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get the tone right

Media training: Getting the tone right

Getting the tone right can be far from easy in a media interview. You need to sound in control, but also demonstrate the right emotion for the occasion. I wrote last week about how Prince Harry and Meghan delivered a happy but not schmaltzy interview on their engagement whilst apparently effortlessly avoiding a lot of potential pitfalls.

Husband of Iran prisoner gets the tone right

Another man who gets it right in much less happy circumstances is Richard Ratcliffe. An accountant from Hampstead thrust into the media spotlight when his Iranian born wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was imprisoned in Iran, and his young daughter who, despite her British passport, has not been returned to him but is instead with her grandparents in Iran.

Getting the tone right

Richard Ratcliffe makes himself available to be interviewed however distressing the news, and always gets the tone right.

Not much is written to my knowledge about Richard Ratcliffe but nothing that is written suggests he is someone with any understanding of the media (besides living in Hampstead which might mean there are some invisible guiding hands amongst his neighbours).

He is never angry, never over-claims but just calmly and sadly states and restates the facts and the argument.

The latest development as reported here in the Independent is that following Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s visit to Tehran, a court case expected to be held in Iran on Sunday and likely to extend Nazanin’s sentence, has been postponed. It’s a small bit of positive news in very sad story. And  Ratcliffe was interviewed on Sky news, from his sitting room to put the human face on the latest development.

Here is an interview from Channel 4 news a month ago. It took place just after the Boris Johnson ‘gaffe’ when he mistakenly said that Nazanin had been training journalists – and his subsequent quasi-retraction. It was a mistake that undermined the whole family defence which was that Ratcliffe’s wife was simple on holiday when she was arrested. Many people would have been raging but Ratcliffe just looked and sounded sad but did his best to be positive.

Media Training tips for managing tone

Often the important point in managing the tone is to think first what the tone should be. A strategic approach to interviews will always give you a better outcome.

Media Training tips for managing high emotion

I have actually media trained several people who have become media spokespeople for all the wrong reasons. The father of a girl who died in controversial circumstances, a man with terminal cancer who was campaigning for change in some laws etc. The challenge in these cases is to manage the narrative to avoid the emotional bits that will trigger a breakdown. Bluntly, looking sad is one thing but sobbing on air is uncomfortable and distressing for everyone. The trick is to isolate the bits that people can’t talk about and have an alternative track that will distract from that bit of the story. Of course the journalists and probably the audience want to hear the personal story so it is a fine balancing act. At least broadcast journalists are not insensitive to the problem of too much emotion and in these circumstances, they are not looking to make life difficult for the interviewee. And thank goodness the BBC at least has banned the question ‘How do you feel…’.

Of course, those spokespeople, like Richard Ratcliffe, put themselves through the media ordeal because they think something important is at stake, and at the end of the day there is nothing like media exposure to get things done. Let’s hope in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe all the media attention will pay off.

media interviews

Media interviews: is fear of failure leading to missed opportunities?

Media interviews still evoke horror in many people because the stereotype persists that a journalist’s main aim in life is to humiliate hapless interviewees. And while I can’t guarantee that you won’t come across the occasional Jeremy Paxman-wannabee – the vast majority just want interesting guests who can fill a few minutes airtime or column inches with lively and informative conversation!

media interviews

Media Interviews: Journalists need interesting speakers

From big set-piece events like The Budget to follow-up stories on topics like Brexit or the future of Zimbabwe, the media is constantly crying out for good interviewees to add information and insight.  And with average daily audience figures for a programme like BBC Breakfast of 1.5-million, not to mention the tens of thousands of viewers or listeners to regional and local media, turning down interview requests represents a huge missed opportunity to raise your professional profile or that of your business.

Yet I’ve had several conversations recently when people said they’d turned down interview opportunities through fear: “What if I say “the wrong thing”?” “What if they trick me into revealing something I shouldn’t?” “What if they ask me something I don’t know? I don’t want to look stupid!”

So how can you combat that fear of the unknown and turn a media interview into something less like a visit to the dentist and more of a win-win situation for you and your business?

Media interviews: Preparation is the key

There are three quotes that tell you everything you need to know about handling media interviews:

“It takes me two weeks to prepare an off-the-cuff speech.” (Richard Nixon)

“Who has got the questions to my answers?” (Henry Kissinger)

“There’s no such thing as a wrong question, only a wrong answer.” (US Broadcaster Ed Murrow)

What these quotes illustrate is that there is no shortcut to preparation if you want to shine in the media spotlight. Just because you are an expert in your field, do not assume you can just ‘wing it’ in interviews.

You must be proactive and ask the journalist questions before agreeing to take part. This will ensure that when you come to do your preparation you are crystal clear in your head:

  • What’s led them to do the story – what do they want from you?
  • What do you want to talk about?

