Posts

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.

 

message dicipline

Message Discipline and Resistance to Towing the Line

Message discipline is one of the key things we teach in Media Training. And it has been interesting this last weekend to see the issue of discipline in communications move right to the centre of the political debate.

Message discipline and collective responsibility

Following a long meeting at Chequers, Prime Minister Theresa May has re-imposed the principles of collective responsibility and persuaded (!) Cabinet members to stop arguing against each other in public over Brexit or leave the Cabinet. As we know, at the time of writing David Davis and Boris Johnson have both chosen to leave.

Message Discipline

Prime Minister Theresa May is attempting to re-impose collective responsibility on her Cabinet.

Collective responsibility is a democratic convention which means members of the Cabinet must publicly support all governmental decisions made in Cabinet meetings, even if they do not privately agree with them. This support includes voting with the government in the Commons and towing the line in media interviews.

There are clear parallels in business where executive boards operate a similar system.

However, it does, of course, lead to difficulty if there are individuals who have strongly held beliefs which they feel they are unable to express.

Having clear, written, agreed messages is another version of collective responsibility. If you have several senior leaders speaking to the media it is important that what they say on sensitive subjects is aligned: with each other and with the organisation.

However, imposing the sort of discipline required to make this work can be very tricky.

Here is a selection of the problems we come across and the possible solutions.

PR professionals are too junior to demand discipline

Telling people what they can and cannot say in public can be tricky if your job title or seniority band is lower than your spokesperson. This usually arises only if the spokesperson lacks experience. Experienced operators know that the PRs are their best friend and they take the advice unless there is a very strong reason not to. However, I have personally had situations where it has been helpful for the CEO to pop-in and lend his authority to a set of messages. It’s all about having someone higher up the food chain to make it clear this is the way things are done.

Spokespeople worry about their professional reputation

This is very common and I have written about it before. The fear is understandable. Senior, clever people do not want to be quoted in public as saying something that lacks credibility or sounds stupid. And they don’t want to sound as if they are parroting lines written by someone else. Typically this is resolved by negotiation over the message but can also require a robust explanation of why a message is necessary in the first place. As PR practitioners we must remember that the risks of random media comment are not as clear to others as they are to us. Sometimes we need to spell them out with examples of where it has gone horribly wrong for other people.

Media Training is very helpful here because, by role-playing interviews and then discussing them, it often becomes clear that there is a way for corporate messages to be used but still sound and feel credible. The fear of using messages is dispelled by a bit of practise and playback.

Message Discipline

Media Training can provide the opportunity for spokespeople to get comfortable with messages.

Messages are too bland

This is another really common objection. If the chosen messages are too obviously based around marketing or just too corporate, spokespeople will quite rightly baulk at using them. It is initially not obvious to everyone that marketing messages and media messages — whilst having some relation to each other — are not the same thing. There is a whole science behind this but at its simplest marketing messages are about creating interest while media messages are much more about a compelling, often multi-faceted, argument.

One of the most successful marketing slogans of my lifetime comes from the mobile phone company Orange (now swallowed up into EE). Many people will remember the phrase ‘The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Orange’. But in the 1990s the CEO sounded stupid when he repeatedly used this phrase in media interviews with me and others. It was a good marketing message, not a good media message.

People find it difficult to use prepared messages

This is a funny one. I come across people who have never heard of ‘messaging’ before but who, given a modular script in the form of a message house, can use all the elements in a credible way, in their first role-play interview. But I also come across many other, equally smart people who find it extremely difficult to remember the prepared elements or to stitch them together in an interview, in a way that makes sense. It seems to me it’s all about the way each individual’s brain is wired. People think differently and process information differently. Whilst there is the odd person who is a natural, most need to be taught to use messages. But it doesn’t take long. It’s not rocket science. I have lost count of the number of clients who say to me ‘how come you can remember my messages better than I can?’. And the answer is: because it is a formula. I spend my life crafting and using messages for my clients. I have learnt how to learn messages!

(If you are wondering what I mean by messaging I have written about this here and here.)

If we can help install message discipline into your spokespeople — in the nicest possible way, of course —please do give us a call on 020 7099 2212.

 

Image of Theresa May from Wikimedia Commons

senior leaders

Senior leaders – get media trained before you need it

Senior leaders are often booked into media training by PR professionals who are tearing their hair out. So often, successful, super-professional ‘talent’ has somehow missed out on a few of the basics of good external communication and are suddenly required to front a product launch or a PR campaign.

Senior leaders need communications skills

It is so common, so stressful for all concerned and so preventable, I think it is worth a blog post.

Senior leaders

Take the case of Theresa May – for many years an ambitious career politician now struggling with a hugely difficult job. Most of us in the PR business believe a few basic lessons in presentation, delivery and handling media interviews might have totally changed her fortunes. The problem, as I see it, is that she didn’t get the training on the way up and now, with the top job and a different crisis every day, there is no time to do it.

And we see exactly this in the corporate world. Senior leaders are incredibly busy. Diary management is a headache and a full-time job – outsourced to PAs, and EAs  for many of those we train. Trying to persuade these hard-pressed staff that a media trainer needs four hours in someone’s diary is likely to get the response – ‘sorry but can you do it in 45 minutes and by the way, he (or she) will probably be running late.’

