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Coronavirus Communications – PM could do better, a lot better

Coronavirus communications from the government are being scrutinised by the entire population. I was deeply concerned by Boris Johnson’s performance during yesterday’s press briefing. As my phone went berserk in the aftermath it became clear I wasn’t alone.

Coronavirus communications image

I got texts from friends who were confused by the PM’s announcements, a call from a pub owner who was defiant about closing and messages from parents who felt none the wiser about when schools will shutdown.

Summing it all up was a former colleague who is managing the news-desk of one of Britain’s main national broadcasters:

“That was a f&*%ing car crash”.

Maybe a tad harsh, but he’s right that Boris should be doing far, far better.

A meticulous coronavirus communications strategy, containing carefully crafted messages, is hard to do when things are moving so fast. But it is absolutely vital. There is simply no room for vagueness, ambiguity or improvisation and I think Johnson failed on all three of those measures and just couldn’t resist the urge to wing it.

Effective crisis comms relies on giving clear, decisive, detailed information in the right tone. But that is not what we heard on Monday.

Urging people not to go to bars and restaurants without actually closing them – or being on the front foot about what provision you will make for the hospitality industry – was a confused and confusing message. It generated ill will among landlords and the catering trade, who feel hung out to dry in relation to their insurance, and judging from the pubs I went past last night was counter productive anyway.

That clanger has been widely covered this morning but what worried me just as much was the way that Johnson responded to reporters’ questions towards the end of the briefing. He was asked what he would do to help low income households, a question which gave him the perfect opportunity to land a reassuring message along the lines of “we are all in this together and people will not be left stranded”.

Instead, he responded by talking about improvements the Conservatives have made to the living wage, a party political response which was totally out of place.

He was then asked about the broader impact on the economy and talked about it “roaring back” within months, a sub Trumpian response which seemed neither rehearsed or reassuring.

I agreed with the Guardian’s snap verdict, which said the “roaring back quote came over as naïve utopianism”, and concluded “Johnson made a reasonably good fist of explaining what his proposals were but there was an enormous gap in the statement that a more experienced or strategic prime minister would have addressed”.

What’s required in this sort of situation is discipline and sobriety, traits which whatever your political persuasion is not what Johnson is renowned for and his performance confirmed what were already growing concerns yesterday about his and the government’s communication strategy.

These weren’t helped by the reports, which haven’t been denied by Number 10, that Johnson had made a joke during a conference call to manufacturers regarding the emergency production of ventilators that it could be called Operation Last Gasp.

One of the golden rules of any engagement with the media is to be very careful about any attempt at humour but what this proved was that the PM needs to realise that he needs to avoid careless or flippant comments in any situation in the current crisis.

There have been some good decisions. Ending the self-imposed ban on ministers appearing on the Today Programme was right and necessary.

Flanking Johnson with scientists Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance was a smart move, not only does it portray that the government are no longer sick of hearing from experts, it also gives Johnson foils to whom he can refer questions that require scientific authority, detail never having been his strength. What is his strength is he can deliver a message with authority in a way that gives the press what they need to tell the story the government needs to circulate. Johnson’s use of the line “I must level with the British public” last Thursday showed what he can do when he’s prepped and disciplined. Let’s hope the clarifications come swiftly and the lessons have been learnt.

The Media Coach team have now switched to providing training and coaching online. Clients planning their own coronavirus communications are booking in two hour slots of Skype, Zoom or Webex coaching. If you think spokespeople need coaching before talking to the media or staff – or if they are to do videos – we can help. We can also provide camera operators in London, the South East and the Midlands if should they be needed. Call us on +44 (0)20 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

risk communications

Risk Communications: COVID-19 case study

Risk communications is in my view is incredibly difficult. In the world of professional communications, it is one of the hardest things to get right. COVID-19 or Coronavirus is going to provide an interesting case study in how to effectively communicate risk (or how not to). And lesson one might usefully be the Prime Minister’s press conference this week.

risk communications feature

First the problem: Scientists and statisticians understand risk as a probability. There is a 20% chance of x happening means: possible but not very likely while an 85% chance means: really quite likely but not certain.

