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Coronavirus Communications – PM could do better, a lot better

Coronavirus communications from the government are being scrutinised by the entire population. I was deeply concerned by Boris Johnson’s performance during yesterday’s press briefing. As my phone went berserk in the aftermath it became clear I wasn’t alone.

Coronavirus communications image

I got texts from friends who were confused by the PM’s announcements, a call from a pub owner who was defiant about closing and messages from parents who felt none the wiser about when schools will shutdown.

Summing it all up was a former colleague who is managing the news-desk of one of Britain’s main national broadcasters:

“That was a f&*%ing car crash”.

Maybe a tad harsh, but he’s right that Boris should be doing far, far better.

A meticulous coronavirus communications strategy, containing carefully crafted messages, is hard to do when things are moving so fast. But it is absolutely vital. There is simply no room for vagueness, ambiguity or improvisation and I think Johnson failed on all three of those measures and just couldn’t resist the urge to wing it.

Effective crisis comms relies on giving clear, decisive, detailed information in the right tone. But that is not what we heard on Monday.

Urging people not to go to bars and restaurants without actually closing them – or being on the front foot about what provision you will make for the hospitality industry – was a confused and confusing message. It generated ill will among landlords and the catering trade, who feel hung out to dry in relation to their insurance, and judging from the pubs I went past last night was counter productive anyway.

That clanger has been widely covered this morning but what worried me just as much was the way that Johnson responded to reporters’ questions towards the end of the briefing. He was asked what he would do to help low income households, a question which gave him the perfect opportunity to land a reassuring message along the lines of “we are all in this together and people will not be left stranded”.

Instead, he responded by talking about improvements the Conservatives have made to the living wage, a party political response which was totally out of place.

He was then asked about the broader impact on the economy and talked about it “roaring back” within months, a sub Trumpian response which seemed neither rehearsed or reassuring.

I agreed with the Guardian’s snap verdict, which said the “roaring back quote came over as naïve utopianism”, and concluded “Johnson made a reasonably good fist of explaining what his proposals were but there was an enormous gap in the statement that a more experienced or strategic prime minister would have addressed”.

What’s required in this sort of situation is discipline and sobriety, traits which whatever your political persuasion is not what Johnson is renowned for and his performance confirmed what were already growing concerns yesterday about his and the government’s communication strategy.

These weren’t helped by the reports, which haven’t been denied by Number 10, that Johnson had made a joke during a conference call to manufacturers regarding the emergency production of ventilators that it could be called Operation Last Gasp.

One of the golden rules of any engagement with the media is to be very careful about any attempt at humour but what this proved was that the PM needs to realise that he needs to avoid careless or flippant comments in any situation in the current crisis.

There have been some good decisions. Ending the self-imposed ban on ministers appearing on the Today Programme was right and necessary.

Flanking Johnson with scientists Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance was a smart move, not only does it portray that the government are no longer sick of hearing from experts, it also gives Johnson foils to whom he can refer questions that require scientific authority, detail never having been his strength. What is his strength is he can deliver a message with authority in a way that gives the press what they need to tell the story the government needs to circulate. Johnson’s use of the line “I must level with the British public” last Thursday showed what he can do when he’s prepped and disciplined. Let’s hope the clarifications come swiftly and the lessons have been learnt.

The Media Coach team have now switched to providing training and coaching online. Clients planning their own coronavirus communications are booking in two hour slots of Skype, Zoom or Webex coaching. If you think spokespeople need coaching before talking to the media or staff – or if they are to do videos – we can help. We can also provide camera operators in London, the South East and the Midlands if should they be needed. Call us on +44 (0)20 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

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.

Torrential Rain

UK floods: Cameron’s press conference was straight out of the crisis communications handbook

David Cameron gave a text book crisis management press conference this afternoon.

Faced  with severe floods in the south west of the UK, ministers and technocrats falling over one another to pin the blame on anyone but themselves, and angry members of the public, he called his first Downing Street press conference for 238 days.

Cameron has learnt his lessons from the phone hacking scandal and has become better at appearing masterful in an emergency.

Here are five things he did which could serve as a checklist to others who might need to show leadership in a crisis.

david cameron press conference

David Cameron held emergency press conference on the floods

1. Cancel any plans (i.e. a forthcoming trip to the Middle East in Cameron’s case) to show actions speak louder than words and that nothing is more important than fighting the floods.

2. Say: ‘Nothing is more important than fighting the floods’ during the press conference (in case people didn’t get that you were taking it seriously).

3. Start the press conference with what you can say: in this case with the numbers of homes that have been flooded and then onto what’s being done to tackle the problem. So for example, we learned that by the end of Tuesday, 1,600 service men and women will have been deployed around the country with many more on call. This kind of approach is valuable because it feeds the media and social media voids, as well as making the speaker look and sound in control. It also allows you to do a lot of talking up front which puts you on the offensive rather than defensive with the journalists.

flood image torrential rain4. Keep your soundbites clear and simple. To shamelessly borrow from Tony Blair: ‘Now is not the time for soundbites.’ So from Cameron we got: ‘Things may well get worse before they get better’ and ‘Money is no object’.

5.  Refuse to be drawn on the politics (internal or external). Cameron did not commit to questions about squabbling ministers or questions about whether climate change was the cause of the flooding. Instead he focused on what the Government was doing to manage the crisis and that it was evident the extreme weather was a problem.

I expect the journalists will be all over the press conference looking for signs of inconsistency or sensationalism. But from a media trainer’s perspective this was disciplined, clear and a job well done.