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comms team feature

12 Ways to Prove you are a True Comms Professional

PR people are so often overworked and under-valued. One of the big – not so obvious – benefits of Media Training, is that it opens the eyes of executives to the role and the work of the comms team. But if Media Training is not on the agenda, here are 12 ways you can prove you are a true comms professional.

comms team

Be Prepared to Challenge

1. Ask repeatedly until you get a clear defined answer: Who is the audience? What do we want to achieve? So many PR initiatives fail because of woolly or ever-changing objectives. Senior people love demanding that something happens without being clear what the desired specific benefit would be. Phrases such as ‘get me some press coverage’, ‘get me some good PR for this’, or even ‘can’t you just give me the journalists’ mobile numbers’.

2. Ask: How will we know we have achieved that objective? What metrics will we measure? It can be difficult to measure PR impact or outcomes and it maybe there are no satisfactory metrics to log. But it is worth always asking the question, not least because it gives the PR professional cover if the coverage fails to wow.

3. Hold everyone to account for writing and speaking in plain English. It is no good you working your socks off to get people in front of journalists if, once they start, they can’t explain the project or product in ways that mean something to the audience. It is often uncomfortable reminding senior people to use more colloquial language, but it will pay dividends (assuming they listen).

4. Repeatedly ask: Is that true? Can we prove it? Can we evidence it? Some teams are overly cautious, while some leaders are way too gung ho. Given it is the PR team who will be fielding the calls if bold claims cannot be substantiated, it’s worth insisting that you have the proof points before you go public.

Know your Market

5. Know your journalists. Names and biographies of the top 20 or 30 journalists or bloggers on your media list should be well known to you.

6. Keep an eye on key competitors and remind your team what they are doing and saying. Many people are too busy doing the day job to properly keep across market issues. Those that do manage to do this will give themselves and the team an edge. Observations can be as simple as how active they are in the media, to what they are talking about, to the detail of which spokesperson is saying what. This may provide media opportunities, warn of ‘while I’ve got you…’ questions and much more. Above all, it will convince the business it is worth paying your wages.

Set your own Standards

7. Read everything you or a colleague writes, at least twice: once for sense and once for grammar and spelling. If you are about to publish externally, ask for a second pair of eyes wherever possible. This is especially important for me. I do not see grammar and spelling mistakes. I can read things as carefully as I like and I always miss something. Fortunately, I have people in the team who rarely miss anything.

8. Project plan everything. Diaries, dates, personal deadlines and to-do lists are the bedrock of professionalism. Even if you are doing this for yourself rather than a team, and even if you get knocked off course most days, working to a prioritised to-do list, and creating a simple timeline for everything, will keep you ahead and make you look efficient.  It also tends to provide great motivation and guard against distraction.

9. Read widely and pull out the PR lessons. For yourself to share with colleagues and to use as quotes or anecdotes in your PowerPoint. Not so easy in a busy life but reading around a subject will always enrich the fertility of your subconscious. I rarely find a book about current affairs that doesn’t teach me something about PR. Sharing nuggets from your reading will also ‘add value’ to team discussions.  (Obviously, be careful not to bore people.) Don’t know where to start? Try political biographies.comms team

10. Think like a millennial, whatever your age. Digital and comms should not be two separate departments. If they are, they need to work hand-in-glove. Imagine you were interviewing someone for a PR job. One candidate says: ‘I know my way around Twitter but I really hate all this social media stuff.’ The other says: ‘social media gives us a really wide range of options, and we can measure the impact of everything if we get across the numbers’. Which one would you hire?

11. Consume media. Stay across the news agenda and refer to it often with less newsy colleagues. As with everything, process will help you here. You could, for example, list 10 websites you flick through every day. Add a couple of TV or radio programmes that you listen to on catch-up – so you can jump through irrelevant items. You don’t have to do everything every day, just do some.

And Finally – Do your own PR

12. PR your own team. Remind colleagues what a good job the comms team does, either keeping things out of the news or winning column inches. Don’t assume colleagues in other departments understand the process or the value. You know the value of PR. Use it to boost the standing of your team. Showcase successes, talk a good game, craft your internal team messages. You never want to hear a senior leader say ‘I just don’t know what the PR team does all day’.

