James Murdoch

Note to self: Remember the Power of Stories

In Time magazine at the end of 2015 James Murdoch wrote about the importance of stories. He lists examples of transformative story-telling both in the US and in Bollywood. But on a darker note he mentions how the ISIS (Daesh) story of blood-soaked vengeance against western oppressors has motivated individuals all over the world to unspeakable acts of violence.

James Murdoch Image

James Murdoch

We agree with him that stories matter. They matter much more than most people realise. We struggle every session to persuade serious, clever people to tell stories about their own organisations, products or services. Somehow the facts and numbers come more easily but telling stories seems frivolous.

Here is my guide to crafting stories with impact.  These are not stories to be written in a novel, although there are some similarities, but stories that are crafted to become part of presentations or media messages.

What is a story?

Most people understand that if you are talking about a new product or service a client example is a good idea although they are often ridiculously difficult to come-by. Occasionally, organisations go to a lot of trouble to collect ‘signed off’ case studies. These are undoubtedly highly valuable. But they are certainly not the only sort of story that can be of use in business. As a simple short-cut a hypothetical case study works pretty well. So does an anecdote from a person’s own life. Anecdotes about my own mother have been very useful for a number of clients, how she reacts to call centres, the difficulties she has with pin numbers etc.

Beginning, middle and end

Good ‘stories’ need a beginning, a middle and an end. Simply to state ‘we helped a client save a million pounds, dollar or euros’ is the most basic of example. In the aid world to say ‘we helped a Syrian refugee family’ or a ‘subsistence farmer in Ethiopia’ tells the audience or the journalist very little. But it doesn’t take much to turn these simple statements into a story that has impact.

Create people we care about

The first step is to create characters an audience can identify with. You don’t need a great deal of detail. Just a bit of humanity will immediately give your story more impact. If your Syrian refugee is a young widow or your client an ex-serviceman making his way as a civilian, suddenly the story comes to life.

Add colour and tangible detail

The next ‘trick’ is to add the odd bit of detail that creates a picture. Let us take our widow in Syria. A few words can paint a picture of the horror of her life; sheltering in what was once a school, making a camp for her three children in the corner of an old classroom.

Any detail that creates a picture will give a story more impact.

Add drama or tension

Finally, it will help your story if there is drama or tension. Some dilemma where a happy ending is not assured. If our ex-serviceman was thinking of giving up his business and signing on, if coming to your bank for a loan was his last ditch attempt to stay afloat, suddenly we have some dramatic tension.

We never suggest making-up these stories.  We don’t have to. They always exist. It is just hard persuading people that stories not facts are the thing that will change the mind of an audience or spur them into action.


Seven things every press officer should have to hand

Seven things every press officer should have to hand

The lull of New Year is a good time to take stock and get organised for the months ahead. We work with many large multi-faceted press offices which have systems and procedures galore. But we also often come across the odd poor marketing person who has had PR added to their job description without ceremony, briefing or training. And there are plenty of one-man-band press officers who have never worked in the large organisations. If you recognise yourself here, this article is for you. These are the seven things I think all press officers need to hand.

Unhappy woman

Many people have PR responsibilities dumped on them without training or support

1. Media List
Sounds basic but is often missing. As a proactive PR you will need an up-to-date list of all your relevant journalists. You might want to add other useful information such as how they like to be contacted: phone, email, twitter or (heaven help us) fax machine. You might want to add their publication or deadline dates or times as it is well worth avoiding these if you want to get their attention.

2. Spokesperson List
You will also need a list of your company spokespeople, and their out-of-hours contact numbers. Notes on anything relevant, such as what they can’t or don’t want to talk about and what their family responsibilities are, will all save time if you need someone in a hurry. You might also want to make a note of when they were last media trained!

Economist Style Guide

Economist Style Guide is the gold standard

3. Style Guide
Some organisations will have a style guide. If yours doesn’t you may want to create one to ensure all external written communications are standardised. The style guide will lay out such things as which terms need to be capitalised, whether you use British English or American English spellings and how you use names e.g. first and second name on first outing but just surname on second.  If you don’t know where to start you could do worse than browse the Economist Style Guide which is the gold standard. If you are starting from scratch don’t assume it has to be complicated: start with the obvious and add to it over time.

