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Rudeness in politics Boris Johnson

Rudeness and its Role in Politics

Rudeness in public life is not new and gives guaranteed headlines. Boris Johnson has won another huge raft of headlines and is being ‘investigated’ by the Conservative party on the grounds he may have breached the party’s code of conduct with remarks he made about women wearing the niqab.

Rude: Boris Grabs the Headlines (again)

Rudeness in public life Boris Johnson

Former Cabinet Minister Boris Johnson offended Muslims with his remarks about the niqab.

He was commenting on a new law in Denmark which bans the niqab (which leaves the eyes visible) and the burka (which covers the full face and body). Although Johnson argues against such a ban, he caused great offence with the following comments:

Rudeness in public life Boris Johnson

The whole article is here but behind a paywall.

The comments are certainly rude and disrespectful but many will identify with them.

And this is the dilemma as I see it.

If you are PC, some will assume you are not being straight

If you are always politically correct and polite in public life, and on the media, people think you are not being straight, you are not getting to grips with the issue, and you care more about style than substance.

Being polite and diplomatic about a controversial subject can also be interpreted as ‘weasel words’. Some will assume you don’t believe anything you are saying.

On the other hand, if you are undiplomatic or rude people think you are genuine, straight talking and you are ‘calling a spade a spade’, ‘telling it like it is’ and other positive sentiments.

Rudeness and Political Gain

Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and many others including Disraeli I am told, all in their time have flown in the face of political correctness for political gain.

For a myriad of reasons, social media has magnified the benefit of being rude.

It is naive to see Boris Johnson’s recent comments as him ‘misspeaking’ or unable to control himself. This is a clever political operator playing political odds and building his political base outside the current government. All the hand-wringing in the Tory party and the official enquiry will not make a jot of difference to his future behaviour. It might, of course, serve to deter others with less courage, from using the same tactics.

Recently a website called The Conversation published a detailed piece asking if rudeness has a legitimate place in politics.  The author, Amy Irwin, a lecturer in psychology, writes about how rudeness affects not just aggressor and victim but bystanders as well and mentions the ‘incivility spiral’ – which is the rather obvious truism that rudeness begets rudeness.

The piece also argues that while rudeness has some benefits it puts normal people off politics. Sadly, I think the opposite is true. Rudeness makes politics more engaging and easier to understand. Of course, some will find it tedious or distasteful but many more will find themselves talking politics in the pub and around the water cooler as a result. And that is political engagement.

If all that makes you think I am in favour of rudeness, I am not. For the simple reason that, well, it’s rude. I do think however, many who are otherwise on-the-side-of-the-angels, lose out politically because they are too careful not to cause offence. As with most things, wisdom lies in the middle ground.

If you would like help with crafting careful effective messages, The Media Coach can facilitate a message building workshop for your organisation and you will end up with messages that have widespread buy-in at a fraction of what would be charged by a PR agency. Call us on 020 7099 2212 to book your session.

 

Boris Johnson image used under a Creative Commons licence.

 

 

 

Why Macron won

Why Macron won: the Media Coach lens

If my circle of acquaintance is anything to go by (and maybe it isn’t) France’s new President Emmanuel Macron seems to be more liked by the international community than many of his own countrymen. Politics aside, part of the reason could be that at his best he communicates in a way that is easy for many English speaking (NB NOT anglophone) audiences to identify and connect with. Below are three Macron communication traits that I think give him the edge.

Why Macron won

Why Macron won: energy

In his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Randy Olson argues that all great communicators successfully connect with several different organs of the body – head, heart, gut and groin.  Macron doesn’t meet all these criteria (his set piece speeches can be tedious) but he’s physically forceful and animated during  interviews and 1:1 exchanges.

He’s not especially tall,  but he compensates for a lack of height with optimism, intense eye contact, forward focused body language and hand gestures that paint pictures as well as reinforce points. For example, during the 3rd May debate with Marine Le Pen, he used a piece of scrap notepaper as a proxy for a payslip to illustrate how one of his proposed employment tax reforms would work. He also counts items/issues off on his hands and underscores points very visually. A lot of politicians do this but few have the same businesslike, positive energy as Macron.

Why Macron won: he makes it tangible

One of the main criticisms levelled at Macron by his critics was his supposed lack of policy substance. This may prove to be true but he does use lots of tangible examples. I appreciate I am not glued to French TV but whenever I’ve seen him speak this is very obvious. In this excerpt from a TV exchange with French farmers he’s manages to explain why EU farming and trade policy matters to France in colloquial, visual terms by talking about exports of raw milk, Camembert and yoghurt and apples (in the South West) before moving on to wine and finally the impact that steel dumping by China had in the North and Eastern parts of France.

Why Macron won: great sizzle

During interviews and debates Macron eschews more traditional methods of French political rhetoric, (which tend to be discursive before building up to a final conclusion). He gets straight to the point and is quick with sharp rebuttals and one liners that are not only highly quotable (incidentally, the French word for sizzle is le gresillement) but also jump language barriers. For example, during the above exchange with the same farmers he described himself as a ‘Européen exigeant’ (demanding European) and characterised Marine Le Pen as a ‘mensonge sur pattes’ (a lie on legs). And one of his most memorable lines from the debate last week was when he called her ‘La Grande Pretresse de la peur’ (High Priestess of Fear). This picked up headlines not just in France but all over the world.