The Media Coach is piloting a new course – Personal Effectiveness Training. It’s all about communicating more effectively. If you, someone in your team or one of your direct reports could communicate better get in touch to discuss a bespoke course: online or face-to-face. Call us on 0207 099 2212 and let’s chat.

 

 

Crafted quotes feature

Choosing Words to Feed the News Monster

Craft your quotes before you go anywhere near a journalist. Use interesting language to highlight a key point but be boring on the stuff you don’t want to see online, in print or on the airwaves. This is how media-savvy people operate.

Crafted quotes from the last week

‘Moonshot’ and ‘Rule of Six’ are both examples in the last few days, of phrases churned out by the government’s spin machine. Both phrases have not just won headlines but also shaped a lot of subsequent debate. ‘Moonshot’ was particularly creative, although many are suspicious that as a policy it will turn out to have no substance, it didn’t stop the news coverage.

Blair and Major pick their words

Also, in the last week, former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major got together to condemn the Prime Minister’s backsliding on the Brexit deal. Their statement claimed the development was ‘shocking’ and it threatened ‘the very integrity of our nation’. They went on: the move was ‘embarrassing the UK’ and ‘irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice.’ All carefully chosen phrases to keep momentum building behind the controversy. (This appears to have been successful as the other three living former prime ministers have condemned the Bill that will potentially override the newly signed treaty – and a substantial number of senior Tories are threatening to vote against it). Here is how all this first came to light.

 

As the clip shows, the Government had its own spin on the issue: positioning the Internal Market Bill, as a minor infraction o international law. One wonders, in fact, whether Brandon Lewis intended to be quite so direct when he said ‘yes this does break international law in a specific and limited way’. He appeared to be reading this response, suggesting it was planned, although that might have been affectation. My point is, he could so easily have said something less direct. His phrasing certainly set the agenda for the news cycle.

Did Brandon Lewis mean to be quite so direct?

The cynically minded might think it was deliberate and designed to detract from the rise in COVID cases; stirring up some anti-Europe pro-Brexit sentiment instead. I am always minded to err on the side of cockup over conspiracy myself, but it could be either.

One entertaining element of this row is that while everyone knows the government is prepared to ‘break international law’, very few people seem able to explain in what way. In this case, the spin has spun a thousand miles from the substance of the argument.

Just as the season changes, so do political fortunes. Johnson appears to be losing his Teflon coating and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Opposition Leader Keir Starmer seem to be neck and neck in the ‘decent and competent stakes’.  But I can’t help noticing that Sunak is better at the soundbites. (As I said last week the Right in politics appear for now to making all the running in the soundbite stakes). ‘Eat out to help out’ may not have been an original Sunak phrase but it has definitely had cut through and was widely quoted and repeated. ‘No tax horror show’ is another strong quote. I have just spent 10 minutes on Google trying to find some comparable Starmer quote, but couldn’t. Apparently – according to Tatler –  Sunak has the help of his own special adviser, Cass Horowitz who is branded ‘a social media wunderkind’.  This may explain why the chancellor is doing well on grabbing headlines and social media likes.

I know politics should not just be about the spin – and many will argue that it is spin that has cheapened and undermined democratic debate. If that is your view you will deplore this chilling paragraph originally from Patrick Cockburn in The Independent, but picked up by The Week.

crafted quotes

 

Images:
Photo of Patrick Cockburn article
Still from YouTube, Brandon Lewis

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)

Managing emotion in a media interview

Managing Emotion in a Media Interview

Managing emotion in a media interview can be a huge challenge.

Emotion on radio or television is considered good entertainment. Brutal but true. However, if you are a professional person, or you have an important point to make, your priority becomes not breaking down in public.

Andy Murray Breaks Down

Andy Murray gave a press conference just before the Australian Open last week, in which it was absolutely clear that he was struggling emotionally with both his continuing pain from injury and his decision to give up professional tennis. (The bit that makes even me cry in sympathy is at time code 4:45 minutes for about a minute.)

 

Having lived so long in the public spotlight Andy Murray is, perhaps, not uncomfortable sharing his pain, but most people would be.

So how do you cope?