4. Jargon Buster
We think every organisation needs this and we have drawn them up ourselves for one or two clients. Jargon is the bane of a journalist’s life and if you can do the work to translate your internal jargon you will win better coverage. It is very hard for spokespeople to come up with alternative colloquial phrases during an interview. Much easier, if the PR person suggests some considered options as part of the interview preparation.

5. Events Calendar
We all have diaries and calendars of course but you might want to create one specifically for internal and relevant external events. Launch dates, executive board meetings, trade shows etc. are all relevant to the timing of press releases and other PR events. So are the introduction of new regulations or the launch of a rival company. It is much easier to plan if you have these all laid out on one at-a-glance calendar.

6. Prepared Reactive Lines
Most organisations have the negative questions that spokespeople dread coming up in an interview.  Often they will relate to issues that go back years. It is essential for the press office to know what the line is on all these issues and useful to capture these reactive lines in a document. Updates will be necessary at frequent intervals but it is much quicker to update than to start from scratch.

Crisis Communication Plan

Consider drawing up a Crisis Comms Plan

7. Crisis Comms Plan
Crisis Communications Plans come in all shapes and sizes. You can hire the big PR agencies to provide a ‘risk audit’ of your organisation and then, at some expense, provide detailed plans for each eventuality. This is probably way over the top for most organisations. But a couple of hours spent identifying the awful or disruptive things that could happen and then working out the PR strategy could be useful. If you put it in writing and get senior management sign-off this will save you time if something does happen; rather than waiting for decisions you will be able to swing into action.

Let me know what I have missed. Wishing you all a safe and prosperous 2016 from The Media Coach Team



The cost of negative bias when good news is not newsworthy

The cost of negative bias: when good news is not newsworthy

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Lindsay Williams (the only blonde head) in rural Ethiopia where she was visiting land management projects

Every now and then someone wants to hijack a media training session with a detailed discussion about why journalists are as they are; why newspapers and broadcasters obsess about celebrity and the royal family, for example, when there are more important things to be writing about. Another often-heard complaint is that so much journalism is negative, whining, knocking or finding fault. My stock reply to this is ‘All planes land safely at Heathrow today’, is not a headline or a news story because this is what happens almost every day and it is what the public would expect. One plane crashing is out of the ordinary, shocking even, and therefore is to be written about. In fact, I see news as the professional and hopefully trustworthy version of gossip.

But the negative bias in news does sometimes have ‘unexpected consequences’. As many of you know I work a lot with one major UN agency, which is very close to my heart. As a team we have almost a dozen humanitarian clients (Laura has a lot more of this in Brussels than we do in London, and Oliver Wates knows more about international development than most professional aid workers).

Oliver wates Addis training

Oliver in the classroom in Addis Ababa

As a result we are aware of the huge progress that is being made across the globe in ending poverty, fighting hunger, promoting equality and health and getting children into school. There are of course huge exceptions. Anywhere where there is a war, everything goes backwards, from Syria to South Sudan. The problem I see is that most people don’t realise how much progress is being made. The negative bias in the reporting means most people think the global situation is dire and getting worse. How many people know for example that Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, now has a modern light railway or tram system. On the bigger picture, here is a piece from the BBC reporting on this week’s World Bank figures showing extreme poverty across the globe has fallen to below 10%. And here is another piece from the Guardian, which is more mixed but tries to audit the success of the international Millennium Development Goals. They were set in 2000, signed up to by all member countries of the United Nations and 23 international organisations and end this year. Although not all goals have been met, there are some spectacular successes. The MDGs, as they are affectionately known, are about to be replaced by the SDGs – or Sustainable Development Goals. And there is plenty of negative reporting about those. The negative news bias means the good news on development is almost hidden. Meanwhile all those agencies raising money for development projects feel they need to emphasise the bad. I think this is a worldwide strategic mistake. We in the developed world mostly suffer compassion fatigue and feel the situation is hopeless. Whereas if everyone realised we are nearly there – it is entirely possible to have a world in which no one dies of starvation, most children survive beyond their 5th birthday and every child goes at least to primary school –  we might all feel more energised for the last big push. The solution: I recommend all videos by one of our heroes, the Swede Hans Rosling. They should be compulsory viewing for all of us who care about current affairs. If you have never watched a TED talk by Rosling, start today with this one and work backwards.