Much of the fear of interviews can be avoided if you understand why they are interviewing you i.e. will you be a ‘player’ or a ‘pundit’? Are you there because you or your company/organisation are ‘the story’ (player) or are you there to comment on and add incite to a story or topic in the news (pundit)?

In many cases, people from professions such as lawyers, bankers, economists and the business world, will be interviewed in the latter role, which is the easier of the two because journalists are merely looking for you to have something interesting, informative and insightful to say about events, rather than putting the boot in!

Media interviews

Avoid being defensive or bland

Because so many interviewees are terrified of saying the ‘wrong thing’ they can become defensive and bland, and say nothing of interest at all – which is a cardinal sin if you are there as a pundit. (Here is a blog one of our team wrote a while ago about the problem of trade associations being just too bland.) To avoid this, once you clearly understand the circumstances of the interview, your preparation needs to cover two areas:

  • Set yourself an interview objective or headline: What one thing do you want the audience to take away from your interview?
  • Develop a MAXIMUM of 3 key messages/issues to back up your headline.

Language:

  • Remember you are not speaking to your colleagues, so avoid your industry’s jargon and speak in layman’s terms.
  • As a pundit, you are not there to plug your company. However, you should still think about relevant examples, anecdotes and proof points from your work that you can use to illustrate your points and make them more credible and robust (and show your/your company’s expertise).

Top tip for ‘pundits’

  • Remember the pub analogy: Imagine you are in a pub with a friend who knows nothing about your profession or business. Explain your answer to the journalist in the same way you would to your friend in a casual setting.

If you follow these tips, you could see yourself becoming a regular contributor which is priceless advertising without costing you a penny.

media interviews

If you want to learn more about how to take advantage of media opportunities The Media Coach can run bespoke training session for you or your team. As trainers, we’ve helped launch many media pundits and enjoy hearing our one-time trainees pop up time and time again.

For further reading, this is a good blog for scientists and pharmaceutical industry people on how to do a good interview.

Picture credits: Image 2 Steve Debenport

crisis management

Crisis Management Uber style: keep quiet and cover it up

Crisis management best practice dictates that, if the worst happens, a company should, firstly, be open and honest with its customers, staff and other important parties, such as regulators. Secondly, it must also try to fix the problem as soon as possible. If it doesn’t follow this practice, crisis management case studies generally suggest its reputation could be fatally damaged and its bottom line affected.

crisis management

So it will be interesting to see if the news that Uber has only just fessed up to – that it suffered a data breach over a year ago, affecting around 57-million customers and drivers – is finally a crisis too far for the controversial company.

So far it has survived numerous crises including a sexual harassment scandal, highly public fights with regulators, its own drivers and Apple and, perhaps most shockingly, acquiring the medical records of a rape victim without seemingly affecting the bottom line.

As Alex Hern, noted in The Guardian in June: How low does Uber have to go before we stop using it?

“Uber has entered that rarefied portion of the market, alongside companies like Ryanair and Sports Direct, where unpleasantness is now an assumed part of the brand. Sure, some people like the company. But many don’t, but also know it’s cheaper than the competition.”

As I wrote in a recent blog post on Ryanair’s fumbled handling of its mass plane cancellations a few weeks ago, preparation combined with being open and honest when the crisis hits can go a long way to helping salvage reputation in a bad situation.

The regulators, lawyers and investors in Uber may be the ones who will pass the final judgements but customers in the US affected by the data breach are apparently already lining up class action cases.

But for those companies that do still care about the affect a crisis could have on their reputation, remember the best practice golden rules of:

• Tell it all
• Tell it fast
• Tell it truthfully

Being as transparent as possible won’t make the crisis go away but at least your voice will be heard, you will be able to have some control over the timing and the messages and, therefore, the perception of your company.

Photo credit Pixabay

hypocrisy of Blair

The hypocrisy of Blair: PR lessons from a reviled politician

‘The hypocrisy of Blair’ was the headline in The Sun on Monday this week, giving readers their weekly dose of outrage. Trevor Kavanagh, former political editor and now a columnist, wrote a stinging and vitriolic condemnation of the former Prime Minister for daring to suggest that there were ways to control immigration that might satisfy those who voted to leave the EU – and therefore mean Britain didn’t have to leave after all.

hypocrisy of Blair

Outrage

Tony Blair suggests much stricter immigration controls for EU citizens to satisfy angry UK voters: “Paradoxically, we have to respect the referendum vote to change it,” he explains. If he had sold his own children into the sex trade it’s difficult to imagine more personal and outraged coverage in some areas of the media. For example this story from the Express. 

hypocrisy of BlairBlair appears to have grown a Teflon skin, which may be why he is such a strange colour. Defending him is a mug’s game so I am not going to waste my words, although I still think he is one of the most brilliant communicators of his generation, if not of his century.

hypocrisy of Blair

Tony Blair: defending him is a mug’s game but he is still a brilliant communicator.