A few hours is a good investment

But actually, four or even eight hours training over the career of a senior leader is a very small commitment. It is difficult to predict how many media interviews someone is likely to do in the future but we know for sure they will be doing countless presentations. And while some presentation training is provided, a lot of people slip through the net and still do it very badly.

My belief is that communications training – covering external versus internal comms, understanding the media, social media, messaging and interview control should be core subjects in management training programmes. And these should also include some coaching on delivery style. Being able to ‘perform’ whether in front of an audience or a journalist is also an essential skill. (I have written previously about how poor presentations are endemic in business.)

Incredibly useful professionally

I have lost count of the number of times people finish a media training session saying ‘even if I never speak to the media this is has been incredibly useful professionally’.

senior leaders

The ideal is to do it early, do it well and then top up the training as and when it is needed for specific events. That will avoid the sort of query I receive at least once a week: “can you cover press, radio and TV and give us some help with the messaging for three people in three hours?” It can be done but just not as well as I would like to do it.

So, if you are a learning development officer or an HR professional and some of this rings true – I would suggest asking your PR team about the problems they run into when looking for capable spokespeople. Then if you find I am right, start planning media and presentation training for your emerging leaders. If you think you are yourself an ‘emerging leader’ take my advice and wangle your way onto a media training course before you find you need it. You won’t regret it.

PR and the role of the enemy

Theresa May stood up at the Lord Mayor’s banquet at London’s Guildhall on Monday evening and accused Russia of seeking to weaponise information: using fake stories and photo-shopped images to sow discord in the west. She added meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence, the Bundestag and others to the list of inappropriate international activities. The full speech is here.

PR and the role of the enemy: case study

 

PR and the role of the enemy

Theresa May pictured with Vladimir Putin in 2016. Now she accuses him of trying to destabilise western democracies.

Now, I have been going on, in private, about Russia’s likely meddling in both the Brexit referendum and the last UK general election for a considerable period of time. I am not close to power so I have no proof but there is enough evidence out there to make me deeply suspicious. But no one was talking about it: until now.

I was extremely thrilled last week when I saw the cover of that excellent round up of the week’s news The Week.

PR and the role of the enemy

And I am pleased that the Prime Minister of the day is now raising the alarm about the likely, sinister action of Russia; using social media (and particularly social media bots), fake news and other tactics to destabilise western democracies.

But I am deeply suspicious about the timing of Mrs. May’s sudden apparent interest in this.

PM criticises Russia, but why now?

The information about suspected Russian meddling has been around for months if not more. It is true the press were writing more about it this month but there was no major new information. It seems Edward Lucas of the Times brought it into the mainstream (sadly this article is behind The Times paywall). I wonder if it just popped into his head or whether someone in Whitehall sowed the seed.

The question is, why is Mrs May speaking about this now?

Well as a cynic, I would answer that it is because the government needs an enemy to unite us. One that is not anything to do with our negotiating partners in the Brexit talks. And here we have it: President Putin and the threat to the international order. As a political or PR tactic it is as old as the hills. Here is an article in Psychology Today that explores this very issue.

Headlines about Russia’s meddling are ‘manna from heaven’ for an embattled Prime Minister who has on her hands rumbling sex scandals, the Paradise Papers, stalled Brexit talks and forced cabinet reshuffles due to amateur empire building by the former Minister for the Department of International Development. And that is before we get to the Boris and Gove double act. My guess is that the Russia section of the speech was suggested or developed by Robbie Gibb ( who I blogged about back in July) to give Mrs. May a few benign headlines. And it certainly worked.

 

 

 

 

 

The hardest questions

Media Interviews: The Hardest Questions

The hardest questions from journalists are often the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie.

If you are not used to corporate life you will be quick to judge this post as more evidence of spin doctors’ corrosive effect on society. But I have learnt that there are plenty of occasions – totally ethical circumstances – when it is not possible or sensible to tell the truth. And I for one am not sure UK Prime Minister Theresa May was telling the truth when she let it be known she plans to lead the Tories into the next election.

The hardest questions

But let’s start at the beginning. When working out prepared reactive lines to tough questions, those where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie are in a category all of their own.

There are some of the more straight forward ones. They were some of the hardest questions but over the years others have found the right phrase and now everyone uses it. In the trade we call all of these phrases a ‘close down’.

Sorry that is commercially confidential

Companies often have numbers that they do not want to release for perfectly valid commercial reasons. This might be as simple as ‘what is your margin on this?’ or ‘how many deals are in the pipeline?’ or more specifically ‘I heard your margins are being squeezed and are now down below 12%. Can you confirm that?” In these cases it is easiest to be straight with a journalist and say ‘sorry that is commercially confidential’.

We never comment on market rumours

If your listed company is in the process of doing due diligence ahead of a takeover bid you are legally obliged not to disclose this to one set of shareholders ahead of another. It has to be announced to the whole market at the same time. You have no choice but to keep it under wraps before the announcement. So if a journalist asks directly ‘are you about to buy xyz company? ’ you will have to fall back on the well understood stock answer ‘we never comment on market rumours’.

