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comms team feature

12 Ways to Prove you are a True Comms Professional

PR people are so often overworked and under-valued. One of the big – not so obvious – benefits of Media Training, is that it opens the eyes of executives to the role and the work of the comms team. But if Media Training is not on the agenda, here are 12 ways you can prove you are a true comms professional.

comms team

Be Prepared to Challenge

1. Ask repeatedly until you get a clear defined answer: Who is the audience? What do we want to achieve? So many PR initiatives fail because of woolly or ever-changing objectives. Senior people love demanding that something happens without being clear what the desired specific benefit would be. Phrases such as ‘get me some press coverage’, ‘get me some good PR for this’, or even ‘can’t you just give me the journalists’ mobile numbers’.

2. Ask: How will we know we have achieved that objective? What metrics will we measure? It can be difficult to measure PR impact or outcomes and it maybe there are no satisfactory metrics to log. But it is worth always asking the question, not least because it gives the PR professional cover if the coverage fails to wow.

3. Hold everyone to account for writing and speaking in plain English. It is no good you working your socks off to get people in front of journalists if, once they start, they can’t explain the project or product in ways that mean something to the audience. It is often uncomfortable reminding senior people to use more colloquial language, but it will pay dividends (assuming they listen).

4. Repeatedly ask: Is that true? Can we prove it? Can we evidence it? Some teams are overly cautious, while some leaders are way too gung ho. Given it is the PR team who will be fielding the calls if bold claims cannot be substantiated, it’s worth insisting that you have the proof points before you go public.

Know your Market

5. Know your journalists. Names and biographies of the top 20 or 30 journalists or bloggers on your media list should be well known to you.

6. Keep an eye on key competitors and remind your team what they are doing and saying. Many people are too busy doing the day job to properly keep across market issues. Those that do manage to do this will give themselves and the team an edge. Observations can be as simple as how active they are in the media, to what they are talking about, to the detail of which spokesperson is saying what. This may provide media opportunities, warn of ‘while I’ve got you…’ questions and much more. Above all, it will convince the business it is worth paying your wages.

Set your own Standards

7. Read everything you or a colleague writes, at least twice: once for sense and once for grammar and spelling. If you are about to publish externally, ask for a second pair of eyes wherever possible. This is especially important for me. I do not see grammar and spelling mistakes. I can read things as carefully as I like and I always miss something. Fortunately, I have people in the team who rarely miss anything.

8. Project plan everything. Diaries, dates, personal deadlines and to-do lists are the bedrock of professionalism. Even if you are doing this for yourself rather than a team, and even if you get knocked off course most days, working to a prioritised to-do list, and creating a simple timeline for everything, will keep you ahead and make you look efficient.  It also tends to provide great motivation and guard against distraction.

9. Read widely and pull out the PR lessons. For yourself to share with colleagues and to use as quotes or anecdotes in your PowerPoint. Not so easy in a busy life but reading around a subject will always enrich the fertility of your subconscious. I rarely find a book about current affairs that doesn’t teach me something about PR. Sharing nuggets from your reading will also ‘add value’ to team discussions.  (Obviously, be careful not to bore people.) Don’t know where to start? Try political biographies.comms team

10. Think like a millennial, whatever your age. Digital and comms should not be two separate departments. If they are, they need to work hand-in-glove. Imagine you were interviewing someone for a PR job. One candidate says: ‘I know my way around Twitter but I really hate all this social media stuff.’ The other says: ‘social media gives us a really wide range of options, and we can measure the impact of everything if we get across the numbers’. Which one would you hire?

11. Consume media. Stay across the news agenda and refer to it often with less newsy colleagues. As with everything, process will help you here. You could, for example, list 10 websites you flick through every day. Add a couple of TV or radio programmes that you listen to on catch-up – so you can jump through irrelevant items. You don’t have to do everything every day, just do some.

And Finally – Do your own PR

12. PR your own team. Remind colleagues what a good job the comms team does, either keeping things out of the news or winning column inches. Don’t assume colleagues in other departments understand the process or the value. You know the value of PR. Use it to boost the standing of your team. Showcase successes, talk a good game, craft your internal team messages. You never want to hear a senior leader say ‘I just don’t know what the PR team does all day’.