Tips for Handling Emotion in Interviews

I have just a few tips:

Firstly, work with an adviser to work out what your trigger words or phrases or images are. I have worked with people who have lost children or husbands etc. who want to talk to the media (always about lessons to be learned) but don’t want to breakdown in public. It is usually certain phrases that trigger overwhelming emotion.

Once these trigger phrases are identified you can build a narrative or messages that avoid them. Knowing the trigger phrases is crucial to managing emotion in a media interview.

Rehearsal Acts as a Sort of Aversion Therapy

Secondly, rehearsal really helps. We always advocate rehearsing aloud for even a simple media interview. But for something of high emotion, it is critical. If you can tell the story several times the emotion triggered by that particular narrative decreases. It is something we all know from our life experience. It is a mild version of aversion therapy. Repeated exposure lessons the reaction, at least in most cases.

Brief the Journalist

Thirdly, if it is a radio or television interview tell the journalist what you don’t want to talk about, or tell someone else to do so in the briefing. Even the most aggressive journalist will play ball if you say: ‘I am alright so long as I don’t have to talk about the moment I identified the body’. In this sort of interview journalists and broadcasters will absolutely respect your wishes.

If you need help preparing for difficult interviews of any sort give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Metaphors

Metaphors for Persuasion

Metaphors are one of those things: the more you learn about them the more they reveal themselves as a secret, powerful influence on the way we as individuals and as a society think.

Violent Crime as a Public Health Issue

In the last couple of weeks, the idea of treating violent crime as a ‘public health’ issue has garnered a few headlines.

Metaphors for Persuasion

Here is the FT reporting on an initiative being announced by Sajid Javid. This announcement followed a similar one from the mayor of London Sadiq Khan last month.

It is not a new idea but the government is launching a consultation on using it as a country-wide approach to serious violence.

It’s a system pioneered originally by a US epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who worked in the 1980s on the spread of cholera, TB and HIV in West Africa. By plotting new outbreaks on a map, he and his team knew where to intervene to stop an isolated case becoming a new hot spot.

Gary Slutkin

Gary Slutkin, a Professor of Epidemiology and Founder and CEO of Cure Violence.

Slutkin then returned to his native Chicago where the murder rate was rising and he used the same technique to tackle violence. Plotting murders and gun crime on a map allowed specially trained teams to intervene and ensure one potential ‘trigger’ event was not allowed to spark a whole range of follow up violence and murder. The full details are explained in this Ted Talk.

The public health approach to violence has since been piloted in Glasgow by something called the Violence Reduction Unit and Strathclyde became the first police force in the world to formally adopt a public health model.

From Metaphor to Policy

In this case, the comparison between epidemiology and violence has developed from metaphor to policy. But to me what is interesting is that by thinking of one thing (violence) as another (outbreak of disease) hundreds if not thousands of people have been able to think differently about a solution to a problem.

Using a metaphor changed the way people thought. And actually, this happens, for good and bad, every day.

War Metaphors for Tackling Cancer

In 2012 the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an article from an oncologist entitled ‘Stop using military metaphors for disease’. Natasha Wiggins was not the first to suggest that military metaphors can unhelpfully influence a patient.

A decade earlier the journalist John Diamond who subsequently died of Cancer wrote:

“I despise the set of warlike metaphors that so many apply to cancer. My antipathy has nothing to do with pacifism and everything to do with a hatred for the sort of morality which says that only those who fight hard against their cancer survive it or deserve to survive it – the corollary being that those who lose the fight deserved to do so.”

Others have suggested that a fighting attitude to cancer is not always conducive to recovery and not helpful in facing terminal cancer were ‘losing the battle’ is internalised as a failure.

Do War Metaphors Serve Politics

And then there is politics: In this Guardian piece from 2015, Margaret Simons argues the use of war metaphors for describing politics helps to alienate voters. She writes:

“Our use of battleground metaphors obscures the fact that politics is largely about working out how to live together – how to build wealth, and how to share it. How to balance freedom and responsibility for others. It is about ideas, communication, persuasion and process – and nothing to do with war. We have wars when politics fails.”

The Power of Metaphor

I became aware of metaphors as a media trainer and then whilst facilitating messaging sessions. Helping organisations with messages is now almost half my work.

