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Do journalists matter

Media strategy: Do journalists matter?

Do journalists matter in this age of social media? President Trump seems to relish a public bust up and you could argue it is not doing his popularity ratings any harm.

Trump relishes a public bust-up

Indeed, amongst his supporters, it seems to actually enhance his popularity.  And there appears to be no end to his willingness to let his frustrations show as illustrated by his ongoing feuds with CNN, the New York Times, the BBC and the list goes on….

There is an argument that with the rise in influence of social media, mainstream journalists are now almost irrelevant to a successful media strategy? Some even argue mainstream media is dead.

Media strategy: Corbyn gave priority to social media

In the UK, the recent election also provides evidence that the mainstream media have lost their influence. Since he became leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn faced hostility, even derision, from much of the traditional media. Whether by choice or necessity he placed his faith in the power of social media.

And that faith paid off – with a much better result in the election than virtually anyone predicted. (Though still winning more than 50 seats fewer than the Conservative Party.) All a long way from The Sun newspaper’s gloating headline after the 1992 election: “It’s the Sun wot won it”.

Can you now drop traditional media from your PR strategy?

So does it matter if companies and organisations antagonise journalists they don’t like?

I would argue that that would be a risky strategy.

Firstly, a recent study by Reuters concluded that mainstream media stories are the lifeblood of topical social media conversations in the UK. Social media amplifies mainstream media even if it sometimes eclipses it.

Secondly, politics is a very different environment to the corporate/business world. Trump and Corbyn have built their personas on being outsiders – there to challenge the system.  There are very few companies or organisations who can pull this off successfully over years and years.

And that is the key difference between business and politics: the need to build – and maintain – a much longer-term reputation. Warren Buffet has frequently warned employees: “lose money for the firm and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless.”

Do journalists matter

Warren Buffett has always stressed company reputation takes years to build and moments to destroy.

Here are two contrasting examples which show the positive advantage of “playing the game” with journalists and the perils of not doing so:

Richard Branson has for years had a good relationship with journalists and has made himself available for interviews, both on his businesses and as an industry expert. And his companies’ reputations have emerged relatively unscathed despite being caught up in crises such as the price-fixing scandal with BA and the West Coast Train crash in 2007.

In the world of sport, as a result of what Tiger Woods felt was an unfavourable interview early in his career, he virtually shunned all contact with journalists, apart from what he was contractually obligated to do at tournaments. And for much of his career he was untouchable, based on his performances on the course. However, when the scandals hit, journalists took great pleasure in settling scores and indulging in a large slice of schadenfreude.

Do journalists matter

Tiger Woods avoided talking to journalists wherever possible. Some say, when things went wrong, he paid a heavy price for denying them earlier access.

Building relationships with journalists takes time. It never guarantees you will be immune from criticism but it does mean you have ‘credit in the bank’ and will get a hearing when things go wrong.

Other people’s thoughts on this:

A TechCrunch blog from February this year

The Guardian’s take

The Guardian again after the Manchester terror attack

And for the long read here are two Reuters reports on disruption of mainstream media by social media. They seem to suggest more of a coming together with social media amplifying stories from the mainstream at least in the UK.

  1. Mainstream media and the distribution of news in the age of social discovery
  2. Mainstream media and the distribution of news in the age of social discovery
Legs-it distraction: what women should wear

Legs-it: what should women leaders wear?

Legs-it was the clever caption on The Daily Mail front page photo of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon showing a lot of leg last week. An article that prompted a great deal of coverage. As was widely noted at the time, the picture and cheeky headline received a great deal more attention than the substance of these powerful women’s frosty meeting or the issues surrounding it.

 

Legs-it distraction: what women should wear

 

Legs-it prompted a storm of twitter protest

As well as mainstream media there was a storm of Twitter protest with a lot of big names weighing in. From a journalists point of view it is all good clean fun and it will certainly have helped to sell newspapers.
 
Legs-it distraction: what women should wear
Among the more intelligent and thoughtful comments there was this from Jo Ellison at the FT – generally bemoaning the obsession with any woman’s physical assets, whilst bizarrely arguing that studying and commenting on their clothes is helpful and legitimate. That article led me to a much more interesting FT piece by novelist Joanna Trollope, on how women in the city no longer dressed in a modified masculine style and how the tech revolution has fuelled a fashion revolution in the corridors of power.
 