But it does, once again, throw the spotlight on whether it is ever possible to change your mind in public – over a major issue – and not get completely ridiculed. It seems there is, in the somewhat skewed moral code of journalists, no bigger crime than to change your mind. This is, of course, irrational on many levels and was tackled in the last century in a quote attributed to economist John Maynard Keynes :

‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’

Flip-flops and U-turns

I have written about this before two years ago (click here if you are interested) but the moral of the story is clear: you do not want to make public U-turns or flip-flops lightly because journalists will be likely to put it in a headline and suggest you are losing face, incompetent or an idiot.

If you do need to do it, it needs careful planning, crafted arguments or messages and robust answers to the obvious question of: ‘why have you changed your mind’, and ‘how often you have been wrong before’ etc. Blair, of course, had all these ready for his interviews on Sunday – plus a dose of humility, which is a good side dish in these circumstances. If you can get past any personal animosity to him, this interview on Andrew Marr on Sunday (available only until 19th October) is a good watch. No question is ever ignored but the prepared messages are always also inserted in such a way that you can’t spot the join. There is lots of careful phrasing and the usual rationale and inclusive tone. In its way it is a masterpiece.

If you need help messaging some difficult announcement, or just want to rehearse, the Media Coach team stand ready to help!

Photo of Tony Blair used under creative commons licence.

 

 

Developing messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing?

Journalists often accuse the PR world of ‘navel-gazing’ when developing messages and trying to sell-in stories. While working in various BBC newsrooms I often took calls from people trying to sell me a story by saying “This is really interesting…” Unfortunately, most of the time it was interesting to them but of little relevance to a wider audience.

Well, this week the boot has been on the other foot. Journalists have found the silencing of  Big Ben interesting but the rest of the country less so. The Big Ben story went on and on for nearly a week. But apart from those inside the Westminster bubble, does anyone really care?

developing messages

Big Ben will remain silent for the next four years – a story that had extensive coverage for more than a week. But who really cares?

Perhaps one reason it got so much coverage is because it’s the so-called ‘silly season’ when journalists sometimes struggle to fill newspapers and bulletins.

Here are some questions to ask when developing angles and messages to sell into journalists.

Developing messages: Ask is the story timely?

In other words is it about an issue of the moment, next week’s news rather than last week’s. Clearly, Big Ben passed this test. Most of the coverage happened before it fell silent not afterwards.

Developing messages: Is your story relevant to people’s lives?

Do your messages pass the ‘So What’ test? In the case of Big Ben, most people have heard of it, so the news it will be silent for most of the next four years might be of some interest. But many people I’ve spoken to outside London remarked that they didn’t really care and found a week of coverage over the top, because it was irrelevant to their daily lives.

When developing key messages and selling-in stories, look for ways to make the story relevant to multiple audiences.

One good example of how to take engineering out of the laboratory and make it relevant was the recent story about replacing concrete blocks in washing machines with water.

Roger Harrabin is a BBC environment analyst (we used to call them reporters).  The first line of his washing machine story is a perfect illustration of the second element you need when selling-in a story to journalists: can you sum up why it matters in one sentence? He wrote:

“A simple device to cut the weight of washing machines could save fuel, cut carbon emissions and reduce back injuries, according to researchers”. Now that clearly passes the ‘So What’ test? Journalists will respond better if you think the way they do and ‘cut to the chase’.

Developing messages: Have you joined the dots?

We understand, this approach is often at odds with the way many people think. An engineer once said in a media training session “You have to understand that, as engineers, we are trained that the facts should speak for themselves”. This, unfortunately, demonstrates exactly why selling-in stories, developing key messages or answering questions in a media interview can go so badly wrong. When speaking to busy journalists don’t fall into the ‘too obvious to mention’ trap: you have to connect the dots and (concisely) spell out the point you want to make and why it matters.

Of course, once you have the journalist’s attention it then really helps if you can back it up with a story, metaphor, anecdotes or proof points to bring your point to life.

A final example of effective communication – making it real – comes from Lord Browne, formerly of BP, who said in a recent talk that “engineering is about creating solutions to humanities most pressing challenges – whether it’s building a bridge, finding new treatments for cancer or tackling climate change”.

You can’t argue with that!

If you want more on this subject Robert Matthews blogged last year about a scientific study that was adapted to fit the Ted Talk formula. The talk was called ‘Can you really tell if a kid is lying’. The blog is here and the Ted Talk is here. 

