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boomerang phrases,

Boomerang Phrases and the Art of Influence

There it is again, leading the news. I have lost count of the number of times I heard the ‘reset’ phrase in the last week.

As Lee Cain walked out of Number 10 the phrase started to do the rounds: When Cain was followed by Cummings, every political player or commentator it seemed, led perhaps by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, used the phrase ‘chance for a reset’.

Boomerang Phrases

This is what I think of as a ‘boomerang phrase’.  A phrase that someone comes up with, which just captures the moment, or the message, or the circumstances: and then everyone starts using it, and within a couple of hours it is being used right back at you.

boomerang phrases

Boomerang phrases can be organic. As far as I know ‘the new normal’ did not come from a spin doctor. But a good spin doctor will, from time to time, come up with phrases that both resonate but crucially also make people see the existing facts differently. That in turn will influence a million micro decisions and some huge ones.

If an audience both recognise something in the phrase but also see things differently because of it – the author has a good chance of achieving change.

Of course, great phrases don’t always catch on. But, if they work they can have extraordinary power and in some cases are repeated down through history. Repugnant though it still is, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of blood’ phrase is not just remembered but it had huge influence. Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ is in the same category.  The triplet ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité was influential way beyond the borders of France and the simple phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ ignited protest and policy responses around the world, earlier this year. There are thousands more I could use to illustrate the point.

‘Reset’ is clearly not in the same premier league of history-changing phrases as those listed above. But it was a good attempt to capture the moment and spin something positive out of the political shenanigans. I don’t know who first used it to define the post Cain and Cummings mood, (Carrie Symonds perhaps) but it was already doing the rounds before it was picked up and applied to a small domestic disturbance at Number 10.

Reset is A La Mode

‘COVID 19 – The Great Reset’ is the title of a book out earlier this year and refers to resetting the World Order after the pandemic. The phrase may have originated from Klaus Schwab – who runs the World Economic Forum or perhaps his co-author Thierry Malleret. Or perhaps their publisher.

boomerang phrases

But it doesn’t stop there. It is easy to find a dozen headlines for ‘reset’ as applied to the departure of Cummings and Cain but many more applied to Biden’s presidential victory. It doesn’t matter that it is a repurposed phrase: it can still do the job. One of my clients many years ago referred to reusing other people’s phrases as ‘stealing with pride’.

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Leadership Skill

Boomerang phrases are a powerful leadership tool. They are just as influential amongst smaller groups and within companies or organisations, as they are on the political stage. Being able to craft a phrase that everyone else can hang their hat on, is a real and rare skill.

The irony is that Cain and Cummings were brilliant at it. ‘Take back control’ and ‘Get Brexit done’ were probably among the most influential boomerang phrases of recent history.

At The Media Coach, we eat, breath and live effective communication. Email me at lindsay.williams@themediacoach.co.uk to start a conversation about how we can help you or your team. Full details of all our bespoke coaching courses can be found at themediacoach.co.uk.

emotion

A Catch in the Throat

Watching Kamala Harris’ victory speech from my settee on the other side of the Atlantic, I felt emotion rise in my chest to the extent that for a few moments I couldn’t speak.

And yet this is a woman I know very little about. I am not an American and while I care about the presidential election, it is not central to my life.

The Power of Emotion

It was the emotion of the speech that caught me.  The crafted emotional narrative of significant victory after a long struggle. And yet there was no over claiming and a real sense of humility.

I am sure there are women leaders before who have chosen not to hide their emotions and instead use them to pull people in behind them, but I can’t immediately name them.

The sort of women leaders I have been watching for the last thirty years are those who chose to hide emotion; to look totally professional. They projected reason or logic and strove not to give ammunition to people who think leaders don’t cry, don’t emote. I am thinking of Margaret Thatcher, the original iron lady, Theresa May, Angela Merkel.

How refreshing and how right for the moment to hear a woman speak with warmth and emotion. In this case sheer joy.

Scientists Jump for Joy

There was another unusual display of emotion this week. From the Chief Scientist at Pfizer talking about the success of COVID vaccine trials.

emotion

It was a short clip (which can be seen in this video at 1’ 38”) but the emotion was authentic and unusual. As many of you know, persuading scientists and policymakers to share stories or anecdotes, let alone emotion, can be an uphill talk. But here we have a scientist talking about jumping for joy.