Legs-it PR lessons

There are a couple of PR lessons that jumped out at me from the legs-it furore.

First, I think short skirts are a nightmare in any context involving cameras and sitting down. I don’t mean just mini-skirts but even on-the-knee skirts will ride up when you sit.
 
It’s okay at a wedding when almost all shots will be whilst standing. But – as this picture demonstrates – once a woman sits the dominant visual element is the legs. (Flesh coloured legs are to my mind much more distracting than the coloured tights favoured by many younger women.) So among all the much more important affairs of business it is worth giving these things a thought. This is not a huge ask because almost all female leaders think about appropriate dress code every day. There are a huge range of risks and sensitivities that have to be navigated and it is all part of the job. It had not occurred to me until I was reading about this but Angela Merkel always wears trousers, apparently deliberately avoiding the sort of distraction evidenced by May and Sturgeon. Hillary Clinton is another powerful woman who, years ago, took on board the practicality of trousers and became queen of the pantsuit. 
 
Secondly, I would point out that, to get this shot, the cameraman would have had to stoop quite low, literally as well as figuratively. If you were the PR minder, you should have been thinking about that. Minders can and do step in although this is another fraught area as you don’t want to become part of the story.
 
Of course, serious professional women should not be judged on what they wear or the shape of their legs. It is a nonsense and sexist. But I am inclined to think boys will be boys and journalists will be journalists and we don’t have to condone it to want to avoid the situation in the first place.
 
So here are my takeaways:
  • As ever, what you wear and how you look should be controlled to ensure it is not a distraction. No dangly earrings, no flamboyant jewelry, no crazy shoes and men should avoid hilarious ties or bright socks.
  • Serious women might consider avoiding knee length skirts if they are going to be filmed or photographed sitting down. Men should avoid short socks that will show too much hairy leg between sock and trouser when sitting down.
  • If you are the PR man or woman – think about controlling the shot. What is in front, what is behind and what is the angle of the cameras.
In the end this is the sort of story that is tomorrow’s chip-paper as used to be said. But remember the media – even at their worst – really only reflect the society we live in. So while Guardian and FT readers will be genuinely exercised by the substance of the niftily named indyref2, an awful lot of others would have been thinking what a lot of leg! And that is a distraction from the important bit of the story.
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

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines: do not criticise using a metaphor, interesting or flowery language. [If you are a student of The Media Coach we would say don’t ‘sizzle’ on the negative.]

The firestorm that surrounded the comments from Ofsted chairman David Hoare, about the Isle of Wight ‘ghetto’ with ‘inbreeding’ caused a deep sigh from me. When will they learn!

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines: be cautious in your language

Here is a man who is in public life, and has been chairman of Ofsted, the school’s regulator, for two years. Before that, he had 30 years in business and was a trustee of the Academies Enterprise Trust which runs 60 schools. Why does he not know that, unless you want headlines, you should be very cautious in your language when you are being negative.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: journalists love criticism

Journalists love criticism. They live in a world of black and white, heroes and villains, goodies and baddies. They love to report conflict. They love it so much that they often manufacture it. If they don’t actually make it up, they will certainly fan the flames of even a tiny spark in the hope that it will become a two-week long conflagration.

When I was a local radio reporter at the beginning of my journalistic career I worked out quickly the way to deal with a boring interviewee; persuade them to criticise someone or somebody. I had a list: the council, the public, the government or the landlord. Any one of these would give me a headline. Teacher slams councillor, Norfolk councillor blames the government, Norfolk landlord criticised, etc. Usually it didn’t work, interviewees saw the danger and declined to be led into controversy. I can’t remember but perhaps occasionally it did because I went on trying.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: don’t play with fire

And that is my point. How can these senior people not see that they are playing with fire.

Last week I blogged about how Kevin Roberts of Saatchi and Saatchi aggravated his first crime (suggesting women in advertising lacked ambition) by criticising a well-known campaigner Cindy Gallop.

Here are a bunch of other people who have criticised without thought and had to apologise:

Boris Johnson accused Liverpool of wallowing in disproportionate grief for Ken Bigley who was killed in Iraq.

Ken Livingstone had to apologise after suggesting North Durham MP Kevan Jones, needed psychiatric help and was “obviously depressed and disturbed”.

Michael Gove was forced to apologise for comparing pro-EU experts to Nazi propagandists.