Of course, several of the techniques I’ve just discussed are ones we teach. This is not to imply that Macron is some kind of crypto Anglo-Saxon politician in disguise. But part of his appeal may well be that as a smart energetic, concrete communicator with a direct style he is someone who can resonate with audiences outside his own country, even when speaking in his mother tongue.

 

 

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations

Trump Banned Unfriendly News Organisations: Why You Should Not

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations from a White House press conference at the end of last week stepping up the ‘ante’ in the clash between the new President and the Fourth Estate. He has banned The Guardian, New York Times, Politico, CNN, BBC and Buzzfeed; all organisations apparently seen as hostile to the new order.

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations

President Donald Trump banned some news organisations from a White House briefing

Trump ban: no surprise

In some ways, it is no surprise. Trump comes from a business background and business is always much more selective about engagement with the media than politicians or administrations. How this will all play out in American politics is anybody’s guess. We are in unchartered territory.

But it does highlight the issue faced by many companies. Do they risk engaging with the media, knowing there is a possibility they will get unfriendly coverage? Or do they refuse to engage and hope little will be written or read about their company or any issues?

Business is too cautious

My own view is that business is much too cautious and much too controlling when it comes to the media. There are certainly times when it is better not to put your corporate head above the parapet but in general, the risks of media engagement are well understood and reasonably easily managed. There are of course a few exceptions.

But this is why I think business should engage more than they do.

Firstly, there is the obvious reason that editorial coverage is worth a great deal more than advertising. It tends to be read by the right people – your customers and other stakeholders will read stuff that is relevant to them. Despite the fact that fewer people pay for a newspaper these days, the efficiency of search engines and social media sharing means little is missed. Editorial coverage is also seen as more credible than advertising, and there is scope for much more sophisticated communication than in advertising.

Established relationships with journalists are useful

Secondly, it is hugely helpful to an organisation or business to have established relationships with journalists. It means that when they do want to get information ‘out there’ it can be done much more easily. It also gives the press office more options: to pick one journalist over another from a position of real knowledge, offer exclusives etc. Working relationships are essential and understood in other areas of business but undervalued in PR.

Thirdly, it is also hugely helpful to organisations to have trained and experienced spokespeople. This is particularly true if there is likely to be a crisis at some point in the future. You need a handful of people who know the game, have done a few radio and TV interviews and are not going to be phased by the process. As media trainers we are all too often asked to take people from first steps to ready for Radio 4’s Today programme in one four-hour session. Common sense will tell you that this is not ideal. 

The big win: shaping the conversation

mp banned George_Lakoff

George Lakoff has written about how the right-wing in the US has been shaping the public conversation

Finally, there is a more subtle benefit: engaging with the media provides the opportunity to, over time, shape the conversation. This requires a somewhat sophisticated longer-term media strategy but is something that can really work particularly for innovative industries – FinTech for example. There is a business benefit to softening up the public or creating expectations. This has been endlessly written about in politics. For example, the hugely readable ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ by George Lakoff. His revised and updated edition demonstrates how the right wing have played a very long game and a very successful one in shaping the debate in the US. While the democrats have mostly failed to do this. In the UK think about how Micheal O’Leary at Ryanair has shaped the debate over what we pay for when we buy an airline ticket.

Withdrawal of business from public debate has been damaging

On this last point, I would like to get on my socio-political soap box. The withdrawal of business from the public conversation over the last 30 years has been hugely damaging to British society. As a result of the apparent risks of media engagement going up in the mid-eighties and early nineties, more and more companies decided to control all conversations with journalists and in many cases turn down most interview opportunities. I know this happened because I saw it first hand as an output editor on BBC Financial World Tonight. During my time from about 1989 to 1994, it got steadily harder to find business people to talk.

[Although a few businesses did nail their colours to the mast over Scottish Independence and Brexit very few chose to be interviewed. It was deemed that the risks were too high. But my main concern is about more general everyday matters.]

Trump banned capitalism crisis

Many young people now believe business is bad for humanity

The result this withdrawal from the public conversations is that huge swathes of the under 25’s now think making money is wrong and that anyone making money is damaging the human race. Whilst the reality is, while some businesses can be exploitative – and I know a few – in general business is delivering an extraordinary level of comfort, service, interest and freedom of choice to the population.

So, why are businesses in general so reluctant to talk about their successes in the media? Well occasionally they do but when you think what a huge role business is playing in the life and development of the country, business is vastly under-represented.

If you would like to get more media coverage for your organisation we can of course help by training your spokespeople or helping develop your messages. So do pick up the phone (020 7099 2212) . Your country needs you!

Shaping the conversation: further reading

A good introduction to ‘shaping public conversations’ from a poverty action group in the US.

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.