Journalists will continue to write “interesting” stories about disaster, suffering and conflict and less often highlight the dull reality of constant improvements and gradual progress. That is not going to change in our lifetime. But we as consumer of news need to remember that is not the whole story.

storming out is never good on tv

Your TV interviewer may be annoying but storming out isn’t great either

Storming out of a live TV interview never ranks among the top tips of media trainers.  Exasperating as interviewers can be, walking off set more often comes across as petulant than defiant, particularly when it’s the kind of fodder today’s political and media journalists love to cut (selective) clips from in order to create a piece of thoroughly trivial TV puffery that bloggers then feel compelled to write about and hate themselves for.

Yesterday’s piece of bait was an exchange that took place between Sky News’ Dermot Murnaghan and Shadow Business Secretary Chukka Umunna. According to the headlines a ‘furious’ Mr Umunna ‘stormed out’ of an interview after he was asked to comment on a letter that he hadn’t read.

If you watch the video it’s not nearly as exciting as that. But it does contain a few useful lessons on interview etiquette:

Mr Umunna was asked to comment on something he didn’t have first-hand knowledge of and he rightly tried to shut it down and move on.  Although this is a good idea from a PR perspective, at the same time it’s pretty disingenuous given that the letter in question was the top news story of the day in the UK and Mr Umunna, a senior member of the Opposition, should have read or at least been properly briefed on its contents in advance. The same lesson applies (to a lesser extent) to ordinary mortals outside the world of politics. You should always be aware of the big stories in your area, if only so that you are not caught off guard and know how to handle the curve ball question you aren’t expecting (or don’t want to take).

2) If you are informed but are still going to plead the ignorance line you should be prepared for the journalist to give you a hard time, as evidenced by…

3) The snippy and irritated line of questioning from Mr Murnaghan . He attacked Mr Umunna for refusing to comment on the letter until he’d got the ‘party line’ straight and then tried to box him into the corner and put words in his mouth by asking whether the letter ‘was patronising to Muslims’. This was a classic aggressive interview technique and one that Mr Umunna didn’t fall for. It’s usually not a good idea to call the interviewer ‘ridiculous’ though. They generally don’t like it.

4) Always remember the value of smiling when closing something down. Mr Umunna looked annoyed. How much better his performance would have looked if he had smiled patiently at being asked to comment on something he hadn’t read. Perhaps he should have taken up the offer of returning half an hour later with an informed answer.

In the end it was a visibly peeved Mr Murnaghan who cut the interview short when he couldn’t get a direct answer/attributable quote to his question. His surly line of questioning about the ‘party line’ made him look pretty bad. He ended up ‘winning’ the headlines battle on a technicality, though because it was pretty silly of Mr Umunna to get up and leave, particularly when the interview was clearly ending.

So overall, null points on both sides. But clearly, a pair of disgruntled egos.


Belgian PM strikes the right chord with live interview from Charlie Hebdo demonstration

Belgian PM strikes the right chord with live interview from Charlie Hebdo demonstration

In the digital age, how physically accessible should senior politicians make themselves to a public that is more turned off and cynical  than ever about the way politics functions?

Depending on your viewpoint, social media has or hasn’t aided the democratisation of politics. But what is clear is that in many cases it has not actually brought government ministers closer to their electorate or humanised them. It’s just  given them another platform from which to tweet pictures of highly engineered ‘meet the public’ photo opportunities, while simultaneously making them more attackable online.

Belgian PM Charles Michel doing a live interview

Belgian PM Charles Michel doing a live interview among the crowd outside the European Parliament

So that’s why I was surprised and impressed to see the new Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel doing a live TV interview in the crowd that had turned up  in the square outside the European Parliament  to show support in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.  His appearance had echoes of last year when Belgian ministers were also seen on the streets following the  fatal shootings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

It was a simple but well-judged gesture and  (judging by the reaction on Twitter) one that clearly chimed much better with the public mood than a controlled statement delivered from in/outside the PM’s offices might have been.

As a Brit living abroad and already bored by the 4 month electoral campaign that has just kicked off in the UK I wonder whether there are media lessons that the political leaders there could learn from this.

Of course,  Brussels is a much smaller city than London, so nipping down the road to do a spontaneous interview isn’t quite as straight forward for David Cameron as it would be for Charles Michel. And, leaving aside the not exactly minor issue of security, there are also risks to your credibility in making yourself too accessible and not statesmanlike enough (not to mention the possibility of it going wrong and being pelted with eggs by disgruntled members of the public).

But so rarely do we get to see our politicians against a backdrop of ordinary people (where the latter aren’t being manipulated or used as photo props) that when we do get the opportunity, it’s a breath of much needed fresh air.  But it’s a shame that it takes a tragedy to make it happen.