Labour MP Pat Glass had to apologise after calling voter a “horrible racist”.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: check the mic is off

There is a whole other category of gaffes made when the perpetrator thought they were in private but their comments were caught on microphone.

There was the one that contributed to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown losing an election, when he called a Rochdale pensioner ‘that bigoted woman’.

A famous one from long ago, well 1993, was ‘those bastards in the cabinet’, an unguarded remark from the then Prime Minister John Majorabout three of his colleagues.

Another Prime Minister, David Cameron, was caught on mic telling the Queen that Afghanistan and Nigeria were two of the most corrupt countries in the world. 

This was shortly followed by the Queen being caught on camera saying the Chinese officials had been very rude’ to the British Ambassador during an earlier state visit. 

I cannot really write about gaffes without mentioning Prince Philip, who has a whole file for which he has never apologised. But then he is married to the Queen.

 

Why do executives need media training? Kevin Roberts

Why do executives need media training?

Why do executives need media training? Because they need to be reminded of the dangers of media interviews on a fairly regular basis. If not they can do something stupid that damages the brand and themselves as Kevin Roberts, executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi did last week.

Why do executives need media training?

Kevin Roberts

I had the privilege of making a documentary on Roberts for Bloomberg television many years ago and of all the programmes I did, this was the one I enjoyed most. Roberts was an extremely interesting man and I am personally saddened to see a thoughtless interview cause him so much trouble.

Roberts decided to be outspoken and provocative in an interview with Business Insider. You can read the article here. In it, Roberts claims the issue of equality for women in the advertising industry, unlike in financial services and elsewhere, is over.

Roughly half of the people working in the industry are women. However, while they are well represented they tend not to hold the top jobs. The CEOs of all six major advertising agencies are men. Also, there have recently been allegations of sexism at the top of another agency, J Walter Thompson.

When this was put to Roberts he gave some highly quotable comments about women choosing not to go for the top jobs because they were happy where they were.

Why do executives need media training? Criticising others is bound to get you quoted

He did not stop at explaining his view that women had ‘arrived’ but were choosing not to take the top jobs. He went on to personally criticise a well-known campaigner from the industry, Cindy Gallop, saying she had ‘problems’ and was ‘making up a lot of the stuff’ thereby ensuring that Gallop and her supporters would hit back. Here is a report from The Drum about the response to the Business Insider story.

Why do executives need media training?

Cindy Gallop

Roberts was immediately suspended from his job. He may be the executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi but the agency is owned by the French giant Publicis, and the board moved swiftly to distance itself from Roberts and his comments.

For the record, Saatchi and Saatchi employ 65% women and recently promoted a woman, Kate Stanners, to Global Chief Creative Officer. Stanners appeared on the Today programme on Monday, to contradict her boss and explain that women in advertising were just as ambitious as the men.

Why do executives need media training? Interviews can get hijacked

Who knows why Roberts decided to sound-off about this particularly delicate subject. From a media trainer’s point of view, reading the write up of the interview,  it is clear there was little preparation on this point and no caution or careful messaging. In my experience diversity, race and gender issues, are amongst the most difficult to talk about publicly because so much can be open to misinterpretation or quoting out of context. It is not clear from the story, but I doubt this issue was the stated focus of the interview. I suspect it was a planned hijack by the journalist Lara O’Reilly. She seemed to have gone in with her facts and numbers to hand. From a journalistic point of view, she did a great job and got a real scoop, as well as a scalp. Kevin Roberts seems unlikely to keep his job. [Update: he resigned on 3rd August.]

Photo credits: Kevin Roberts from YouTube. Cindy Gallop used under Creative Comms Licence.

Message-building-brexit-shows-how-quotes-are-crafted-image

Message building and the art of the quote

Message building is an art not a science but one of the key elements is being able to find quotable language. For students of message building and the crafted quote (or ‘sizzle’ as we call it), the Brexit referendum in the UK is proving a wonderful real-time case study.

Message building brexit shows how quotes are crafted

The UK is in the middle of a campaign about whether to stay or leave the EU

Message building is art not science

Coming up with great quotes day after day must be keeping the spin-doctors and speech writers very busy but here are a few of our favourites.

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer
Brexit would cause ‘profound economic shock’.

