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not answering the question Theresa May

Not answering the question is not the way to do it

Not answering the question in a media interview is never a good idea and can always be spotted a mile off.

Delegates arriving through the doors of The Media Coach are sometimes under the impression that we are there to teach them how to avoid answering questions they find difficult or awkward to answer.

The truth is that our sessions help them understand how to address questions during media interviews in such a way that both interviewer and audience are satisfied that they have understood the question, and have dealt with it appropriately.

Done well, it’s highly effective; done badly, it stands out like a sore thumb.

Not answering the question: Theresa May

Cue this week’s research by the University of York, which indicates that Theresa May is the ‘most evasive’ of recent leaders of the Conservative Party.

not answering the question

The academics involved studied how she dealt with MPs’ questions and media interviews, comparing her responses to the past three Tory predecessors in Number 10 Downing Street – David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.

They found that in two broadcast interviews after she became Prime Minister in 2016 and four during the 2017 general election campaign, Mrs May answered only 27% of the questions put to her. By contrast, David Cameron answered 34% of questions in the 2015 poll, while both John Major in 1992 and Margaret Thatcher in 1987 answered 39%.

not answering the question

Telegraph article by Christopher Hope

The researchers identified techniques which included ignoring awkward questions without acknowledging that a question has been asked, as well as responding to her own modified versions of questions, rather than the version that was actually posed. The research made the front page of the Telegraph Newspaper. 

As it happens my colleague Lindsay Williams made this observation when Theresa May first became Prime Minister. Lindsay wrote this blog in September 2016.

Little wonder the Prime Minister has been nicknamed “the Maybot” by many commentators during her failed general election campaign in 2017, even admitting, ‘People used the term “robotic” about me… I don’t think I’m in the least robotic’ (there’s also a lesson here about not repeating negative words or phrases in responses – but that’s for another blog).

Media interview techniques

To be clear – being trained in media interview technique is not about not answering the question. Instead, we teach an approach that allows interviewees to address questions in a way that convincingly persuades all of those listening that they are being dealt with in an open and honest manner.

It’s a learnt skill, often counter-intuitive in its method, and there are dozens of tricks and traps in the interviewer’s armoury which are craftily designed to prevent you from carrying it out effectively.

But then, that’s what our sessions are for.

We’ll give you the skills you need, lay bare the techniques media interviewers use and provide you with plenty of practice to deal with them.

Of course, the alternative is to take the politician’s approach – which is to openly not answer the question. The trouble is, that method gets spotted.

Not only by university researchers, not only by journalists but by members of the public too.

Images:

Theresa May from Wikimedia Commons
Telegraph article by Christopher Hope

hypocrisy of Blair

The hypocrisy of Blair: PR lessons from a reviled politician

‘The hypocrisy of Blair’ was the headline in The Sun on Monday this week, giving readers their weekly dose of outrage. Trevor Kavanagh, former political editor and now a columnist, wrote a stinging and vitriolic condemnation of the former Prime Minister for daring to suggest that there were ways to control immigration that might satisfy those who voted to leave the EU – and therefore mean Britain didn’t have to leave after all.

hypocrisy of Blair

Outrage

Tony Blair suggests much stricter immigration controls for EU citizens to satisfy angry UK voters: “Paradoxically, we have to respect the referendum vote to change it,” he explains. If he had sold his own children into the sex trade it’s difficult to imagine more personal and outraged coverage in some areas of the media. For example this story from the Express. 

hypocrisy of BlairBlair appears to have grown a Teflon skin, which may be why he is such a strange colour. Defending him is a mug’s game so I am not going to waste my words, although I still think he is one of the most brilliant communicators of his generation, if not of his century.

hypocrisy of Blair

Tony Blair: defending him is a mug’s game but he is still a brilliant communicator.

But it does, once again, throw the spotlight on whether it is ever possible to change your mind in public – over a major issue – and not get completely ridiculed. It seems there is, in the somewhat skewed moral code of journalists, no bigger crime than to change your mind. This is, of course, irrational on many levels and was tackled in the last century in a quote attributed to economist John Maynard Keynes :

‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’

Flip-flops and U-turns

I have written about this before two years ago (click here if you are interested) but the moral of the story is clear: you do not want to make public U-turns or flip-flops lightly because journalists will be likely to put it in a headline and suggest you are losing face, incompetent or an idiot.