However, most people do not think as clearly as this. And in general, they are encouraged by journalists, especially tabloid journalists, to read low risk as a likelihood. [I strongly recommend Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise, if you want to understand this more clearly’. Since reading it I have become a student of Bayesian thinking.]

As a result, ‘over-reaction’ or ‘panic’ can easily be triggered by too much information. And if, as an organisation facing a problem, you know the press is going to over-react the temptation is not to provide information.

However, in public life, if you don’t come clean about risks you lay yourself open to charges of ‘white-washing’ or lack of transparency. This destroys trust.

So, for the government, this is a case where too much information, the wrong tone or a misspeak could cause or add to the panic. Too little information and it risks being accused of a cover-up.

The unusual Number 10 press conference on 3rd March may have looked calm and professional, but all three men knew they were walking that particular tightrope. It is a very good watch for students of risk communications.

 

Here are my take-aways:

  • The choice of people at the podium was crucial. We had the Prime Minister, the Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Witty, and the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. These were very senior, obviously clever advisors. They stood either side of the Prime Minister giving a very nice image of support.
  • Both advisers constantly referred to the data and to modelling. They made it absolutely clear that they were sharing science, not opinion. I loved the point where Professor Witty said ‘The behavioural science shows that in times of crisis the British public demonstrates extraordinary altruism’. Even when saying people will help each other he felt the need to refer to science!
  • Despite the brainpower of the two advisers, there was absolutely no use of jargon. This looks effortless but I am certain it was really difficult. These men will have spent the last three weeks in technical briefings by data and health scientists. Having been in a few of those meetings myself I can tell you that the jargon will have been impenetrable. But also, as contagious as the virus itself.
  • Key points were stressed time and again. The importance of washing hands was not considered too prosaic for these great brains to pronounce on. And to repeat.
  • No question was dodged – except perhaps the one about the PM taking paternity leave. This gave a very clear impression of transparency. In fact, there were several questions that weren’t answered but in each case one of the spokesmen said either ‘we are not going to answer’ or ‘we can’t speak about that at this stage’. In media training, I am constantly reminding people that they must at least acknowledge the question before adding or changing the subject.
  • There was no repetition of the journalists’ sensational language. It was predictably the Daily Mail journalist who invited comparison with a war effort. However, the Prime Minister decided not to accept the invitation! All three spokespeople were careful to use their own words.

Despite the controlled and measured tone of the press conference, the coverage was extensive and somewhat sensationalist.

As a seasoned watcher of these things, it is clear that there was no great slip-up and no stand-out message from the press conference beyond the hand washing and ‘we have a plan’. Given these are a bit weak for a hungry journalist the coverage varies across newspapers and broadcasters as different journalists firstly choose and then beef up particular angles. When you don’t get agreement on the headlines you can be sure the story is not so strong.

The Daily Mail went with ‘Life on hold’, the Guardian went with ‘Murder inquiries to be axed’ which is more than a bit of a stretch from the very cautious ‘with a significant loss of officers and staff, the police would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order’. The Times found an angle from elsewhere – video checks on some NHS wards, but used a sub-heading from the press conference: ‘Prime Minister unveils strategy to deal with coronavirus disruption’. The Telegraph led with ‘expect 20pc of all workers to be off sick’. This is definitely a misrepresentation: the tone of the press conference was ‘we don’t know yet’. The Express went with ‘Britain ready for the worst’ which is at least accurate.

Overall, the broadcast coverage I saw and heard was more measured, but there was an awful lot of it. That in itself gave the impression that Britain was facing into a major epidemic.

Downing Street will probably be happy enough with the coverage. The PR wisdom in such cases would be you do what you can to be transparent and factual but accept there will be a ‘sensationalist hit’. However, you trust that most people will not over-react to the headlines. What matters most is not the first hit of the story but how sensationalist the tail is – and of course how the public reacts.

It looks as if there will be many more chapters of coronavirus communications in the coming weeks and months for students of PR. We know that organisations are dusting off their pandemic policies and planning their own communications. If you want help planning or rehearsing for major communications events, I and The Media Coach team regularly help organisations craft and deliver nuanced messaging. Drop me an email on Lindsay.williams@themediacoach.co.uk if you want to discuss how we can help.