Chris Grayling, Cabinet Minister
‘The Commission’s locker is full of new ideas and new plans. If we vote to remain, the door of that locker will be opened wide the day after.’

David Cameron, UK Prime Minister
Brexit would be the ‘gamble of the century’.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
‘Let us say knickers to the pessimists and the merchants of gloom’.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party
Corbyn warned that a Conservative government would take the opportunity of Brexit to slash protection for workers, in a ‘bonfire of rights’.

William Keegan, Guardian writer
Brexit would be ‘a messy divorce and very hard on the children’.

Stephan Crabb, Cabinet Minister
Brexit would amount to an ‘act of self-harm’

Message building with numbers

Gisela Stuart, Co-Chair of Vote Leave
‘Every week we send £350m to Brussels. I’d rather that we control how to spend that money, and if I had that control I would spend it on the NHS.’ Note that here Stuart goes for the numbers rather than the quotable language. The Leave campaign has had a lot of success with the £350m a week figure; even though it has been debunked several times (as here), it continues to be used repeatedly.

Message building: use judgement and caution in crafting the quote

Boris Johnson
Earlier he used the quote that leaving the EU would be ‘like a prisoner escaping jail’. Boris also often uses expletives that others in public life avoid as here in the Express. He is one of the most quotable politicians but it has got him into deep trouble in the past. He once had to apologise to the whole of Liverpool after accusing them of ‘wallowing in grief’ over the death of a local man beheaded by militants in Iraq. Nowadays, he is more disciplined and uses his flowery language to more strategic political effect.

George Osborne
The Chancellor has also dubbed Pro-Brexit advocates as ‘economically illiterate’. Earlier he said leaving the EU would be ‘political arson’. We are watching Osborne closely. He used to be an unimpressive media performer but, presumably as part of his preparation to be a contender for Prime Minister, he has put a lot of effort into improving his communication skills. He is much better at the crafted quote than his boss and ex PR man David Cameron.

IMF
This august body claimed the UK’s exit from EU could cause ‘severe regional and global damage’. Here we see a ‘serious’ international organisation being cautious with its language but as a result most people will have missed their important intervention.

Aaron Banks, Leave campaigner
‘Freedom has never been so cheap’. He was commentating on the Stay campaigns figure that the cost of leaving the EU would amount to 21p per household per day.

Metaphors widely used in message building

Put them all together like this and firstly you can see how spin doctors love metaphor and simile. Second, it looks idiotic and superficial but remember these phrases were just one element in a wider interview or speech. It is the element designed to be quoted by the journalists. These phrases are the sign-posts in the argument. There is plenty of detail out there to substantiate the headlines. While the quotes may annoy the academically minded purists we should not kid ourselves that people would choose, without them, to wade through the IMF or Treasury reports on impact of staying or going.

Learn to craft a good quote and as a PR or speech writer you will go far.

Message building and The Media Coach

We run message building workshops to help organisations plan external communications. We also have a twitter account @mediasizzle that just picks up examples of quotable language.

Image used under Creative Comms Licence credit “Descrier” descrier.co.uk

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?

trump Mike Licht CC by 2.0

Shock horror: simple language reaches people

trump-Mike-Licht-CC-by-2.0

Academic research shows Donald Trump uses grammar of 11 year olds

The news that a bunch of academics, have shown that Donald Trump, Republican front runner for the nomination as US President, uses the simplest language of all the presidential hopefuls is a gift for mocking headline writers. But it is no surprise to me.

I love the company of intelligent people. I enjoy interesting and diverse conversation. But honestly; do I like it if I feel people are using long words or long sentences that I’m not sure I understand? [My son is very good at this!] I am sure a psychologist would have a fancy term for it, but it makes me feel small. It also makes me feel that the clever person is ‘not one of us’.  In fact, it is clear that sometimes the clever person is deliberately using language to make the point that he or she is not one of us but in fact much cleverer!

Why do I draw attention to this? Because the 101 of media and presentation training is to speak in layman’s language as much as possible (I often say colloquial language but don’t want to fall foul of my own rules).

[In crisis media communications, we teach that being colloquial, not sounding like you have just swallowed some procedural handbook, is pretty essential to winning the sympathy of your audience.]

Usually, when we point out that jargon, acronyms and conceptual language (think access, product, solution) should be replaced by more down-to-earth phrases, people get the point quite quickly. But one in ten, on my reckoning, will push back with one of three resistance lines:  perhaps ‘ I want to speak to the FT not the Sun’, or ‘What will my colleagues think’ or ‘Isn’t this just dumbing down?’