Metaphors are hugely useful for crafting a quote that journalists will write. Simply describing something as a ‘new dawn’, a ‘game changer’ or naming a trend as a ‘turning tide’ or dubbing an economic outcome as a ‘deal dividend’ will almost always influence journalists. What has become clearer to me is it will also influence people’s reality.

The more you use this amazing tool the more you realise you are not just describing something in a way the helps people understand reality: you are distorting or creating a new reality.

And that is why they are so good at persuasion and also why they have to be used with consideration and care. To be old fashioned I would say – they have to be used ethically. We should all pay a lot more attention to metaphor.

The art of oratory

The Art of Oratory and the Attorney General

The art of oratory is an old-fashioned way of describing the skill of mastering an argument and delivering it to move an audience. And there was something old-fashioned and somewhat extraordinary about a Tory conference speech from someone I had previously never heard of.

Somehow I had missed the story about the richest MP trying to claim 49p for a pint of milk, which seems to be the only previous time Geoffrey Cox made news headlines.  After his speech, The Spectator dubbed him the most important politician you’ve never heard of, and the Mirror called him the ‘Tory Gandalf ‘.

Barnstorming Speech

The recently appointed Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox spoke for a little over 11 minutes, as the ‘warm-up’ act for the Prime Minister. He spoke without notes in a barnstorming performance that was entertaining and uplifting. It was a call to arms for an embattled Prime Minister.

As ever, I am not commenting on the politics of what Geoffrey Cox says, but feel compelled to call out the fact that he said it really well. Those of us who aspire to be really good communicators can learn a lot from watching someone who really can deliver a speech.

Here is the speech:

Speakers Notes

This is what I see in this speech.

  • Within seconds of arriving on stage, the speaker connects with his audience, with a self-effacing comment. You feel he is really talking to the people in the audience, not broadcasting.
  • Because he speaks without notes he is able to stand beside the podium not behind it. One of my colleagues, Eric Dixon, always advocates this as a way to give you a better connection with an audience.
  • He is incredibly relaxed on stage. He could be standing in his living room, not in a conference hall of hundreds with a TV audience of potentially millions.

A Big, Big Voice

  • He has an amazingly deep and loud voice. Our voices are produced by a muscle and the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Professional teachers nearly always have loud voices, I have a very loud voice, and my camera operators are always having to adjust for it. Geoffrey Cox has spent his life in courtrooms and has a big, big voice. He has also learnt (I assume learnt) to make it melodic.
  • He speaks without notes – immensely impressive.
  • He quickly gets into personal and story-telling mode.
  • He pauses as much as he speaks – he speaks slowly and gives himself lots of thinking time.
  • He articulates every word – even long difficult phrases.

A Wide Range of Tone

  • He uses light and shade. Sometimes he goes quiet, sometimes he booms, sometimes he relaxes and then he is declaiming. He uses a wide range of tones in a very short speech.
  • He is not afraid of overacting or overemphasising. There are many extremely dramatic gestures. For example, he uses his whole body, bending almost double, to emphasis his point that Britain could no longer put up with the EU because ‘the price is just too high’. It is worth noting that most of his body language is very open and even when he gets a bit ‘nasty’ for example when talking about the Labour party, he softens it with a twinkle in his eye.

I could go on. The speech was not about policy detail and it did what always works – he lifted the Brexit discussion to grand phrases ‘this great democratic mandate’, ‘we need not fear self-government’, we will ‘step out as a free independent and sovereign partner to the others’ and so on. He said a lot of sweeping things that it is difficult to disagree with but do not help with the detail of what to do about the NI border or the Galileo space project. But to be fair that was not his brief. He was asked to galvanise those at the conference to follow their leader for a noble cause. And he did.

Others have called him out as a future Tory leader but I doubt it. If he had wanted the job he would not have chosen to quote Milton. It is too old-fashioned and plays too heavily into the stereotype of a public-school-educated, born-with-a-silver-spoon, out-of-touch-with-ordinary-people Tory stereotype. It seemed to me like he was just having fun.

Communicating risk

Communicating Risk in the Media

Communicating risk via the media is really hard. A good case study for this came this weekend when The Sunday Times splashed with a leaked report from the National Police Co-ordination Centre about planning for a No-Deal Brexit.  