The Media Coach is piloting a new course – Personal Effectiveness Training. It’s all about communicating more effectively. If you, someone in your team or one of your direct reports could communicate better get in touch to discuss a bespoke course: online or face-to-face. Call us on 0207 099 2212 and let’s chat.

 

 

dominic cummings' lockdown

Dominic Cummings’ Lockdown Drive : Falling Foul of Fairness

Dominic Cummings’ lockdown drive may turn out to be a career-defining episode for the aggressive, plain-speaking and, until now, hugely influential political advisor.

Dominic Cummings Becomes the Story

Political advisors are supposed to know what works with the public: what has cut through, what the public will get behind and in the end how they will vote. It is this nose for the herd mentality and how it will play out amongst the various institutions and players with power – that ‘political advisers’ are paid for. Dominic Cummings appears to have either misjudged this one – or realised he was gambling with his career and drove north to Durham anyway.

Watching his performance in the garden at Number 10, many people, especially many parents of young children, will understand the dilemma and his actions. Most will see it as in a different league to the Scottish Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, who twice broke lockdown to visit her second home. In his statement, Cummings provided evidence that what he did was not illegal. Lockdown rules allowed that – especially for those with young children – it may not always be possible for everyone to comply with the strict ‘stay at home’ message.

 

Cummings Falls Foul of the Fairness Principle

The problem is that Cummings’ actions fall foul of the fairness principle. Others did stay at home in difficult circumstances: did not visit their children in hospital, did not see their father before he died and so on. And the fact that Cummings went home to Durham when things got tough, is seen as simply not fair.

A sense of fairness, or fair play, is a very powerful driver of human action. I must admit I hadn’t fully understood this until the last few weeks. But an innate, ingrained and universal sense of fairness has been a theme in two of my lockdown reads. Both stress all human beings are born with this sense of fairness and both stress that you ignore it at your peril.

In the Chris Voss book on negotiation, ‘Never Split the Difference’, the author points out that even in highly unlikely situations – like negotiation with kidnappers (he was an International FBI Negotiator) –  ‘a sense of fairness’ is something that can be used by either side. One of Voss’ ‘tricks’ was apparently to tell the baddies that he wanted to be ‘fair’ with them. He also built a reputation or brand for being a ‘fair’ negotiator, sticking to his word, etc. But the crucial phrase here is on page 122.

dominic cummings' lockdown

Lockdown reading. Both books point out that fairness is an innate and powerful human emotion

‘The most powerful word in negotiation is ‘fair’. As human beings, we’re mightily swayed by how much we feel we have been respected. People comply with agreements if they feel they’ve been treated fairly and lash out if they don’t.’

He later mentions research that even monkeys will throw a tantrum if they don’t feel they are treated fairly. The sense of fairness is in our genes.

A Sense of Fairness is in our Genes

The fairness point also makes a significant appearance in another book ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The authors similarly point out that our sense of fairness is innate and almost certainly evolved as a way to live in harmony with each other and manage conflict. But the crucial point for this argument is that in times of war, governments take action to make society seem fairer. As Wilkinson and Pickett write:

Britain became substantially more equal during both the First and Second World Wars as part of an effort to gain support for the war effort’.

To state the obvious, if the cooperation of the majority of people is thought to be essential there is a need to convince them that the burden and sacrifice are being equally shared. And that is where Cumming’s has tripped up.

And it seems to be this fairness point that really hit a nerve with Church of England bishops. They took to Twitter to lambast the Prime Minister for supporting Cummings’ decision to drive to his parents’ farm during the lockdown. Here is what they had to say. Who even knew there were so many bishops on Twitter … but the fact they were all prompted to get tough by this is story, is pretty telling.

Cummings’ own performance yesterday was not arrogant or belligerent. He did explain his thought processes, but he also refused to apologise. It is the nature of the beast. But so often half an apology is worse than no apology at all.