An irresistible metaphor

Media Coach trainers spend a great deal of time trying to persuade serious business people to use metaphor. Metaphor makes simple ideas more fun and more memorable – or to use our jargon ‘stickier’. A ‘sticky’ message is the best sort!


Cameron’s ‘purred’ metaphor was catnip for journalists

David Cameron’s private and embarrassing use of the word ‘purred’ in the same sentence as ‘the Queen’ was very unfortunate but for us shows the huge power of a good metaphor. If he had just said ‘she was very happy’ in his aside to Micheal Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York, it might still have been reported, but the number of column inches and the amount of airtime would have been a great deal less.

This is the power of metaphor. Don’t use them by accident, use them consciously to supercharge your message.

what works in risk communication

Risk communication: what works and what doesn’t

The article below first appeared in the Institute for Materials, Minerals and Mining. You can find it here.

PVC 2014 took place in Brighton in April 2014. The world’s leading forum on vinyl spanned three days and delegates were treated to talks from the best in the business. On day one, Laura Shields, Brussels Director of The Media Coach presented Risk Communication: What Works and What Doesn’t. In case you missed it, or you would just like to recap, IOM3 Communications Manager, Viki Taylor, asked her how people working in science-based, technical industries can communicate better with the public.

What are the issues surrounding risk communication?

Traditionally, when science-based industries have felt under attack, they’ve either put their heads in the sand or stuck a report up on their website to contribute to the debate by putting facts out there, but without actually engaging. But we now live in an age where these not possible solutions. Firstly, digital culture and increasing public pressure mean that people are used to frequent interaction, so silence is taken as a sign of guilt. Organisations need to build trust and trust is not always rational, so if you’re trying to talk to people about the safety of what you do, sticking the facts out there regardless of whether or not your audience understands, does not help. Taking a fact-based approach isn’t always going to help – people have a gut reaction.

Are time frames important when disseminating information?

Yes. With a lot of my clients, they see a scare story and it takes them a month and several different committees to agree on a response. If people are saying things on Twitter, you don’t have a month to reply. It’s important to make sure systems are in place to respond quickly.

How do you feel about digital platforms for risk communications?

Every organisation is different. At the very least, organisations need to have someone who is listening to this stuff. I do think some kind of presence is needed. The [PVC] industry is right to be nervous about it – the internet is a heated echo chamber. But nature also abhors a vacuum, so silence isn’t really an option if damaging and untrue things are being said in conversations you aren’t taking part in.

What is your advice for disseminating scientific information?

Facts and figures do matter. There are three things that can be really helpful when talking to the public. Empathy is important, people need to feel they’re being understood. You need to talk to them, engage and listen. Secondly, you need to help them translate. Don’t give people a report and tell them to read it, you need to provide the tools to help them understand for themselves what is a problem and what isn’t. That includes pointing them to independent information, not just your own. Teach people to appreciate the difference between good and bad science by asking who’s written the report, why have they written it and when. On top of that, they need to communicate well by speaking in a language people understand outside an expert community. Keep things jargon-free and use data selectively. Science data as a tool is viewed as very powerful, but if people don’t understand it, forget it. All of this requires a degree of personalisation as well – if you hide being a position paper, it’s very easy to criticise. As soon as you bring real people into it, it’s much harder for people to do so. It’s also important to note that we process risk visually. People often respond better to visuals than words.

Dan Porter

Migraines and midwives: why the minister’s interview was not what the doctor ordered

Very little can rouse me from a post-migraine stupor when I’m feeling sorry for myself as I was this morning. However, while listening to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 (a live special on midwives which was being broadcast from a hospital in Liverpool) I heard an interview with Dan Poulter, the Health Minister which was sufficiently annoying to force me muttering from sick bed to computer.

You can hear the interview here for the next seven days (it starts at 29:53).

Dan Porter Image

Health Minister Dan Poulter was too slick on Woman’s Hour

I don’t know why I was so irritated as there was nothing wrong with it from a technical perspective. Dr Poulter had his messages worked out, he provided context, used numbers (2000 new midwives, a record 6000 in training) and meaningful examples, such as birthing pools and en suite bathrooms. He was also disciplined about trotting out his prepared sizzle (or in this case management consultant speak) ‘women want more choice about where they give birth’ and ‘best possible support’.