Having said I could not think of another female leader prepared to share emotion … there is another.   New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has shown us several times she is prepared to share emotion, good and bad, in her public speeches.

Her victory speech at winning her 2020 General Election was full of joy and can be found here, but she is also famous for sharing sorrow. I find this clip the most astonishing. Not a speech this time but still an act of humanity and leadership.

 

The Media Coach team can help you prepare for an event, craft a narrative and pull together media messages. Give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

stay alert feature

Stay Alert – A Perfectly Good Message

‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’ is the UK government’s update to ‘Stay at Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’ … and political opponents from all quarters have orchestrated a loud furore about the ‘confusion’ caused by this message.

Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland was quick to complain and refused to adopt it north of the border and the Welsh government quickly follow suit. They complain that no one will understand what ‘stay alert’ means.

What poppycock.

‘Stay alert’ is perfectly clear (in context) and a perfectly good message.

stay alert

Stay Alert: The Role of a Top-Line Message

Short pithy phrases make good ‘top-lines’ for messages. They rarely encompass the whole story. In fact, it is often better if they don’t. So long as they are memorable and relevant then it is often useful to spark some discussion about the detailed meaning. I think of it as opening the door to an argument. In time the top-line phrase may become the shorthand for the whole argument or narrative. Think ‘shielding’ in the COVID context. Think ‘a dog is for life, not just for Christmas’; think ‘keep calm and carry on’; think ‘dig for victory’ and so on. I suspect all my readers could explain the thinking behind each of these phrases. But anyone working on a literal translation would probably struggle to understand.

The tricolon ‘Stay Home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS’ was similarly incomplete. For example, what does ‘protect the NHS mean’? Should we arm ourselves and stand in front of hospitals? No, of course not. Government spokespeople needed the top-line ‘protect the NHS’ to open the door to understanding the importance of ensuring the health service was not overwhelmed as had been seen in Italy. Everyone got it.

‘Stay alert’ as an update to ‘stay home’ is not at all confusing. It obviously means you no longer need to stay home but things are far from normal. In the detail there is stuff that needs to be explained; new rules about what we can and cannot do.

Of course, the government could have said instead ‘be careful’ or ‘stay aware’ or ‘be vigilant’ or ‘pay attention’ or ‘keep your wits about you’ and so on. But ‘stay alert’ would be my favourite of all those.

So why the loud complaints and sniping from the side-lines? The answer, I think is that there are political opponents who want to ensure they are seen to be active. But of course, it is very difficult to criticise too heavily when, to do so, might risk the current compliance and the life-saving consensus. Simply put: they have to find something to complain about.

For students of PR, it is worth understanding that even when people criticise a message – it doesn’t necessarily mean it is not effective. To take a controversial example from history (which I strongly disapprove of), Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ phrase was massively criticised. But it was also hugely influential. The Brexit campaign’s £350 million a week claim was again hugely criticised, for good reason, but undoubtedly influential.

Top-line messages need to be short and memorable and open the door to an argument. As anyone who has worked with us knows, we favour metaphors, similes and analogies in this role but the important question is does it do the job? And here is why this is important. If, as a spin doctor or slogan writer you are too cautious, you will end up with something wordy and worthy that everyone can agree on, but no one remembers.

There are many things the government – perhaps most governments – have got wrong in this crisis. Mistakes that have cost lives. Bitching about the message is just a distraction.

using pictures

Using pictures to make your ideas memorable

Using pictures will help make your message memorable. This is a known and understood statement of fact. Advertising, speech writing, politics and data science all apply the idea that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. And yet this simple concept is so often left on the shelf when it comes to business communication.

I am thinking about his because I recently watched a documentary about the World Memory Championships and had a bit of an ‘a-ha’ moment. I had heard of memory palaces but I hadn’t quite got it all clear in my mind. Here is a trailer for the documentary which explains it pretty well.

 

As a result of watching the full documentary, I am currently trying to learn ‘The Major System’ so I can remember numbers more easily. I am doing this for fun but it is an interesting exercise in using pictures for memory.

Here is another really simple but helpful Ted Talk which is misleadingly titled but is about the power of pictures.