The reality is that if you want to speak to a non-specialist audience, and I would include here most external stakeholders, they will hear you, understand you, and feel more sympathetic towards your argument, if you make the message simple. It needs to be instantly understandable. You do not need to add arrogance, aggression or rudeness (à la Trump).  You just need to talk the way you would talk to your Mum or an intelligent 14-year-old. It is fine to introduce some technical terms in, say, a business presentation or interview, but just make sure you explain them.

Being able to tell a story simply is an amazing gift. The world would be a better place if more people could do it.

Simple language is far from the whole story. Donald Trump is not a good guy, or fit for President, because he uses simple language. But those of us scratching our heads and asking why he is still in the race, should try and learn what we can from his extraordinary and rather frightening success.

Photo credit: Mike Licht CC by 2.0

Brexit-vote-1-1024x768

Why Britain’s pro-EU campaign is unlikely to make Emma Thompson its new spokesperson

The starting gun has been fired for the referendum on Britain’s EU membership. And so has the battle of the soundbites.  Pretty much any politician with strong views has come out with their quotable phrases on why Britain should chuck the towel in or stay a member of the club.

War of words begins

The soundbite onslaught has begun as UK’s In-Out referendum date announced

Amid all the uncertainty over what will happen, one thing you can be sure of is that we’ll all feel well and truly bludgeoned by the media onslaught come polling day on June 23rd.

Status quo and crumbs

Here’s a quick flavour of what we’ve had so far.  For the ‘out-ers’, on Cameron’s deal we’ve had this from Eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan: ‘Britain banged the table and aggressively demanded the status quo’  

Meanwhile, the Chairman of ‘Out’ campaign group Leave. EU Richard Tice has clearly been watching The Great British Bake Off and knows he’s onto a winner with a culinary metaphor: ‘Cameron promised half a loaf and came home with crumbs’.

For the Government, both David Cameron and George Osborne have been resorting to a less flashy but very effective tricolon (Osborne in particular is a dab hand at these rules of three). We’ve seen both arguing that Britain is ‘Stronger, safer, better off in the EU’.

Anti-British

By Garry Knight - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37467880

Emma Thompson’s humorous comments were rather too quotable

But it was another soundbite that got a less obvious face into trouble last week. Actress, Emma Thompson, found herself at the centre of a Eurosceptic media feeding frenzy by telling a Berlin press conference that it would be ‘madness’ for Britain to leave the EU and that she would be voting to stay in.  Strong language in its own right and a sentiment that many ‘In-ers’ will doubtlessly applaud.  However, the reason why I doubt the pro ‘Stronger In’ campaign will be appointing Ms Thompson as their new spokesperson is that she then committed the cardinal sin of making a joke about Britain as a country and ended up being attacked as anti-British.

Here’s what she actually said: (Britain is): ‘A tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe; a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island.’

Soundbite sizzle

From a media trainer’s perspective this kind of quote is dynamite and goes right to the top of our sizzle scale. It’s visual, emotive and plays beautifully with ideas around British stereotypes.  It is also perfect clickbait (as the subsequent media storm confirmed).

However, from a campaign PR perspective, here’s what I believe would have been the pro side’s considered response:  …….gaaaaaaah.

And this, unfortunately, is due to the fact that when it comes to the EU debate the sure-fire way to get the wrong kind of headlines is to offer any kind of comment that could be interpreted as anti-British.  The eurosceptics and the media love this kind of quote because it plays deep into the sovereignty, identity and independence frames that are so effective for pushing anti-EU buttons quickly.

Clearly, anyone should be entitled to say whatever they want about Britain and be free to make jokes without this kind of outcry.  And the debate badly needs more people outside politics to come out and talk about why being in the EU does or doesn’t matter beyond the Westminster bubble.

But, with the British public complaining that they don’t have enough information about why being in the EU matters (or doesn’t), spokespeople for the pro side already have their work cut out simply to talk about the benefits in a clear and concrete way.  Their best chance of doing this is to make sure they don’t fall into the framing trap and lay themselves open to accusations (ill-founded or otherwise) of a lack of patriotism.

 

Emma Thompson photo by Gary Knight on Flickr by CC 2.0