And maybe this is why it was so annoying. As an exercise in message control it was fine but this wasn’t enough to

make him a good interviewee. What was noticeably missing was empathy (I’m obsessed with it at the moment) and a willingness to even address the central issue. It didn’t help that Dr Poulter was late for the interview (he was supposed to be on earlier in discussion with a midwife) and was cut short. As a man with power in this most female of health areas, he needed to display extra sensitivity and sympathy. But he sounded bored and refused to acknowledge the central question: why do midwives feel they can’t do their job properly due to a shortage of staff and funding?

Time and again my clients and friends tell me that the thing they hate the most about politicians is their refusal to take questions head on. Now, I have some sympathy here because politicians can’t always give a straight answer due to a of a lack of information, or because conceding ground will make a headline or create a story in its own right. However, refusing to even acknowledge the question and bludgeoning people with your message is not only evasive but also ineffective because it turns the listener off.

This was highlighted for me during a conversation over the weekend with a friend’s mother who is a lawyer at media organisation in the UK. She said that their internal research shows that the public are far more inclined to give a company a second chance if it’s spokespeople don’t try to avoid questions but show humility when things go wrong or when people have legitimate questions.

Now, Dr Poulter didn’t do a bad interview in a technical sense. But it really was a case of trotting out the prepared line rather than genuinely engaging with the questions. Digital media has made this kind of exchange all the more jarring because, even though it’s only right to promote your side of the argument, a reluctance to engage or even appear human is something people increasingly won’t stand for. And it doesn’t win politicians any brownie points with a public who already think they are out of touch and don’t know how to talk to ordinary people.

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Six tips for getting in-house videos right

When I first arrived in Brussels and was still freelancing as a journalist, I used to work with a Belgian cameraman who would describe some of the less impressive TV reports we worked on as ‘bricolage’ (DIY, or Do-It-Yourself).  It seems that every language has its own term for the cut-and-paste stories people who work in TV sometimes have to scrape together when they are short on good pictures, guests and/or time.

Given how hard it can be for TV professionals to get what they want, the stakes are even higher for non-industry people who have to produce videos as part of their job but don’t do it regularly. With many companies trying to cut costs, Brussels is seeing more and more in-house production, whereby junior communications staff are now being given the task of making videos which once would have been outsourced to an agency.

But it takes more than an enthusiastic 25-year-old with a working knowledge of Final Cut Pro to make a good video. So, whether you’re doing a conference report, social media or lobbying video, here are some tips on how to avoid your own version of ‘bricolage’ and having to call in expensive editing help to sort it out.

1.    Get a clear brief


Getting the soundbites right is key for in-house video production

It sounds obvious but you’d be surprised by how vague production briefs can often be. Make sure you understand exactly what your boss wants before filming starts, as this will help you and/or the cameraman (see Point 3) work with the edit in mind. Find out who the key people are you need to talk to and what you want them to say.

2.    Write some decent questions

The soundbites structure your story, so it is crucial to get them right. If you are talking to five people, don’t ask them an identical set of questions if you want to get something interesting that moves your story forward. Put together questions which will encourage a range of opinions and not just PR puff about why your event was great. (You might be making a puff piece but no one wants to watch an interview that is overtly so).

3.    Direct the cameraman

It is unlikely that you will be doing the filming because it’s hard to do it well.  So you will be spending money here. However, it is your job to tell the cameraman what you want, particularly if you are not going to be with them all the time and they aren’t going to do the edit. Do not tell them just to get general shots if you want something specific for the covering images.  Some cameramen will take the initiative and will film background material with the final edit in mind. But those who don’t edit (and a lot of them still don’t) won’t.

4.    Do the important interviews yourself

Or get someone you trust to do them. Inject some energy into your delivery as that will encourage the interviewees to respond in the same way. Ask focused questions that encourage stand-alone answers that the audience will be able to understand without knowing what the question was. If your interviewees have not had media training, then direct them. And re-do the answers if you are not happy; they won’t look better in the edit if you don’t like what you get during filming.

5.    Get timecodes

For the important interviews get the video timecodes from the cameraman before they deliver the footage to you. That will save you endless amounts of time trawling through the footage when you come to the edit.

6.    Leave yourself time

Edits take longer than you think even if you follow all of the steps above. If you have decent soundbites then pick them and lay them down first, followed by the background footage, captions and any music. This will take longer than you think, particularly if you are doing it on your own and have to factor in re-edits if the boss doesn’t like the first version.

Good luck!