Virus image by iXimus from Pixabay

The PM's media silence feature

The PM’s Media Silence: Strategy or Farce?

The Prime Minister has been absent from the airwaves for a number of days. He has not been seen in wellies at the site of major flooding and he has not made any announcements personally about COVID 19 or Coronavirus. The Guardian for one thinks Boris is neglecting the nation.

The PM's media silence

The PM’s media silence

I am not in the Westminster bubble, but I can have a good guess why the Prime Minister has not been seen. However, the more interesting question for me and anyone involved in PR is: is this a damaging strategy or will it pay dividends?

Why might Boris Johnson have gone quiet?

Apparently there is a rumour that the PM’s girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, gave him a black eye which is why he is laying low! In the absence of evidence, I will dismiss this. On this occasion, I suspect strategy, not farce.

A more likely explanation is that the Prime Minister is busy doing things he gives a higher priority to. The first hundred days is considered to be the most crucial for setting an administration on a path for success. (Here is a good explanation of this idea from the Harvard Business Review.) It is a time when everything is new, when people expect change and when the momentum and enthusiasm from an election win can help get things done. It is difficult for those of us not in government to understand just how difficult it is to get things done. (I will recommend again Michael Barber’s book How to Run a Government – a very good read on this exact point).

Boris may just be determined not to get distracted by events.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

There may also be some design behind the media purdah, based loosely on ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder, and screw-ups a lot less likely’. Leaders should be strategic in terms of when to make themselves available and when not to. Particularly, as every media outing carries an element of risk. It is certainly true that if Boris Johnson was spending every morning in a TV studio the press would be complaining that he was still campaigning and not paying attention to running the country. Whether the judgement to leave the sympathy and concern for flood victims to George Eustice, and the public pronouncements on a probable pandemic to Matt Hancock, is the right one – only time will tell. At this stage, there is no election to lose. And in five years time he will be judged on many other things.

There is a lesson in this for lesser mortals. That is: it is worth asking if it is in your interests to do all media interviews offered? Can you do too many? I believe, in some cases, too much media attention can work against you. Once you get good at doing media interviews, even as a commentator, you can get a lot of requests. If you say yes to them all you can get a reputation as a ‘rent a mouth’. Someone with an opinion on everything. This can quickly count against you with journalists, devaluing you as an expert commentator. How much is too much is, of course, a finely balanced judgement.

Another related point is that media outings need a bit of time and preparation. If you are doing too many, on too many unrelated subjects you won’t have time to prepare and you will make a mistake or misspeak. We have blogged here about how easy it is to misspeak.

A third reason for turning down a media interview as a leader is to let someone else do it. This can be a chance to let someone else in the team shine. But there is a flip side: if you delegate the media spotlight you can always sack the underling if it goes horribly wrong. I remember the poor Head of Operations at BA being made to do a public statement after the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 went horribly wrong. He was ‘let go’ shortly afterwards. The CEO of BA who had been around to cut the ribbon early in the day was nowhere to be found once the bags started piling up.

If you need help preparing for a media interview or a media event give us a call +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Image of Boris Johnson from Flickr- cc Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE)

preparing for media interviews Feature

Preparing for media interviews: don’t overlook the obvious question

Preparing for media interviews is essential. You need messages, and you need to think about the tough questions. But we see people tie themselves in knots trying to anticipate all their nightmare or crisis issue questions: developing complicated answers to each and every one. Then in practise, the one question that really trips people up is nothing more complicated than “What does your business do?”

preparing for media interviews

Preparing for media interviews: Can you articulate the basics?

It sounds a simple enough question but failing to find an effective and memorable answer to describe what their business does, is a trap into which many interviewees fall into head-long.

[I have recently presented a webinar on this subject for the IOD. It’s free and you can find the link at the bottom of the page.]

Despite corporate jargon frequently being cited as one of the most annoying business habits, too many people still fall back on phrases such as “end-to-end solutions”, “digital platforms”, “vertical markets” and “leveraging synergies”. The digital and tech sectors, in particular, often over-estimate the understanding of their audience.

Can you ditch the jargon?