Risk of UK Crimewave

Under the headline ‘Police Plan for Riots and Crimewave if there is a No-Deal Brexit’ the paper runs through some alarming details of what might happen. This includes a rise in crime as Britain suffers food and drug shortages, an expectation that people will become sicker (presumably because prescription drug supplies are affected) and concern about food and goods shortages leading to widespread unrest. It also predicts widespread disruption to the national road network.

The list comes from a confidential discussion paper which is yet to be presented by the National Police Co-ordination Centre. It was not a definitive version of anything – and of course it was written by someone told to ‘imagine the worst’ so the police could plan for it.

Clearly, the report is highly newsworthy but what is not stressed in the coverage is that this was part of a process of preparing for possible events, rather than predicting the events themselves.

Risk Story Killed

It was alarming stuff and widely reported on the day, but the story has died quickly – and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the Home Secretary Sajid Javid did a great job of killing the story when asked about the report on The Marr Show on Sunday. The link is below and the relevant comments run 9:45 -11:45.

The Home Secretary’s (clearly prepared) line was ‘I am not going to comment on these things in detail but is a good thing that the police, like everyone else, is preparing’. As you can hear he repeats a version of this several times despite Andrew Marr doing his best to get something more. Had Sajid Javid said something different, such as ‘it is possible there will be food and drug shortages’ the story would have had a lot more coverage.

That probably reads as a very slight difference in the form of words but in terms of the way a journalist can report the next chapter, it makes all the difference in the world. One kills the story and the other gives it a second wind.

Editors Maybe on a Short Leash

There are probably other reasons that the story did not get out of hand.  I suspect the BBC and perhaps some others are being very careful about reporting No-Deal Brexit risk. I have no inside knowledge but, having worked in the Corporation, I suspect there have been some very serious high-level discussions – in the last few months – about responsible reporting of Brexit ‘risk’.  As I said the political sensitivities are huge and the dangers of panic, fear etc. are so obvious. Editors and senior correspondents are almost certainly on a short leash.

However, this is just the start and there are a lot more stories about ‘No-Deal Brexit risk’ to come.

The wider point is that being open and honest about ‘risk’ is hard for a number of key reasons.

Four Reasons Why Communicating Risk is Hard

Firstly, there is a general consensus that normal people do not understand the concept of risk. Personally, I am sceptical about this but it is a widely held view. It goes like this: if you say there is a small risk of a terror attack in London this weekend, what people will hear is there is a possible or even likely terror attack in London this weekend.

The assumption then is that ‘normal people’ or a high proportion of ‘normal people’ will overreact.

Secondly, any journalist reporting that comment will report ‘risk of terror attack in London’, absolutely hardening up the story.

This is exactly what happened in The Sunday Times and in The Express who both hardened up the National Police Co-ordination Centre story to get the headline.  Here is The Sunday Times link and here is The Express.

Anyone glancing across the headlines without taking time to understand the story will be misled about the probability related to the risk.

Thirdly, there is another problem of communicating risk openly and that is that people get tired of being scared and under-react. Many risks do not actually happen. And that encourages people to think they will never happen. Public organisations are understandably careful about ‘crying wolf’. Too many earthquake warnings and people do not move when they are told they really need to.

And fourthly, being open about risk can be taken as a political act. And that is a real problem. Anyone will think twice about going public about a particular perceived risk if they think senior politicians will publicly attack them.

As a spin doctor and media trainer, I would like to be able to say there is a simple formula that answers this problem of communicating risk, but there really isn’t. It is complicated, it requires very careful planning and very disciplined communicators. And it is still difficult.

 

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.

elevator pitch

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

What is an elevator pitch?

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

Why do we need one?

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 assumptions about the knowledge of the trainer-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 mean it is unconvincing propaganda. You might as well not bother.

Warning! Do not use the org chart

People are tempted to explain how many division and subdivisions there are in the company. This really will bore the pants off anybody. (For CNBC’s advice on putting together an elevator pitch click here).

We ran a competition at a conference (ECS 2015) asking people to do their elevator pitch to camera. We called it Message in a Minute challenge. Even PR professionals found it remarkably difficult to do it well.

Do you need an elevator and a message house?