For anyone who wants to see how to handle aggressive questioning, the Cummings performance is pretty strong. [I feel the FT’s coverage is uncharacteristically misleading] He is calm and respectful although clearly rattled. He is also apparently employing the ‘till they drop’ press conference technique which aims to give journalists as much time and access as they like, in the hope of arriving at the point where all questions have been answered and no one cares anymore. There is a fictional version of this in a West Wing episode that is a great illustration of the principle. I am clearly not the only person who remembers this from more than a decade ago.

dominic cummings' til they drop

At the time of writing it is not clear whether Cummings has done enough to save his job. However, one thing is clear to me. He would have had a better chance if a) he had done the press conference a few days earlier and b) if he had apologised properly.

The Media Coach team prepares people for difficult media interviews, and helps companies with Crisis Communication Plans. If you think we can help you or your team please call me on 020 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.

PR roll

Greggs On A Roll

Fast-food chain Greggs is on a roll. A good PR roll. We so often comment on companies and people that get into a mess by failing to use some basic and well-known tenet of PR, that it is nice to instead focus on a company that seems to be sure-footed. While not doing anything amazing, it is just doing PR well.

Good Results – And a Staff Bonus

This month Greggs announced a phenomenal growth in sales which allowed them to award 19,000 employees a £300 bonus at the end of the month. The numbers are even more impressive when you consider that in May 2018, 18 months ago, Greggs issued a profit warning due to subdued sales that knocked 17% off the share price. This year’s bonus and positive results were widely reported, giving heaps of great publicity to the humble high street chain.

The Vegan Sausage Roll

The jump in sales was widely attributed to the success of last January’s launch of the vegan sausage roll. This in itself was another great PR success.

There really is nothing to beat catching the zeitgeist. Veganism has gone from a dusty forgotten cupboard to the limelight as ethical consumers vote with their pennies, not just to protect the welfare of the animals but also to protect the planet. (The link between veganism and climate activism is an interesting one that we may return to later. It is in itself a PR success that may yet fall apart.)

Greggs Social Media – A Case Study for Modern Marketing

But what really turbo-charged sales was the reactive Twitter campaign. Piers Morgan, who has seven million, followers tweeted ‘Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns’. To which @GreggsOfficial responded ‘Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you’.

PR roll

There were a number of other witty responses to those who took aim at the sausage roll. All of which greatly helped sales.

In June Buzzfeed helpfully pulled together 19 occasions when Greggs was unexpectedly brilliant on Twitter.

PR roll

As noted at the beginning of the blog, the combination of all these things had led to a raft of coverage about how well Greggs is doing. Here are pieces in The Telegraph, The New Statesman (broadly positive), Reuters, The Independent, There are many more. Hats off to the marketing team and particularly the person who decided to allow the Twitter team to step outside standard corporate responses.

 

 

things every press officer should have to hand

8 Things Every Press Officer Should Have To Hand

At the start of 2015, I wrote about the 7 things I thought every press officer should have to hand.  This is a slightly revised version of that blog post.

Our team work with many large multi-faceted press offices which have systems, templates 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 and whilst they do a good job they feel they don’t really know what else they should be doing. If you recognise yourself here, this article is for you. Since I first wrote it social media has continued to increase in importance and complexity. Now no PR person can afford to not be across their companies social media presence, whatever that entails so I have added an eighth point to acknowledge this.

New to PR? here’s where to start

things every press officer should have to hand

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!

things every press officer should have to hand

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 the 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 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.

things every press officer should have to hand

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.

8. Social Media Strategy

This may or may not be the responsibility of the press office but either way, anyone dealing with external affairs should at least know what the Social Media strategy is and whose job it is to both monitor and post. The strategy should identify the objectives and the action plan. It should identify who posts, what the guidelines are, and in particular how to separate personal and professional social media. It should identify the active channels and perhaps the less active ones. For example, The Media Coach has a token presence on Facebook but to date, we have concentrated our efforts on LinkedIn with slightly more than a token presence on Twitter. For us YouTube is important but so far Instagram is not. You need someone in your organisation who can read the data. This will tell you what works and what doesn’t the information that has to then be shared with those curating the content.

At The Media Coach, we have huge respect for PR people and see first hand how hard most of them work. Many are ignored when things go right and blamed when things go wrong. We believe the profession should do its own PR – internally and externally – and make it clear to the senior management team that there is structure, judgement and real knowledge behind each decision. Don’t let anyone get away with believing it is all fluff!