I hit this problem head-on recently, when training some otherwise impressive young entrepreneurs. Their descriptions of what they did were peppered with just these sort of phrases and it took numerous attempts of asking; “but what does that actually mean?”, “how does that work on a day-to-day basis?” to get an explanation from them along the lines of “we help our clients to use social media more effectively so they can raise their profile and win more business”.

Of course, it is not just media-novices who fall into the trap of thinking that complicated language or industry jargon makes them look clever. Last year Ocado included the following paragraph in a press release to explain a change in business strategy:

“The centre of gravity at Ocado Group has shifted from our heritage as an iconic and much-loved domestic pure-play online grocer to our future as a technology-driven global software and robotics platform business, providing a unique and proprietary end-to-end solution for online grocery, and an innovation factory, applying our technical expertise to adjacent markets and verticals.”

The howls of derision, particularly among journalists, were loud – just one example from the FT is linked here.

Preparing for media interviews: Not dumbing down is really dumb

Rather than impressing an audience, this sort of language merely alienates people. During training sessions, when we are helping to develop messages, participants sometimes question the use of simple language, as they feel it is dumbing down their work too much. In response I quote Albert Einstein who said:

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

The fact is that if your audience doesn’t understand what you are talking about, they will tend to think worse of you, not of themselves!

Make it real. Relate to something people recognise

preparing for media interviews

Lord Browne
The former CEO of BP, understands the benefit of clear communication using layman’s language

When preparing for media interviews you could do worse than look to the example of Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP and an engineer by profession who, when asked what an engineer does, answered:

“Engineering is about creating practical solutions to humanity’s most pressing challenges – whether it’s building a bridge, finding new treatments for cancer or tackling climate change.”

preparing for media interviews

Warren Buffett
The legendary investor has a legendary way with words

Business guru Warren Buffett is another communicator who revels in the use of simple colourful language. For example:

  • “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
  • “If you aren’t willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes.”
  • “Buy a stock the way you would buy a house. Understand and like it such that you’d be content to own it in the absence of any market.”

More of his best quotes are linked here.

So, when preparing all your messages – whether for media interviews, presentations or simply for a networking meeting – think about the following three things:

  1. Mind your language! Keep it simple and avoid jargon.
  2. Make your answers memorable: use word pictures and metaphors which bring what you are saying to life for your audience and can effectively explain difficult concepts.
  3. Make your answers real: give examples which people can relate to so what you are saying becomes human and tangible.

For more advice on how to use simple and effective language, listen to my recent Webinar for the Institute of Directors ‘Bin the Babble: How to win more business with better communication’.  (You don’t have to be an IoD member – just chose the ‘Not yet’ option when asked if you are a member.)

More Info

Here are links to some other posts on messaging and language that may be of interest:

Developing Messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing

Great media quotes

Using pictures to make your ideas memorable

 

Photo Credits:
Word Cloud – CC Gavin Llewellyn, Flickr
Lord Browne – CC Suzanne Plunkett, Flickr
Warren Buffett – CC Wikimedia

 

 

Shooting video for the web feature

Shooting Video for the Web: Another Angle

Shooting video for the web in-house is increasingly part of ‘business as usual’ for all sorts of organisations that need a professional, engaging online presence. Technology means that simple videos don’t need a professional cameraman. However, a little knowledge can go a long way to give a more professional feel to your films.

Shooting video for the web 3

The Challenge: Make Videos Visually Interesting

When moving pictures were first invented there was only one shot – a wide shot showing moving images from a park, a busy street (full of horse-drawn carriages and men in top hats) or even a steam train bearing down on the camera lens – and this was enough to keep people interested. But pretty soon that novelty wore off and we discovered that to begin to tell a story in film you actually needed other shots to draw in the audience. Shots like the close-up and tracking (or dolly) shots were invented and filmmakers realised that editing these shots together was the key to creating a compelling story. But even using all these techniques, when we sit down to watch classic black and white movies from the 1920s and 30s, they still appear to us rather slow-moving and dull.

A Second Challenge: We are all Film Literate

Shooting video for the web provides another challenge: We all consume a lot of filmed material. From an early age, we are learning what good, even amazing, visual story-telling looks like. We now expect things to move along at a much quicker pace, just in case the audience should lose attention. For example, in this one minute video, I’ve used 17 different shots, giving an average shot length of 3.5 seconds.