I have some other tips for using pictures for communication.

In presentations:

  1. Take the bullet points off the slides and use pictures instead.
  2. There are myriad of sources for pictures you can acquire for free or cheaply. We use Pixabay and Flickr – both free, but also Istock. I have recently discovered beautiful.ai which is all about online slideshows but has a vast library of great pics.
  3. Use your own photos. In professional life, I think there is vast scope for whipping out the phone and taking photos of your team, your projects, your commute or something else that just speaks to you. Using these in your presentation in a considered and logical way can make the whole thing fresh and inclusive.
  4. Use photos but draw on them or annotate them. (You can buy software that adds speech bubbles. although there are cheaper ways to do this.)
  5. Childish sketches or hand-written diagrams can also work if you dare to share them.

 

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In conversations or interviews:

Create a picture in people’s minds. If you do this your idea will be remembered. All you have to do to do this is to use tangible language.

If you talk about ‘the discomfort of public transport’ you will not create a picture. If you say ‘standing in the rain waiting for a bus’ or ‘squashed into a commuter train with someone’s backpack in your face’ you are creating pictures.

I remember someone talking to me about ‘data cleansing’ for a pension fund. It was all rather dry and unmemorable until she spoke about her first ‘data cleansing’ job which started in a dusty room full of hand-written ledgers. She didn’t actually show me a picture – I created the picture in my mind, and several years later I remember it well. Below is exactly as I imagined it.

using pictures

I am always interested in good sources of pictures or fresh ideas of how to use them so please feel free to share.

misspeak

Another Misspeak: Strachan Reminds us that Stream of Consciousness is Dangerous in a Media Interview

Another misspeak this week has landed a respected former football manager in hot water.

Strachan’s Confused Misspeak

If you watch TV sport, you are probably aware that Gordon Strachan, a former Scotland and Celtic manager, has been dropped as a pundit on Sky Sports after drawing a comparison that has infuriated many. He has apologised but the story is still running after several days.

misspeak

What actually happened? Well early in the Thursday night programme, The Debate, panellists had been discussing the problem of racism in football, prompted by Spurs and England defender Danny Rose, considered to be one of the most talented players of his generation. He said he couldn’t wait to see the back of football because of the racist abuse he suffers – and because of the lack of action taken against offenders.

Later in the same programme, the discussion turned to whether Adam Johnson, a footballer who has been released from prison after serving 3 years of a sentence for child sex offences, should be allowed to play again. He was found guilty of having sexual contact with a 15-year-old fan.

Strachan, who has said he would be happy to sign Johnson given that he had served his time, appeared to draw a comparison between the racist chants and the potential for abusive chants if Johnson appeared back on the pitch. He posed the question:

“If he (Johnson) goes on to the pitch and people start calling him names, have we got to do the same as it is to the racist situation?” Strachan said. “Is it all right to call him names now after doing his three years – have we got to allow that to happen?”

Misspeak trouble can come from nonsense

It’s a fairly non-sensical sentence and certainly not a thought out position. The nub of the argument is that many believe Johnson deserves abuse while (clearly) black players do not.

Whilst Strachan’s comments were ill-advised, and clearly not well thought out – the sentence barely makes sense – it is clear to me that it is extremely difficult to pick wise words all the time. It is extremely easy to say something stupid, or non-pc or just plain wrong in a longish conversation, in which you are being treated as an expert. We see it time and time again. It is not easy to be a professional pundit and in the age of Twitter, it is easy for anyone to misspeak in public or in the media, and kick up a hornet’s nest of fury.

misspeak

Misspeaks: a Long List

So next time someone tells you that they do not have time to ‘work on their messages’ ahead of a media interview, and they do not need Media Training, remind them of this long list of people who misspoke in an unguarded moment. Some just had an uncomfortable few days, others lost their jobs or ended up in court.

If you can remember some I can’t, please do share.

Is your message boring image

Is your Message Boring but Important? Important but Complicated?

Is your message boring or overly technical? What can you do to make it more digestible?

Making the Boring Digestible and Memorable

Those of us who care about communication –  and who work with businesses or organisations –  are constantly challenged to make something inherently complicated, easy to understand. It is not unusual to find organisations who have struggled for years with this core problem. Sometimes the spoken word really is just not enough, and there is a need to be more creative. Here are some random examples of clever ideas, which I share, hoping they will provide all of us with inspiration.