Nwws Management

News Management – the Brexit Deal Case Study

News Management is something we are going to be very aware of in the UK in the next couple of weeks. By all accounts ‘Selling the Brexit Deal’ is going to be a full-on political campaign.

The Prime Minister, having finally and somewhat amazingly ‘got a deal’ with the European Union, now has the daunting task of getting it through Parliament. This make-or-break parliamentary vote will take place on December 11th, just two weeks away.

News Management

PR Blitz is Planned

Before that, we are told, Theresa May will embark on a tour of the home nations followed by Question Time in the Commons and many more media appearances including a possible TV debate with or without Jeremy Corbyn.  (See the Telegraph headline here: Theresa May demands Brexit TV debate with Jeremy Corbyn as PM begins campaign to win Commons vote on deal.)

News Management

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn may be invited to debate the Brexit Deal with The Prime Minister in a TV debate.

News Management Project of Highest Order

Co-ordinating all this activity, having a plan but also responding as things happen, trying to win hearts and minds, is a news management project of the highest order. In this day and age it is also 24/7. I notice the Number 10 rebuttal of Trump’s unhelpful comments last night was out very early this morning. News management is both proactive and reactive.

Media Training does not teach News Management

People often call us to ask for Media Training when what they need is News Management training. Typically, such calls come from entrepreneurs, CEOs of smaller organisations or people who have come from some other professional background, but now have PR or media in their title and are not quite sure what the job entails.  I usually try and point these people in the direction of a professional PR person or agency.

Established PR people see Media Training as having broadly two uses: Firstly, the preparation for new spokespeople as they step into a senior business role that may require them to speak to the media. Secondly, something that is available to top up that basic training and help individuals prepare for a particular launch or issue or interview. (The Media Coach team also offer something different than this, which is Facilitated Message Building, related to but not the same as Media Training.)

In the case of ‘the Brexit Deal’, news management is the job of Robbie Gibb, the PM’s Communications Chief. I wrote about his appointment here last year and have been waiting for his behind-the-scenes role to become more public. Now maybe the time.

I quote here from Monday’s POLITICO London playbook, written by Jack Blanchard, which drops into my inbox every morning.

Blitz Spirit: Theresa May returns to the Commons today to face another extended mauling from MPs over her newly minted Brexit deal. 

….

It marks the start of the next phase of the big No. 10 PR blitz to try to sell this Brexit deal to MPs and the wider public, which has already seen the PM endure two three-hour stints in the Commons, two live radio phone-ins, two press conferences, two speeches, two jaunts to Brussels and sit-down interviews with Sky News and Remoaner bible the Daily Mail.

Team sports: Before this afternoon’s expected Commons marathon, May will first convene a rare Monday morning Cabinet meeting to brief her senior ministers on yesterday’s summit. The meeting is expected to include a presentation from May’s director of comms Robbie Gibb on how to sell the deal on the airwaves over the next two weeks.

It is Robbie Gibbs who will be the guiding hand behind this frenzy of activity from Number 10 and he won’t just be coordinating the PM’s media appearances but that of all the loyal cabinet members too. It’s a big job.

No Hard Sell

From a PR perspective, the one thing you can guarantee is that most outlets will say yes to having face time with the PM. No one is having to do a hard sell to get the boss in front of the cameras on this one.

 

Corbyn photo from Flickr – Credit Gary Knight used under creative comms licence.

May feature photo from Flickr – Credit DonkeyHotey used under creative comms licence.

 

media training

Media Training: The ‘Justify Your Bonus’ Question

Media training sessions quickly flush out the questions that senior executives are most nervous about hearing from journalists. And ‘how do you justify your bonus?’ is up there in the top three.

This recent example of the Persimmon CEO, Jeff Fairburn failing to handle such a classic and predictable tough question is both funny and shocking. (Many thanks to those of you that drew my attention to this. I love that you all think of me when you see a bad interview!)

You clearly hear on the video a woman, probably his PR minder, stepping in to say her boss cannot be asked the question! Some have criticised her for jumping in.

Sympathy for PR

media training

BBC’s Spencer Stokes asked CEO Jeff Fairburn about his £75m bonus.