Two Cameras Can Give a Lot of Visual Interest

If you have the luxury of two cameras, it can be useful to film the interview from two different angles and then cut between them during the edit. Even when shooting video for the web, you could carefully repeat the interview. In professional television, the same thing may be filmed many times from different angles, and five or more versions cut together to create a clean and believable version of reality.

Just a few cutaways, some bold graphics and an up-tempo music track and modern videos have gone from seemingly simple shoots to something with much more pace and sophistication. It all takes a bit of planning and creativity but it is possible to make what is, in essence, a simple talking-head type video, into something that really stands out.

Shooting Video for the Web: Want to Learn How to Make Great Little Films?

Shooting video for the web 1

If you or someone in your team would like to be taught to create videos with style, why not give us a call. I run bespoke one or two-day ‘shooting video for the web’ courses under The Media Coach brand. We can together practise a wide range of professional techniques that will take your inhouse filming to the next level. Call +44 (0)20 7099 2212 in the first instance to discuss exactly what you need.

PR roll

Greggs On A Roll

Fast-food chain Greggs is on a roll. A good PR roll. We so often comment on companies and people that get into a mess by failing to use some basic and well-known tenet of PR, that it is nice to instead focus on a company that seems to be sure-footed. While not doing anything amazing, it is just doing PR well.

Good Results – And a Staff Bonus

This month Greggs announced a phenomenal growth in sales which allowed them to award 19,000 employees a £300 bonus at the end of the month. The numbers are even more impressive when you consider that in May 2018, 18 months ago, Greggs issued a profit warning due to subdued sales that knocked 17% off the share price. This year’s bonus and positive results were widely reported, giving heaps of great publicity to the humble high street chain.

The Vegan Sausage Roll

The jump in sales was widely attributed to the success of last January’s launch of the vegan sausage roll. This in itself was another great PR success.

There really is nothing to beat catching the zeitgeist. Veganism has gone from a dusty forgotten cupboard to the limelight as ethical consumers vote with their pennies, not just to protect the welfare of the animals but also to protect the planet. (The link between veganism and climate activism is an interesting one that we may return to later. It is in itself a PR success that may yet fall apart.)

Greggs Social Media – A Case Study for Modern Marketing

But what really turbo-charged sales was the reactive Twitter campaign. Piers Morgan, who has seven million, followers tweeted ‘Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns’. To which @GreggsOfficial responded ‘Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you’.

PR roll

There were a number of other witty responses to those who took aim at the sausage roll. All of which greatly helped sales.

In June Buzzfeed helpfully pulled together 19 occasions when Greggs was unexpectedly brilliant on Twitter.

PR roll

As noted at the beginning of the blog, the combination of all these things had led to a raft of coverage about how well Greggs is doing. Here are pieces in The Telegraph, The New Statesman (broadly positive), Reuters, The Independent, There are many more. Hats off to the marketing team and particularly the person who decided to allow the Twitter team to step outside standard corporate responses.

 

 

Crisis Comm Scott Morrison Feature

Crisis Comms Management – Aussie PM gets it all horribly wrong

Crisis communications management today has a whole set of rules and a list of best practices that have been honed and polished over the last century. No two crises are the same but there are some really standard rules which 99% of experts would agree with.

Crisis Comms: Scott Morrison has not read the handbook

Unfortunately, it seems no one has communicated these rules to the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Perhaps it was widely assumed he knew them as he was a professional marketeer. From where I sit, Morrison’s ability to seriously upset everyone affected by the bush fires raging across South and East Australia has been beyond belief.

Crisis Comms - Scott Morrison

Here are a few obvious rules he has violated.

Look like you are in charge

Once a crisis becomes really serious – usually when it involves loss of life – it becomes the job of the boss to look like he is in charge. To do what they are paid to do and show leadership. It is not a good idea to go on holiday!

But as everyone knows that is what Scott Morrison did. He went on holiday to Hawaii while the fires raged and people were losing their homes and being evacuated. Some were even dying. The Prime Ministers Office compounded the offence by insisting the PM was not holidaying in Hawaii but refusing to say where he was.