Photo credit: Big Ben used under Creative Comms licence.

3 subjects to avoid

3 subjects to avoid if you want to stay out of the headlines

3 subjects to avoid: sexist comments, racist comments and any allusion to the Nazis. This is assuming you do not want to attract lurid media headlines and critical coverage.

If you do stray into this territory you must be aware of the potential for newspapers and journalists to go to town with their ‘outrage’. This is despite the fact that many newsrooms are very sexist places to work and journalists make jokes themselves about all sorts of inappropriate things. Newsrooms are certainly not bastions of political correctness.

1.    Any sexist views

3 subjects to avoid

In the news this month has been the fallout from the Google memo, which suggested women were less suited to jobs in tech than men. The author criticised the companies diversity and inclusion initiatives and sought to explain why women may be underrepresented in the Google hierarchy; he claimed it was likely to be due to inherent biological differences between the two sexes. The full memo is here. It’s a bit turgid and certainly not in the category of a casual sexist remark. The coverage has gone on for at least two weeks and the author, who we now know is James Damore, has been fired.

3 subjects to avoid

James Damore lost his job at Google after writing an internal memo criticising the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Damore is the latest in a long line of people who have kicked up a media storm and then subsequently lost their jobs for saying (or in this case writing) something sexist.

In 2015 there was the 72 year old Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize winning biochemist and professor at University College London, who was giving a speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea when he said:

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls: three things happen when they are in the lab; you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them they cry”.

This was tweeted by a very irritated journalism student from City University in London and from there it went viral. Shortly after, Tim Hunt was let go from his job. Here is his story of the fall out from the comments which were apparently meant as a joke.

If you detect a note of sympathy from me you would be right. I hope I am not sexist but if someone makes a sexist remark, while it may be wrong, I am not sure they should lose their job. The man I probably have the most sympathy for recently in this area is Kevin Roberts. He was the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi and joined the board of parent company Publicis.  I know him slightly –  I did a documentary on his management style for Bloomberg television many years ago. I was sad to see him lose his job over some ill-considered sexist comments made in an interview with Business Insider.

Robert’s crime was to say that the debate about gender equality in advertising was “all over”. And when asked to explain the lack of senior women in the industry, he said they often turned down promotion because they wanted to continue doing the creative work and chose happiness over advancement. He suggested women were saying “we are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men impose”.

You can read the full story here but it is behind the Financial Times paywall and I blogged about it last year.  However, the short version is that, after a few days of coverage and criticisim, Roberts felt it necessary to stand down from his job.

2.    Any racist views

Race is another highly sensitive area and given that blatant racism has been unacceptable for a long time it is somewhat baffling that people still say things in public without realising they are inappropriate.

Brian True-May, producer of the TV show Midsomer Murders, lost his job in 2011 for explaining why there were no non-white characters in the series: he said it was a ‘bastion of Englishness’.

This year Kelvin McKenzie lost his role as a columnist with The Sun – a paper he used to edit – for comparing footballer Ross Barkley to a gorilla. McKenzie said he was unaware that Barkley had a Nigerian grandfather.

3. Don’t mention Hitler, the Nazis or concentration camps

Another sure fire way to get the headline writers juices flowing is any mention of or allusion to Hitler, the Nazis, concentration camps or gas chambers.

This year a hairdressing salon in Australia – of all things – got into trouble for posting a photograph on Facebook of an elaborate hair style … clearly showing a tattoo on the neck of the model with the words ‘Mein Fuhrer’. The women in the shop say they had no idea what the tattoo meant or its connotations.

3 subjects to avoid

A hairdressers in Sydney, Australia,  posted this photo on Facebook without understanding the connotations of the ‘Mein Fuhrer’ tattoo.

Then there is the local councillor in Plymouth who – in a rage with his Tory and UKIP counterparts – gave a Nazi salute. He found himself making headlines in The Sun.

And then there is Donald Trump Junior who reached for a World War II analogy during the Presidential election – he said if the Republicans behaved as Hillary Clinton had ‘they (the media) would be warming up the gas chamber right now’. This caused a modicum of outrage although there was so much outrage going around at the time it got a bit lost.

Boris Johnson is a lot more careful than he used to be with his flowery metaphors but again in January this year he got critical headlines for saying  that the then French President, Francois Hollande, appeared to be contemplating ‘punishment beatings to anybody who wants to escape (the EU) in the manner of some World War II movie’.

So if you want to avoid critical headlines and job-threatening coverage avoid these three topics. Avoid them for serious comment, avoid them as metaphors or analogies and for goodness sake avoid joking about them in public.

 

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.

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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.