If you do need to do it, it needs careful planning, crafted arguments or messages and robust answers to the obvious question of: ‘why have you changed your mind’, and ‘how often you have been wrong before’ etc. Blair, of course, had all these ready for his interviews on Sunday – plus a dose of humility, which is a good side dish in these circumstances. If you can get past any personal animosity to him, this interview on Andrew Marr on Sunday (available only until 19th October) is a good watch. No question is ever ignored but the prepared messages are always also inserted in such a way that you can’t spot the join. There is lots of careful phrasing and the usual rationale and inclusive tone. In its way it is a masterpiece.

If you need help messaging some difficult announcement, or just want to rehearse, the Media Coach team stand ready to help!

Photo of Tony Blair used under creative commons licence.

 

 

Mugwumps steal news headlines

Mugwumps steal news headlines

Mugwumps stole a lot of headlines last week.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, wrote a piece for The Sun in which he suggested that people may think Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the opposition Labour Party) was a ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’ and feel sorry for him but in fact he poses an enormous threat to our country if he gets into Number 10 Downing Street.

Mugwumps steal news headlines

You may think this is just Boris being Boris, colourful language is what he does and not much else: more buffoonery than strategy.

Mugwumps dominated news agenda

Well, I beg to differ. Boris dominated the news agenda for a full day with the mugwump insult. It was a day in which he was on numerous media outlets – saying all sorts of things, some of them controversial, but no one was interested in anything but mugwumps. During that day we were all reminded perhaps a thousand times – at least if you are a news junky– that Corbyn could be characterised as a ‘mugwump’ and by implication a rather soft and muddled individual unfit to run the country. This is way more coverage and way more effective than Conservative leader and Prime Minister Theresa May’s more sensible mantra of ‘strong and stable leadership’.

Mugwumps steal news headlines

Corbyn’s response to Mugwump insult: ‘We are eight days into the election and Boris Johnson has run out of serious arguments ….I don’t do name calling’.

My personal theory is that Boris used to say stupid things by accident but in doing so learnt the power of a colourful phrase. Now he ‘weaponises language’ with deadly effect. The Telegraph helpfully collected some of the great Boris quotes many of which I suspect were less crafted and planned than the mugwump insult.

Mugwumps: an example of weaponising langauge

The ‘mugwump’ insult was a focus for a set piece 8:10 interview on BBC Radio 4 Today programme where it was helpfully repeated for those chattering classes that do not stoop to read The Sun newspaper. The story then led the BBC’s political coverage for most of the day.

Mugwumps: a raft of ‘explainers’

The press for two days was then full of ‘mugwump explainers’. Here are a few.

The Metro headline was: “Mugwump is actually a word and this is what it means”

The Guardian headline was:  What is a mugwump? An insult that only Boris Johnson would use. This also includes a snappy little video with the history of the word.

The Times – behind a paywall – sorry – but headline: “This mugwump is a dandiprat”

Birmingham Mail headline: what is a mugwump? This university professor has the answer

And there are many more.

Boris used ‘mugwump’ to create acres of coverage for what the Conservatives believe is their most important differentiator in the election; comparing the leadership style of Jeremy Corbyn to the strong, sensible, mainstream style of Theresa May.

Mugwumps and Media Trainers

All of our trainers work to help clients with their messages. We try to help them with carefully crafted quotable phrases that will sum up an argument in a way that gets headlines (even if only in the trade press). Serious people constantly and consistently shy away from saying anything ‘too racy’ or anything that makes them appear ‘unprofessional’ or ‘not serious enough’. We understand. But we do not believe those people always understand the ‘opportunity-cost’. 

Just in case you haven’t caught on, we at The Media Coach call prepared quotable language ‘sizzle’ and we blog and tweet about this regularly – you can follow the twitter handle @mediasizzle if you want to see the world the way we see it. If you want us to help you build quotable messages then give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Jeremy Corbyn image used under Flickr creative comms

 

 

when offence goes viral composite

When Offence Goes Viral: What can PR do?

Whether or if offence goes viral is one of the really unpredictable bits of PR.  We saw a couple of high profile examples of ‘offence taken’ in the last week.