BA Comic Relief Safety Video

I have been doing a bit of travelling recently, and one cannot but admire the brilliance of the British Airways Comic Relief Safety video. Trying to get frequent fliers to pay attention to flight safety (whilst also getting them to donate money to Comic Relief) must be one of the biggest message challenges there is – particularly as the obvious option of scaring the bejabbers out of passengers – is not available. If you haven’t seen the second edition of this, the Director’s Cut is here:

 

Information is Beautiful

Information is Beautiful by David McCandless is a fabulous coffee table book which I think I must have lent to someone (if it’s you can I have it back please). It has literally hundreds of examples of different ways to present information visually. To reach the standards of ‘beauty’ demonstrated in the book would require a designer and a reasonable budget, but if you are just looking for inspiration for the latest PowerPoint presentation, you might find something you can replicate.

Is your message boring image

Is your message boring image

Of course, there are many other sources of inspiration for graphics. Infographics have come of age in recent times and can be a great way to get a message out. It seems to me you will still need a creative designer and a budget, but they can certainly have an impact. Although the word infographic is modern, the idea has been around hundreds of years. This is a blog about graphics that changed the world – including the Florence Nightingale one pictured below. Nightingale’s charts illustrated month by month, the overwhelming number of deaths in Military Hospitals caused by preventable diseases. It changed hospital practice forever.  Others mentioned in the blog are Mendeleev’s 1869 Periodic Table and Harry Beck’s 1931 London Underground Map.

Is your message boring image

Tell a Story

I am not going to reiterate all I have said before about story-telling and how important stories, examples and anecdotes can be in message building. But there are people out there who are going one step further: weaving important information into a fictional story. This strikes me as being very hard work but is something of a specialism for the author Patrick Lencioni. He writes about business management and teams, and I have read and enjoyed ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – A Leadership Fable’.

Is your message boring image

 

Most of the book is the fable or fictional account of the challenges faced by a new CEO tasked with turning around a cash-burning start-up. In the end, there is an analysis of the story explaining the ‘best practice’ that can prevent or deal with the problems faced. It’s clever and makes the otherwise dull topic, very digestible.

Another clever person trying to make learning easier is Matteo Farinella. He combines storytelling with comic-style drawing using fantastical drawing to explain neuroscience in his book  Neurocomic.

In this example of his style covered by a creative commons licence, he is illustrating the water cycle.

Is your message boring image

The Humble Metaphor

It is not possible to leave out from this list my old friends – metaphors, analogies and similes. So often they explain things very well, either verbally or visually.

When Sir Ian Cheshire, Chairman of Debenhams wanted to kill a story that the company was insolvent this is what he said.

“The only analogy I can have to it is like having a bunch of nosy neighbours watching your house… Somebody sees somebody in a suit going into a room. The second person concludes it’s a doctor, the third person concludes it’s an undertaker, and by the time it gets to the end of the day you’ve got the cause of death, and everyone’s looking forward to the funeral.”

Social Media Videos

Finally, let’s return to videos, but with rather lower production values than the BA example, we started with. I am a huge fan of the World Economic Forum’s bite-sized videos that appear on LinkedIn. An archive of them can be found here. As you can see, they are very simple but very effective.

Here are five cognitive biases that could be holding you back at work

Studying your subconscious mind. 📕 Read more: http://bit.ly/2Hk9OSN

Geplaatst door World Economic Forum op Vrijdag 8 maart 2019

So now all we need is a story, or a novel, a graphic or a video, to explain the difference between World Trade Rules, Canada +++, Norway style deal etc. – just in case we have to vote on which one we, in Britain, want.

Metaphors

Metaphors for Persuasion

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

Violent Crime as a Public Health Issue

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

Metaphors for Persuasion

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

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

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

Gary Slutkin

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

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

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

From Metaphor to Policy

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

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

War Metaphors for Tackling Cancer

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

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

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

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

Do War Metaphors Serve Politics

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

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

The Power of Metaphor

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

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

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

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

Blue passport

The blue passport and the power of the tangible

The blue passport has been called an icon of British Identity. And we are going to hear a lot more about that icon in the coming weeks.