In my view, typically an elevator pitch stands outside a set of messages or a message house that has been prepared for a product launch, a particular issue or set of results. Sometimes organisations ask us to help with an ‘organisational’ message house. This is most likely to be a new company or a hitherto unknown company reaching into a new market. In this case, the elevator is a shortened version of the longer and more detailed organisational messages or ‘house’. In the end, it doesn’t matter what form you use to communicate your message. What does matter is that the message is thought through, crystal clear and rehearsed.

A version of this blog first ran in March 2016

Journalists are not clients or customers

Journalists are not clients or customers – handle with care   

Journalists are not clients or customers and this seems to confuse those planning to speak with them for the first time.

One of the great advantages of being a consultant of any sort but a media trainer, in particular, is you get a huge variety of experience. We get to see and experience the cultures that have grown up inside the dozens if not hundreds of businesses and organisations we work with.

And from this privileged position I can see, with great clarity, how different people have very different programmes – let’s call it emotional programmes – running when they’re faced with a journalist (or trainer) for the first time.

Journalists are not clients or customers

People vary enormously in how they approach a media interview before they have been trained.

Journalists – how should you treat them?

These range from being much too risk-averse, convinced every and any syllable might be twisted and used against the interviewee or the company – all the way across the spectrum to people who are simply too keen to please. Where a person is on this spectrum seems to bear little relation to how senior they are, or indeed how real the media risks are.

Anyone trained by The Media Coach team will know we think you should approach journalists in a disciplined way, it is never just a chat.

Defensive interviews serve no one

However, those too aware of the risks, and without the information on how to handle the risks, will give a very defensive interview: short answers, usually unhelpful and very determined to be dull at all costs. There are lots of problems with this approach.

  • Short answers mean you give up control of the interview every 10-15 seconds and wait for another question.
  • The journalist is bound to get frustrated and feel they have wasted their precious time. They will have a problem because the interview will be difficult to write up and they may have to do more work elsewhere.
  • The journalist will find it difficult to quote the interviewee and therefore be much more determined to try and put words into his or her mouth.
  • At the very least, they will probably not want to talk to the person again.
  • But it could be worse; the journalist may conclude the interviewee is hiding something and start digging around either in the interview or separately, to try and find the dirt.

There is nothing wrong with being professionally friendly, in fact, we would advocate this as the right approach.

Journalists are not clients or customers

Waiting for a trap to spring is no way to manage an interview.

People-pleasers are more likely to say something stupid

At the other end of the spectrum, the people-pleasers run the risk of being exploited by journalists.

These people, in an interview, will focus only on answering questions in an expansive and helpful way. The problem with this is that journalists rarely know the right questions to ask – to some extent all interviews are a fishing expedition. In a worse case scenario, our helpful interviewee can be bounced around, asked and answering all sorts of questions on subjects that are not core to the organisations interests.

Journalists are not clients or customers

If an interviewee is too anxious to please, they run the risk of being exploited.

  • Helpful people asked a question that they don’t know the answer to,  may end up waffling around trying to be vaguely positive but also stay out of trouble. The longer they are talking the more likely they are to say something ill-advised. So for example, if asked about some controversial aspect of the work of a regulator for your industry, we would probably advise that you close down this line of questioning very quickly.  Say something like ‘this is not my area of expertise’ or ‘that is a question for them’ or ‘we work closely with the regulator but I am not going to comment in detail’. However, if you waffle around trying to be positive you are likely to end up saying something like ‘it’s a very difficult area’,  ‘I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes’,  ‘I know our xyz department really struggles with this’ or even ‘they’ve clearly got this one wrong’. All of these phrases can be used to build a story that suggests your business has chosen to publicly criticise the regulator.
  • Even if you don’t say anything inappropriate you will still have spent a lot of the interview talking about something you would rather not see in print.
  • Helpful people are also easy to manipulate into giving quotes they wouldn’t have chosen to give. They are more likely to pick up language from the question e.g. a journalist might say ‘I understand this is a nightmare for you’ and the people-pleasing interviewee might respond ’well it is a bit of a nightmare yes’ – enough to give a screaming headline.
  • Being overly obsequious may lose you credibility with your tough, streetwise journalist.

So we suggest you are professionally friendly, expansive (up to a point) and use prepared messages whilst closing down or moving away from questions that are not in your interest to answer. Easy really.

Media Interviews? We can help

If you would like help or training in how to handle a media interview positively and safely, we would be delighted to work with you.