Show empathy

Again, one would not have thought this was worth saying: But just as Prince Andrew forgot to show empathy for the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, the Australian Prime Minister ‘forgot’ to show empathy for people affected by the fires. The clip that was perhaps most widely shared on social media showed the PM turning away from a tearful and desperate woman asking for more government help.

 

This theme has been aggravated by the fact that the government had previously hired someone to advise on ‘empathy’. The consultant was reportedly paid nearly AUS$200,000 to advise on how to build empathy with landowners faced with a disruptive inland railway project. It was dubbed an ‘empathy consultant’ and was the subject of political comment before the fires.

Crisis Comms Jacinda Ardern

Just compare this to the empathic response of the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who visited and listened to the Muslim community after the Christchurch Mosque attack in March last year.

Make it clear that you care by cancelling Business as Usual

This can be a difficult one because clearly some business does have to continue even during a crisis. But anything involving fun, entertaining, extravagance, food and drink, etc. can really look bad if it is expensive and happening whilst others are suffering. On New Year’s Day, Morrison hosted a lavish reception for the Australia and New Zealand cricket teams. Again, he compounded the error by misspeaking. He said the bushfires were happening against the backdrop of cricket. This gave the impression he was more focussed on the cricket than the fires.

Get the tone right

In a crisis people are hyper-sensitive. As a leader, it is really important to get the tone right. Instead, the Australian Prime Minister seems to have gone out of his way to aggravate everyone. It is almost as if he is taking lessons from President Trump.

Not only did his office lie about him being in Hawaii but later The PM tried to justify his holiday by saying ‘I don’t hold a hose mate, and I don’t sit in a control room’. He also chose to talk about the importance of work/life balance comparing his decision to go on holiday with a plumber who had to decide whether to do one more job or spend time with his kids. We are all in favour of analogies, but they do have to be risk assessed! The plumber analogy was not fit for purpose.

The whole tone was reminiscent of BP’s CEO during the Deepwater Horizon crisis. He is remembered for saying he wanted the crisis over because ‘I want my life back’! The phrase that was particularly crass as 11 lives were lost when the rig initially exploded.

Um…Don’t be an ostrich!

Finally (for this blog) the Prime Minister’s New Year message appeared to equate the fires with other natural disasters and did not mention the issue of climate change. One wonders if he knows who Greta Thunberg is and whether he has clocked that she is currently the voice of a global generation of angry youngsters – many of who are about to get the vote.

Images: Wikimedia

naming feature

Naming – A Misunderstood Art

Naming is very important. Name a trend, you own the trend. Name the product right and you own the genre (think of Hoover, Coke, Elastoplast). A colloquial or unofficial name is likely to be much more memorable and influential than a sensible, formal name. Weird or fun names also have more traction. A few recognisable examples: would you have approved any of these if you had never heard them before?

Naming: would your marketing department have approved these?

naming

Google – who would have thought of that!
Apple
Monzo
Starling
WeWork
Waze

Here is a whole article from TechCrunch about how tech start-ups use super weird names.  It is not just business or products names. It’s categories or phenomena or ideas.  Millennials, Generation X, Generation Z, Boomers. Nudge psychology, greenhouse gases. It’s unlikely these would ever have been adopted if it had been left to the traditional voices in large businesses.

In my experience marketing departments or branding teams, often have a lot to say about names. In my view, it is almost always wrong. They insist on sensible long and quasi descriptive names. Rather than fun, random ones. Or more interesting: names that have to be explained.

[I previously wrote about this nearly four years ago – with lots more examples.]

JDART and the power of a clumsy acronym

This week we had an amazing example of how important it can be to name something in a non-standard way, in order to create – well something more powerful.

naming

Elon Musk, CEO Tesla

Elon Musk, a notable tech entrepreneur, won a defamation case bought by the British caver who led the rescue of the 12 boys trapped in a Thai cave. In a spat on Twitter, Musk called Vernon Unsworth a ‘pedo guy’.

naming

My sympathies were all with Mr Unsworth, but the interesting thing to me was the use by the clever and presumably expensive defence, of a made-up word posing as an acronym: ‘JDART’.

I will leave it to someone called Elizabeth Lopatto writing on website The Verge to explain. (You need to know the clever lawyer in question was someone called Alex Spiro).