The blue passport: why all the fuss?

The blue passport was discontinued in 1988, although given the lifetime of passports there were probably a few around for 20 years after that. But this does mean roughly 20 million of the 65 million population of the UK have never seen a real UK blue passport. However, it is clearly viewed with affection by many amongst the older generations. As you are almost certainly aware, blue passports are due to be reintroduced – or an updated version will be introduced – in 2019 when Britain leaves the EU.

Blue passport

The controversy comes because the contract to print these new passports is about to be awarded to a Franco-Dutch company Gemalto. The specialist British printing firm De La Rue (an ironically French name) which, it seems, lost out in the tender process, has very unusually taken the view that this is a decision worth fighting and in public.

The legal case to have it printed in the UK and not in Europe is going to get a great deal of coverage. There are lots of reasons for this. One is clearly that the dispute neatly encapsulates the pro/anti EU argument in a simple way. But another key factor is that the blue passport itself is tangible. By which I mean you can picture it. And that is a key reason why this will run and run.

The power of the tangible

Tangibility helps people, all people, engage with this argument much more easily than with the arguments about other important elements of the Brexit process such as possible tariffs on financial services.

You can picture the passport in your mind in the way you can picture a pot of money, a bridge, or a car but you can’t picture a pension, infrastructure or the automotive industry. Being able to picture something makes it easier to grasp and easier to remember.

This is not the first time the controversies of the EU has been reduced to something we can picture. Myths about a threat to straight bananas, British sausages and a proposed ban on the word ‘yoghurt’ all became symbols of exasperation with the EU and in all cases it was a myth but the arguments live on. The BBC among others did an expose of this in 2007.

The take away: find something tangible

If you are communicating to external or other non-specialist audiences, including tangible items – examples you can picture – is a very simple way to make an argument more memorable or sticky.

Blue passportBlue passportIn a recent training my colleague Catherine Cross compared a description of a company that was doing the rounds on LinkedIn with a quote about engineering from former BP CEO Lord Browne. Both are attempting to explain a professional concept. But we think Lord Browne wins hands down because he gives examples that people can visualise and this is much more powerful than a lot of conceptual words.

Professional cerebral people are often deeply reluctant to add these tangible words to their prepared arguments because they think it makes them look stupid or they think it’s irrelevant and unnecessary. We think tangible elements are hugely valuable in any argument and should be shoe-horned in at any opportunity.

Create a picture in people’s minds and your argument is more likely to be remembered.

The Media Coach is constantly involved in helping companies and organisations create ‘sticky’ messages. If your organisation needs help with please do give us a call on 020 70992212.

For a previous blog on the key elements of prepared messages see our earlier blog: 8 tips for professional communicators. 

 

 

Blue passport photo used under Creative Comms licence.

 

Journalists are not clients or customers

Journalists are not clients or customers – handle with care   

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

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

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

Journalists are not clients or customers

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

Journalists – how should you treat them?

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

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

Defensive interviews serve no one

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

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

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

Journalists are not clients or customers

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

People-pleasers are more likely to say something stupid

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

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

Journalists are not clients or customers

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

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

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

Media Interviews? We can help

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

Oxfam Crisis Goldring

Oxfam Crisis notes

Oxfam is in crisis. There must be a whole book of ‘lessons’ from the implosion of this once great British organisation. An implosion caused by a seven-year-old scandal exposed by The Times newspaper last Friday. It is ghastly to watch and a text book example of a ‘crisis’ where new damaging elements of the negative story continue to emerge every day.

Oxfam Crisis Daily Mail

Oxfam will be lucky to survive

I feel compelled to declare my personal opinion about this Oxfam crisis. As many know I have worked a lot with charities and agencies in the developing world. I am a huge fan of ‘development work’ in all its guises. If more people knew the great work that is done, the more they would support it.

But it seems all too common for individual incidents of bad behaviour or bad management to be blown out of all proportion in order to discredit all or any development work. There are swathes of society who, with little knowledge of the reality on the ground in developing countries, believe money should not be ‘wasted’ helping people ‘over there’. They are quick to take any example of mismanagement or misappropriation of funds to prove their preconception. The Daily Mail in particular plays to this agenda in ways that many find hugely distasteful. My sympathy is all with Oxfam although of course not with those accused of wrong doing.