I have more sympathy. Her boss was failing to handle the ‘can you justify your bonus?‘ question from Spencer Stokes the Business and Transport Correspondent for BBC Look North.

Those of us who work in PR know full well that if something goes wrong in an interview, senior people love to blame the PR person. There is a certain type of business leader who believes if they pay enough for PR they can control the media. Fortunately, this is not the case.

But, I fear that had our hapless PR person not jumped in, she might well have lost her job. As it is, it was probably a very bad day for her and I, for one, am not going to blame someone for looking to demonstrate support (or attempt to control) in such circumstances. She may well have known that on many measures it was an inappropriate thing to do – but for her personally, it was perhaps better than the alternatives.

The fault here lies in the lack of preparation. Anyone in the public eye, with a large salary or bonus, can expect this question. It feels both uncomfortable and intrusive to be asked about remuneration but given that the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to generate headlines, these questions are not going to stop anytime soon.

What he should have said?

The trick is to practise a non-committal answer. I would suggest something like this:

‘The bonus is a matter of public record, it is set by the remuneration committee and agreed by shareholders. I am not going to comment on it.’

The speaker can then move on to something they want to say or simply leave it at that, understanding full well that the question will return. When it does, the answer should be the same but still delivered politely.

People who are infuriated by those in power not answering the question will hate this solution but there really is no alternative. If the speaker tries to justify any level of bonus by, for example, talking about ‘market rate for the job’, ‘the global marketplace’ or ‘the value I have delivered to shareholders’ he or she is going to open up a whole debate with the journalist that will likely include a bunch of quotes that make the speaker sound arrogant, unsympathetic to the poor or out of touch. The story will immediately grow ‘legs’ as we say in the business and be picked up and picked over by a whole bunch of other news outlets and commentators.

The answer should be as unremarkable and dull as possible

The best that can happen if someone senior is asked about a bonus or pay, is that the answer is unremarkable and unnewsworthy. That is why the way to deal with this question is to politely close it down with something that sounds as credible but dull as possible.

The lesson is clear: business leaders facing the media must do the preparation and get some media training so they can roleplay these things. They need time to discuss and understand the options and the wording so if that dreaded question comes they know what to say.

Above all don’t wait for, or expect your PR person to rescue you (at least not on TV or radio). And don’t get snarky with the journalist afterwards. It makes you look bad.

The Daily Mail article on this subject can be found here and the article from the Independent can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

business storytelling

6 Tips for Business Storytelling

6 tips for business storytelling are detailed at the end of the article but first, let me explain where I am coming from here.

I was talking to a PR person at the weekend about her job hunt and she wanted to include ‘great storytelling’ as one of her key skills.

Now, I totally agree with her: both that storytelling is super important in PR and also that she is very good at it. But I am not sure she should mention it unless her potential employer indicates they think this way too.

business storytelling

Business Storytelling BS

The problem is that there has been a lot of BS about storytelling – fanciful executive courses that have people playing with bean bags and rewriting fairy tales. We all know the sort of thing. The result is there is a lot of scepticism about storytelling as a professional skill.

This and a couple of other conversations with clients set me thinking again about storytelling and how it relates to the communications work we do: media training, presentation training and messaging.

Why Storytelling works

I should say at the outset that I am absolutely one hundred per cent certain that stories work because of the way the human brain is wired. This is almost certainly dictated by evolution. I came to that conclusion many years ago and long before I started reading about the subject.

But don’t take it from me. Here is a serious and beautifully written article in Scientific American. It includes a quote from Professor of Ethical Leadership and Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt…

“the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor”.

While Professor Haidt has research and learned tomes to evidence his belief, mine is based on my own observations; that people remember stories much more easily than they remember facts.

And it is not just that people remember: if they hear a story they are more likely to connect.

A simple example that we can all relate to is the difference between walking around a stately home or museum looking at things, compared to walking around looking at things with someone telling you the stories that go with the inanimate objects.

Storytelling and the value of things

But it is also clear to me that stories increase the value of things, literally the monetary value. Pictures, furniture and jewellery where the story is known have a higher value. Here is an article about this on an antiques website.