Offence goes viral

When Offence Goes Viral: This Week’s Tally

The National Trust managed to ‘offend’ the nation (or some of it) by dropping the word Easter from its annual Egg Hunt. Previously called the Great Easter Egg Trail, it is  this year the Great British Egg Hunt.

The next example of offence comes from across the Atlantic, where Pepsi put out an advertisement that took images (or imagery) from a Black Lives Matter movement demonstration and used them as part of an advert suggesting that all people needed to live together in harmony, was a can of fizzy drink. They quickly apologised and withdrew the advert.

A few days earlier Ken Livingston got himself into hot water again, this time by saying that, in 1933, Hitler’s government supported Zionism. This caused him to be suspended from the party a few days later. In this case the offence was completely predictable. Livingston, who has a lifetime’s experience of the British media knew exactly what he was doing and did it anyway. 

Offence goes viral

There are a few things to say about these incidents.

Offence is not always predictable, there is an element of luck

First there is an element of luck or bad luck about something said or done in public going viral. Once it has happened, lots of people will claim it was obvious, inevitable and predictable that there would be an outcry. But in my view lots of things are said and done that should cause outcry and don’t. The pick-up is pretty random.

Sometimes ‘outrage’ is manufactured by someone with something to gain. In the case of the missing word ‘Easter’ I am suspicious. If the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, a charismatic and much-loved Church leader, hadn’t chosen to be offended, I rather think no one else would have noticed. I have no idea whether this was cynical manufactured outrage to get publicity for the Church at an important time of the year (and remind us of the religious story behind the Easter Public Holiday) or whether the Archbishop was genuinely outraged and felt something had to be said.

[Some have been surprised the Prime Minister Theresa May was prepared to step firmly into the fray and voice her opinion as ‘a vicar’s daughter’ but I am not. This would have been judged by someone as a safe and fluffy thing to be outraged about, rather similar to John Major talking about not enough places to have a pee on the motorway. It gets good publicity with very low risk.]

Pepsi advert objections could be cynical

The Pepsi case is more likely to be cynical. If you watch the advert, which is half way down the New York Times report linked to here, you would have to be a pretty close observer to even spot the Black Lives Matter connection. However, even as a supporter of the campaign, I can observe that it was certainly worth rallying the troops against the Pepsi advert. The move generated lots of publicity for the cause and by calling for a boycott, increased the sense of community and ability to contribute to the campaign. It gave a focus for that eagerly sought after ‘call to action’.

Ken Livingston is Ken Livingston, some will say he hates being out of the limelight and, every now and then, he needs to either be outraged himself or outrage others to prove he is still alive. I am less cynical about Livingston. He believes what he believes and is fearless about saying it. He learnt a long time ago that there was little point to softening his radical views for public consumption. I suspect he is immune to others disapproval.

When Offence goes Viral: What are the Options

Let’s turn to the PR takeaways. What do you do if you, your spokesperson, or organisation causes outrage by mistake? Well in my view the options are pretty simple.

The big decision to make is do you want to fight or explain –  or do you want to take the path that gives you as little publicity as possible.

Here are my options in the first category:

  • Tough it out and explain at length until it is no longer newsworthy. The downside of this is you will generate lots of copy and search engine results in the process.
  • Apologise at length and explain on the airwaves and in the newspapers. Again the downside of this is that it generates lots of coverage that will forever link the original offence with the person or organisation. This was the Ken Livingston approach. 
  • Claim loudly and often that the offensive remark was taken out of context and it was all the media’s fault. (My least favourite option.)
  • Claim someone else is making mileage out of an incident that does not really cause anyone else offence. Again, the danger in this is that you create a ‘them and us’ version of the narrative which the media will run with. You may end up with a lot more coverage than you started with.

And if you want the minimum of publicity:

  • Tough it out and explain as little as possible – a simple statement perhaps – and hope it goes away. This seems to be the choice the National Trust took 
  • Apologise with a statement. Again hope it goes away.
  • Claim you or the spokesperson misspoke (and apologise).
  • Make amends by withdrawing the comment, the advert or making a donation to charity etc. This was the tack Pepsi plumped for. 

Of course, if your PR minders spotted a potential land mine and stopped you stepping on it in the first place, then please – give them a pay rise.