Oxfam Crisis Daily Mail

Oxfam crisis analysis

That said let’s look at the lessons of this Oxfam crisis.

Public outrage gets ahead of the law. The press likes to bay for blood as soon as any act that would offend a Victorian prude, comes to light. (Always remember this is fake outrage. Few journalists are paragons of virtue in their private lives). The Oxfam country director in Haiti, 7 years ago, admitted to paying for sex. Just to help the headline writers, the party where this happened has been dubbed a ‘Caligula like orgy’ – by ‘sources’ that spoke to The Times. He agreed to step down but his employer, Oxfam, chose not to sack him and not to prevent him working in his profession in the future.

Bad media crises have a habit of having many chapters. If the thing journalists have got their teeth into initially in a crisis is not actually illegal they will often switch the focus to ‘transparency’. Transparency is really difficult when dealing with personnel, commercial and many other issues.

The take-way is that as soon as a crisis starts, someone in the affected organisation needs to be reminding decision-makers that at any moment the whole focus could switch to ‘transparency’. Organisations need to be prepared to be totally transparent or find rock-solid reasons why they cannot be. Transparency can be brutal. Here is an article in CEO Magazine about transparency in a crisis.

Oxfam crisis: what could be done

Anyway, the only way to stop a crisis like this once it gets going is:

  • Sack a whole load of people or have them resign. Be careful if you sack, they may sue as Sharon Shoesmith, the social worker in the Baby P case did. And she won. Story here. 
  • Make an abject public apology. Here is Oxfam’s from CEO Mark Goldring. 
  • Make vast amounts of detail available to journalists who will quickly get bored.
  • Have spokespeople trained and ready to handle the sort of aggressive questioning that we have seen on every serious news programme.
  • Hire someone like Alistair Campbell or a specialist crisis firm (or us) to do your messaging and reactive lines. These need to be much more than wishy-washy statements of good intent. You will need substance and a forensic like approach to possible questions.
Oxfam Crisis Mark Goldring

Mark Goldring CBE, Oxfam’s CEO, made a clear and complete apology.

If you are an organisation full of decent honest people who expect the rest of the world to be measured, decent and honest you have a huge handicap. You will not realise the potential for the crisis to get out of hand and you will not expect the media to go for the jugular. One problem is that sometimes the media does and sometimes it doesn’t. Any doomsayer might be wrong and might damage his or her career by saying ‘this could go ballistic’ when it then doesn’t.

For students of media training lets look at two of the many interviews on this subject.

In this Newsnight interview with Dame Barbara Stocking, the CEO of Oxfam at the time of the Haiti operation, the scandalous bits are all the ‘outraged’ questions from Emily Maitlis. The measured responses from Dame Barbara are barely newsworthy. It was a difficult interview but overall she did well. Personally, I would have liked her to offer a solid apology and be a bit more robust in defense of the decisions Oxfam took. But she was credible and had solid answers. Note this interview was a pre-record. Not a good idea. Dame Barbara should have done it live.

Our second example is a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview on 12th February – one hour ten minutes in, that is 7.10am. (Remember this disappears after one month.) In this unimpresive interview with Michelle Russell, Head of Investigations at the Charity Commission, it is clear that she had only one simple message and not enough detail to sustain the interview. She appears to be taken aback that Matthew Price, the interviewer, is questioning the competence of the Charity Commissioners themselves. She struggles to cope with what for her was apparently unexpected aggression.

It is the season of sex scandals

It is the season of sex scandals. Post Harvey Weinstein, many things that might in the past have not seemed to be a scandal – potentially are now. I doubt any organisation has no skeletons in the cupboard and I expect most have no idea how they would cope if the spotlight turned on them.

The Orville imagines the rule of law administered by twitter

I cannot finish without recommending a recent episode of The Orville – a brilliant skit on Star Trek running on Fox. In Season 1 Episode 7 Majority Rule, the team visit a parallel planet to Earth, Sargus 4, where the law is administered by popular vote on a planet-wide twitter-like feed. Whilst it is hilarious it is also a bit too close to Earth 2018 for comfort. This is not unrelated to the Oxfam scandal.