And another delightful bit of evidence – the Significant Objects Project. You can read the full details here but in summary: In 2009 Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker bought a whole bunch of tat; chipped and tasteless ornaments etc. They then commissioned a bunch of writers to produce a short story about each object and then sold the story and the object together on eBay. In their own words, they sold $128.74 worth of thrift store (charity shop) junk for $3,612.51. This exercise has been repeated several times since and there are books of photos and stories that raise money for charity.

business storytelling

And my final bit of personal evidence is that stories help people fall in love. I have seen it and experienced it myself. The back story of a person or a family can have a profound impact on a potential partner. I am not aware that this has been explored anywhere but it would make a very interesting book.

6 Tips for Business Storytelling

So here are my 6 tips for using stories in business.

First – be clear on your objective. Boring but true. Don’t create great stories that somehow leave a different message than the one you wanted to communicate.

Second, business stories (anecdotes or examples) need to be carefully prepared, almost scripted. They are so powerful it is crazy to wing it and risk throwing away the benefits.

Thirdly – as you describe this story, anecdote or example use tangible language. Create pictures in people’s minds. There is a world of difference between;

The child loved dogs.

and

George had loved dogs ever since he was 4. His family had visited a distant uncle who kept two black Labradors. George had played with the dogs all day and during the night he crept downstairs to sleep with them in the kitchen – where he was found curled up in the dog bed the following morning.

Fourthly, use emotion – even just a little – and you increase stickiness (the hip word for memorability and engagement). You may be talking about a business problem rather than dogs and children, but briefly describe the frustration, annoyance or fear felt before the denouement and you will make the story more memorable.

Next, if possible craft what is called in the trade a narrative arc that includes conflict or other nasty or bad stuff and has a point of transformation from bad or uncertainty to good. That can be boy kisses girl, missing child is found, accused is acquitted or the tractor part supply line problem is solved! The conflict and subsequent resolution will increase stickiness.

Finally, finish off with a feel-good scene in which the moral of the story or the point of the story is clearly stated. Don’t leave the audience to work it out unless you are absolutely sure they will.

If you can’t deliver the full suite above, at least use some of it: a bit of tangible language, a bit of tension.

Of course, your story may need to be very short if you are using it in a presentation, speech or media interview, and that is another skill.

Just remember the power of story-telling and go practice!

 

 

 

 

Beast from the East

Beast from the East – Wrestling with the Comms

The Beast from the East gave Britain a whole host of challenges and while armies of people were dealing with the practical problems others were wrestling with the communications challenge. The train companies spokespeople didn’t quite reach the nadir of the ‘wrong type of snow’ excuses we saw a few years ago. However, many travellers across the UK have expressed frustration with the lack of information and credible explanations on why things have ground to a halt so dramatically.

Beast from the East

The Beast from the East made driving trains difficult and sometimes impossible. It also posed communication challenges.

I preface everything below with the acknowledgement that hindsight is a wonderful thing and gives you 20/20 vision. Nor am I making light of weather which has resulted in several fatalities:

But here are a few observations:

Beast from the East reporting initially guilty of hyperbole

A key part of crisis preparation follows the maxim that ‘forewarned is forearmed’ and so it was reasonable for the media to start warning people that severe weather was on the way several days before it hit. However, another key part of crisis preparation is getting the tone right. So, I began to get slightly irritated at the very start of the week when I heard weather presenters and reporters talking in terms of Armageddon, with temperatures as “shockingly cold as -5C” and “snowfall likely to reach as much as 5 – 10cms”. This is what us northerners call ‘winter’. Neither rare or shocking.

Predicting the weather and its timing is not an exact science. But with the reporting reaching fever pitch right from the start, and the weather initially only hitting the south-east hard, I noticed in Cumbria considerable ‘weather warning fatigue’. That was just before the worst was about to come and all the red weather warnings were being issued for other parts of the country. The hyperbole early in the week might explain why later people took the decision to travel, despite being told not to. Sometimes with very serious results. A reminder that timing and perspective are vital for effective communication in a crisis.

Beast from the East

Train operators: no credible key messages

During severe weather in 1991, a hapless British Rail spokesman infamously tried to explain in an interview that mass train cancellations were caused by the type of snow. The media instantly pounced on his comments and he was held up to ridicule.  ‘The wrong type of snow’ even has its own Wikipedia page, helpfully explaining that “in the United Kingdom, the phrase became a byword for euphemistic and pointless excuses”.

