completely disagree with her!

Oliver Wates, once a senior editorial figure in Reuters and our go-to person on written style, is inclined to wield the red pen when it comes to clichés.

Judicious

Despite the prejudices of these very clever people I will continue to advocate the judicious use of clichés and why – because I am always seeing my carefully chosen phrases in the write up of my clients interviews. Journalists are actually very predictable and rarely turn down a good cliché.

Why we all need an elevator pitch

Why we all need an elevator pitch

I have come to the conclusion that each of us who represent our business to the outside world, however that is defined, needs to have a honed and perfected elevator pitch.

What is an elevator pitch?

It is a succinct, thought-through and rehearsed explanation of what the business does.

Why do we need one?

Why we all need an elevator pitch 2

Can you describe your company in the time it takes to move between floors in an elevator?

Because the world is complicated and we all assume too often that others completely understand where we are coming from and what we do. Most people interviewed at the start of media training make daft assumptions about the knowledge of the journalist. Once this is pointed out, it is obvious but it is not just relevant for journalists. I am always using my elevator pitch when introduced to new people. I lengthen or shorten it depending on the circumstances.

What are the elements?

I think the elements are first an overview or helicopter view. ‘We sell software that helps people cut their use of paper and save money’ or ‘we provide a wide range of personal and business insurance for the UK market’ etc. Second a bit of detail e.g. size of the business, number of employees, range of contracts, key clients etc. and finally an example of a good piece of work you have done.

Do I need to include the history of the business?

I believe the history of the organisation is only relevant if it is memorable and interesting. If it was started in a cow shed in 1901 or was the brainchild of an astronaut, use it, otherwise don’t bother.

Why is the overview so important?

Because detail makes no sense to people if you don’t provide a frame for it. Once you have the frame you can hang different things on it, but you need the frame.

Why so much emphasis on numbers?

Numbers allow people to understand scale, whether that’s scale of an operation, scale of the growth, scale of the potential market. Without scale, people are left wondering or guessing.

Do you really need examples?

Never miss the examples, they are always the things people will remember after they forget the overview and the numbers.

Warning! Do not try to be all things to all people!

Sounds daft but this is such a common mistake. A story I often tell from the early 2000’s when I was media training a start-up in the dot-com boom.

Me: ‘What is your website for?’
CEO: (aged 22): ‘It’s for all sorts of things, all sorts.’
Me: ‘Okay, what sort of people do you envisage visiting your website?’
CEO: ‘All sorts of people’
Me: ‘So, what might prompt them to visit the site?’
CEO: ‘Oh, all sorts of things!’

I left after three hours none the wiser what this company planned to do (of course, it is possible they didn’t know either which is a different problem.) Much better to give an idea and then layer in further information later if you get the chance.

Warning! Avoid positive bland!

This is another major problem. People think it is impressive to say ‘we provide a great service for our customers’, ‘we help clients become more efficient’, ‘we help make staff more productive’. No detail and only positives means it is unconvincing propaganda. You might as well not bother.

Warning! Do not use the org chart unless you have a diagram!

People are tempted to explain how many division and subdivisions there are in the company. This really will bore the pants off anybody and is difficult to hold in your head unless it is very simple (e.g. two divisions, one UK and one European focused) or you happen to have a diagram to hand.

We ran a competition at a conference (ECS 2015) last year asking people to do their elevator pitch to camera. We called it the Message in a Minute challenge. Even PR professionals found it remarkably difficult to do it well. Here is an example from our trained friend: how do you think she did?

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5 Golden Rules for doing a good local radio interview

BBC-local-radio-radio-norfolk2-300x169Local radio is a great British institution and widely listened to. My first job as a journalist was with BBC Radio Norfolk and I have many fond memories. This week I have been training an ‘expert’ to handle local radio interviews and it has prompted me to pull together these Golden Rules.

1. No business, technical or financial language

I know we go on about this all the time and think it is also important to speak to technical trade press in as simple a way as possible but it is very, very important on local radio. If you use professional lingo you will likely be cut short and not be invited back.

2. Give useful information

You will rarely, if ever, be invited on to local radio to advertise your product. But you will be invited to share useful information. Journalists accept that a bit of subtle branding is the price they often pay in return for an entertaining and informative speaker. So, if you want to sell your ISA (individual savings account) you may be able to negotiate a slot explaining what an ISA is, why it is relevant and why everyone thinks about ISA’s at the turn of the financial year. What do I mean by subtle branding? You could say ‘there are lots of good rates out there this year, for example ours is 3.2%’. But you should not say: ‘we have the best rate in the market, transfer your money to us’.

BBC-world-Service-credit2-300x2013. Make it local

Journalists working on local (and regional) radio need to make every story relevant to their audience. Look for ways to mention local towns, local high streets (e.g. we have a branch in St Peters Place in Norwich) or local personalities. If you are talking about research, ask your experts to pull out some regional trends or anomalies. This can be challenging if you do a radio day – lots of interviews back to back – but the trick is to have something locally relevant for each interview.

4. Be prepared to join the party

Some but not all local radio shows mix current affairs with a jovial party atmosphere. You can get asked about your holiday, your funny accent or your thoughts on a new runway at Heathrow. The best guests are able to answer such questions with a light touch but without getting into trouble and then wait for their own subject to be introduced properly.

5. Keep it short and sweet

Your local radio interview is likely to be three minutes or less. It may even be two minutes. As a rule of thumb your answers in a BBC local radio interview should be 40 seconds long, in a commercial radio interview more like 20 seconds. Of course you should not sit there with a stopwatch but just be aware that you will have to be able to get the story into a very short amount of time. The only way we know to do this well is to prepare what you want to say and rehearse it before an interview.

Local radio is fun and a great training ground if you want to go on to be a fully fledged media tart.

Photo Radio Studio Licence:creative comms from flickr