“Spiro then coined the worst acronym I’ve heard in years, and I edit stories about aerospace so I know from bad acronyms. It is: JDART, for joking, deleted, apologized-for, responsive tweets.”

However ridiculous that reads, this was a very clever and successful move. It gave life to the idea that one has to be allowed to make an error of judgement on Twitter and apologise – without being sued for millions.

Here is what the BBC’s North America Technology reporter wrote:

“One of the smartest moves by Elon Musk’s defence was in introducing the concept of “JDart”, an acronym to describe their client’s conduct on Twitter in relation to the infamous “pedo guy” tweet.

It’s clumsy, for sure, but it meant Mr Spiro could offer the jury here a degree of structure around what before seemed senseless: Mr Musk may have acted foolishly with the J, but he soon “darted”, which is how you know he wasn’t being serious about the allegation. Expect the JDart “standard” to be applied again and again. “

I am always suggesting clients push for better names for great ideas or projects. It really doesn’t have to have a meaning – you can call a piece of software Shirley, or Crowsnest or Porridge for no reason other than fun. Or it can be a crazy acronym like JDART which has to be carefully explained. Either way, you will give your idea or product a life of its own. And that is good for business.

Photo credits:

Google building image – Flickr: Luis Villa del Campo
Elon Musk – Wikipedia
Cave rescue headline – BBC screengrab.

neuropsychology feature

Persuasion and a little neuropsychology

Neuropsychology – the science of how the brain works – is experiencing a huge growth spurt. We are now really learning how we make decisions, why we make decisions and why habits and behaviour change is hard but can be hacked.

I mentioned in my newsletter a book I was reading written by a digital marketeer, Constantin Singureanu; by the way, he picked up an award (for a business he is working with) at the UK Business Awards. I was a judge in his category, which is how I came across him. (He is the one in the middle).

neuropsychology

In his book, Digital Marketing Made Simple, Singureanu summarises a lot of disparate research about how people make buying decisions online. But so much of what he writes about is equally as relevant for message building, media interviews and presentations.

So here is my summary of the neuropsychology outlined in Digital Marketing Made Simple – and how I see it’s relevance to my work as a media and presentation trainer.

  • Psychologists refer to the human bias towards noticing and remembering the unusual as the Von Restorff effect. This is interpreted by marketing guru Seth Godin as ‘Boring always leads to failure. Boring is the riskiest strategy’. This is true in marketing but also of messaging. I believe if you are trying to get cut-through for an idea – in a media interview or a presentation -boring is never going to work.
  • First impressions matter. Here Singureanu refers to a Harvard experiment where students were presented with a two-second silent clip of a teacher they had never seen before and were asked to rate his effectiveness. The ratings were compared with the ratings of students who actually studied with the teacher for one term. The findings: the two sets of scores were identical. The belief is that we all make judgements about people and things within a split second and then we filter out information that contradicts the opinion we then hold. Common sense suggests there must be some other factors that will be taken into account over the long term, but it is a stunning reminder that in an interview or presentation we have got to give a great impression right from the start. In messaging it means you must capture the essence of an argument with an interesting phrase right from the start. And of course, the performance also matters here. How you look or sound.
  • Last impressions also count … if there wasn’t a strong first impression then the last impression will be influential. So a good hotel visit with a bad check out experience may well mean the customer does not return. For presentations and interviews, this means – end with a bang.

neuropsychology

  • Availability bias is another really stunning bit of neuropsychology. Simply put, people make up their mind about something based on the most readily available information, rather than the more logical approach of reviewing all the evidence. For example, after a plane crash, the number of people travelling by plane will dip even though statistics show that more people die in car accidents than plane crashes. It sounds obvious put like that but big budgets and important business decisions are influenced by what’s making the news, what people see online and read on their way home. What their husband or daughter is saying. What this means for anyone in the business of persuasion is that you have to get out there and repeatedly.
  • Social proof is hugely influential. If you are selling online this is all about reviews. But if you apply this to messaging I would interpret as meaning ‘mention what others say about you’. Of course, this is not as strong as others saying it themselves but it is often quite easy to build ‘third party endorsement’ into your messaging. E.g. ‘I spoke to one CEO last week who said this had been the best fifteen hundred quid he had ever spent.’ If you think that seems lame ask yourself why canned laughter still works.

neuropsychology

The next chapter of Singureanu’s book is all about the importance of feelings. Spin doctors and marketeers deliberately provoke feelings – whether that is fear (fear of Brexit, fear of immigration) or warm fuzzy feelings. So many inexperienced public speakers shy away from either sharing their own feelings or deliberately provoking feelings in their audience. How daft is that!