So, I can understand why those caught up in a crisis are often reluctant to stick their head above the parapet and face the media. But, on the other hand, most types of crises can be foreseen, even if the exact timing of them cannot. So, while we don’t get bad winters as often as we used to, they are still fairly regular events, and I have found it surprising that, in the coverage I have heard this week, train operators in particular didn’t have more credible and understandable messages prepared to explain the delays and cancellations travellers were facing.

You can tell from the tone of this interview with Adam Fairclough of TransPennine Express on Radio 5Live’s Wake Up to Money on Friday 2nd March – that the BBC journalist is also sceptical of the messages. The interview starts at 37 minutes 35 seconds and is only available for another 24 days.

Clear messages are only part of what is needed to face journalists in a crisis. They will only be credible if you have sufficient examples to make them real and understandable. It’s always an indication that your messages are not fully developed if a journalist starts asking for examples to explain what you mean, as happens towards the end of the interview. Another clue: the journalist starts arguing with the examples given, as happens here with the journalist saying “if traffic lights continue to work on roads why can’t signals on railways?”

Social media: a picture is worth a thousand words

While word pictures are vital to back up your arguments, use of social media in a crisis can really help you get your point across. One good example is the pictures and video Direct Rail Services posted on their Twitter feed which show far more effectively than words ever could what they were having to deal with during “The Beast From the East”.

Beast from the East

 

Images from Twitter

 

 

 

 

 

 

rail passenger communication

Rail passenger communication in the dark ages

Rail passenger communication needs to be dragged into the 21st Century.

Stuck on a train, in the snow, trying to get to a training session on time or catch a flight must be among the most frustrating, the most stressful and the most unpleasant experiences of my life.  And I had a number of those experiences last week.

rail passenger communication

Snow led to widespread chaos on the trains but the communications with staff and passengers was also chaotic and unreliable.

Rail passenger communication was sparse and mostly wrong

What made them a whole lot worse was the complete lack of reliable information from the train companies. It was absolutely clear that the station staff and the conductors and drivers on the trains were also simply not being told what was going on. Information that did come through was late, out of date or just wrong.

It is astonishing that a few inches of snow and temperatures just a few degrees below the norm can cause such total widespread chaos.

In this super-connected world people expect to be told what is happening

But even more astonishing that with all the technology we have today to stay connected, the train companies, in particular, are so bad at keeping front line staff and passengers up to date.

On several occasions, I heard station staff in high vis jackets standing on freezing platforms telling passengers “We’ve got no idea mate!” Before the widespread adoption of the telephone this would be understandable but in the super-connected 21st century it is not.

It wasn’t just the station staff in the dark and out in the cold. Drivers and conductors did not fare any better. Nicky Marcelin-Horne was a passenger stuck overnight after getting on the 17:35 from Waterloo to Poole. It came to a halt somewhere in the New Forest and most of the passengers did not get off until morning. Speaking to the Evening Standard she said:

“The guys on the train were trying to help and keep us informed but they didn’t really know what was happening.”

On my stuck train, the conductor was trawling websites from his personal phone to try and work out what was happening.

Again I am aghast. How can this be so? People on the stranded trains were tweeting and posting on Facebook. Mobile phones were working even if the comms technology on the train wasn’t.  Surely someone from a control room should be telling staff what is happening.

rail passenger communication

For me, all this is a really visceral reminder of how crucial up-to-date, accurate information is to help people cope with unexpected and changing conditions. I made the wrong decisions about which train to get on (repeatedly), and whether to cancel a journey. With better information I would have made better decisions.

Crisis communications need planning and investment

It’s not the same as crisis communications via the media but there are a lot of parallels. Crises or disruption are always going to happen although the exact nature and the timing can never be known in advance. But, as we always say, an awful lot of things can be planned ahead of time. The problem is, it takes investment of time and money and it is human nature to put such investment to the bottom of the to-do list.

But, in both cases, when things do go badly wrong there are expensive enquiries, angry customers, huge loss of brand value and lots internal people saying ‘but we told you this could happen’.

 

Images from Twitter