So to summarise: make your messages interesting, start with a bang, finish with a bang, keep repeating and don’t forget to mention what others think. And finally, decision making is all about feelings and emotions. You are unlikely to influence another person without evoking some feeling in them.

tough media interviews

Tough Media Interviews – How To Prepare

Tough media interviews require proper preparation. There are so many car crash interviews that you wonder why anyone ever goes on TV.

From a media training point of view a different question springs to mind. Why do very intelligent successful people make the mistake of not doing their homework, and allow themselves to ‘lose it’ on air? At the end of this blog post, I share my tips for exactly how to do that homework.

Keep Emotions Under Control

But first, let’s look at how not to do it. In the US this week there was a classic overreaction from a soccer coach who was asked a pretty ordinary question that, I read, was predictable and had been asked before. It would have been better to give a prepared diplomatic answer rather than storming off.

Tough Media Questions – Have a Prepared Answer

The Coach, Bob Bradley probably didn’t do himself much harm with his public display of petulance. But the former Persimmon CEO who was caught out in October last year, almost certainly lost his job, in part because of his refusal to answer a gently put question about his £75 m bonus. It was a subject that had been all over the media just a few months before and surely it would have been possible to have a neat answer such as ‘my salary is set by the remuneration committee, not by me’.

Tough Media Interviews – Do Your Homework

And here is a really old one that I had not seen until last week. It’s funny because this very senior chap thinks he can stop BBC Watchdog using the pre-recorded interview by waving his hands around. This may have been an issue of poor risk assessment. It was a pre-recorded interview and the Dental Association rarely attracts controversy. Plus the issue of mercury in fillings is an old chestnut. But this was Watchdog, a show whose reputation is all about tough interviews.

Refusing to answer a question, walking away, storming out, getting cross and ‘losing it’ once the camera is rolling is a seriously bad idea and is bound to make a bad interview more damaging than any uncomfortable struggling through.

The one everyone of a certain generation remembers is 1982 when then Defence Secretary John Nott stormed out of an interview. This is mentioned in a useful New Statesmen compilation of the worst political interviews ever.

It is much harder for politicians to anticipate all the tough questions and have all the numbers front of mind. I have quite a lot of sympathy for Dianne Abbot who spectacularly failed to do her sums when interviewed by Nick Ferrari on LBC two years ago. For business people, it tends to be a much more limited universe of possible nasties.

How to Prepare for Tough Questions – My Top Tips

  • With more than 2 people in the room brainstorm what the tough questions might be for any particular interview. It’s important to include generalists who have not been close to the issue.
  • Before the brainstorm, someone needs to look at the stuff the journalist has written about before. Check the cuttings.
  • Also, do not limit the discussion to directly relevant questions. What is ‘out there’ on the wider news agenda? Look at politics, regulators, scandals or trending stories such as the gender pay gap or mental health at work.
  • Once you have a list of tough or difficult questions, work out short but credible answers. These may be factual and dull or they may be ‘close down’ answers such as ‘that is simply not a question for me’. Either way, these lines can be prepared. These reactive lines need to be written down and stored somewhere secure. Do not take them into the interview with you unless they are locked in a briefcase or password protected.
  • Finally, rehearse the reactive lines aloud. Reading them in the taxi on the way to the studio is simply not real preparation.
  • Practise delivering the lines not just correctly but with the appropriate level of humility, warmth, authority, etc. Get the tone right. (I blogged about getting the tone right here.)

Of course, the sure-fire way to prepare for a tough interview is to hire Media Trainers with real front line journalism experience, who can, not just role-play the interviews with you (or your spokesperson), but help craft the lines and coach on getting the tone right. When you have been helping people get it right for more than a decade it becomes pretty obvious what works and what doesn’t.