The market sets the share price

Similarly, a senior executive should not share an opinion on his own company share price. It would be ill advised to say ‘my shares are undervalued’ to one journalist because again if there is something to be shared on this you must tell all investors at the same time. The stock answer here is ‘we just run the business and let the market set the price’.

However, that still leaves plenty of common but trickier questions that need a bit more thought.

Difficult questions can, for example, arise if a member of staff has been ‘let go’ for some major issue; it may have been incompetence or something illegal that never went to court. You can’t say publicly what you believe to be true because you could be sued for slandering the individual. A standard answer would be ‘I am not going to comment on personnel issues’ although this is harder to sustain the more senior the person in the spotlight.

How long do you plan to be in the job? When will you retire? Or any version of this is another question a senior leader is ill advised to answer. It is well known that as soon as a decision to go is announced, power starts to drain away from that person and the troops line up behind one or other of the potential successors. In business life we normally advise a dismissive ‘when there is any announcement to be made on that I will let you know’. But the more senior you are, the more your shareholders and customers will demand to know.

Theresa May’s dilemma

This is exactly the dilemma Theresa May faced last week.

Having experienced life as a ‘lame duck leader’ after the general election, and having perhaps recovered somewhat from that, I am guessing she would be reluctant to do anything to undermine her own power again. But the problem she faced, from the moment the election result was confirmed, was people speculating on her future.

This was pushed to the top of the news agenda with a flurry of reports about her plans to leave the job. I think timing is also an issue here because she had a number of lobby correspondents on the plane with her to Japan. That sort of event always involves some cosy briefings between the PM and the press. The ‘will you stay?’ question was guaranteed to come up. It is one of the hardest questions any leader can face. Given the circumstances, she decided to quash the story and to go with a definite ‘I am staying’, ‘I am not quitter’ and ‘yes, I intend to fight the next election’.

Here is the Guardian’s report of her dilemma and here is Sky’s Jason Farrell on his shock at getting a straight answer from Theresa May when he asked if she was going to fight the next election.

[Personally, I am not convinced by the ‘I am here to stay’ statements. If I was in her shoes and – just imagine – I was keen to go after the Brexit negotiations, I certainly wouldn’t confirm this. And in her particular circumstances there is no dismissive phrase that would not have the same effect as saying ‘yes, I plan to go’. It seems to me she has to pretend to be staying. I am not saying she is definitely being misleading, just that she might be.

On the other hand, I have been more cautious than most about writing Mrs. May off as there have been many amazing political comebacks in my time. Plus, while May is at the moment rather poor on television and on the campaign trail, she may be a rather good Prime Minister in other ways. And as we see in training sessions time and again, people can learn if they put the effort in.]

Anyway, back to the hardest questions. I thought I would end with a warning: from my constant consumption of UK media I would say that Eddie Mair on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme is the best (or worst) journalist for asking impossible questions. This year he asked the BBC’s Director of Radio James Purnell ‘Why do on-air people get paid more if they have a penis?’. I still haven’t worked out what, given the circumstances of that interview, the answer should have been.

 

 

messaging explained

Messaging explained: Robbie Gibb steps up to save PM

The big news last week in the world of political PR was that the BBC’s head of operations at Westminster, Robbie Gibb, was named as Theresa May’s new director of communications. Here is how The Guardian reported it:

messaging explained

BBC’s Robbie Gibb gets top job

While I am constantly irritated by large organisations and the government appointing senior journalists instead of professional PRs to do high-powered well-paid comms jobs, this seems to have been a rather more sensible choice than some. Gibb has worked for the Tories previously and as a BBC manager is in any case rather more than a hack.

[If you haven’t heard or read me grump about this before, one of my beefs is that PR is a profession and should be more respected. Whilst it overlaps with journalism it is a very different job. Some brilliant journalists make excellent PRs but most don’t. And in the meantime, it stops excellent PRs being promoted and actually skews the profession by creaming off the top jobs and giving them to ill-qualified media names.]

Anyway, that aside – the appointment of Gibb made a whole feature on Radio 4s Sunday lunchtime programme The World This Weekend – which by the way my Dad occasionally presented more than 20 years ago so I have an affection for it.

messaging explained

Francis Maude tribute to Gibb

The team did what we call in the trade a ‘package’ or a report on Robbie Gibb and interviewed his former boss in the Tory Party, Francis Maude. As a tribute to Gibb, Maude or Baron Maude of Horsham to give him his full title these days, gave this soundbite.

Former Conservative front bencher Francis Maude explains why Robbie Gibb was so useful

We were looking for a serious figure to be my Chief of Staff and effectively to be Press Secretary as well; and Robbie was brilliant and was willing to leave his job in the BBC to do that. What he was very good at was working with us to craft the messages.

I mean, what we did at that time was we took the concept of stealth taxes, and one of my team coined the phrase stealth taxes, which passed into the language.

My classic rule of political communication is you need to spend quality time working out what are the few things you want to say, and then say them all the time and just at the moment when you feel physically sick hearing yourself say the words is the moment at which someone will say why haven’t you been saying this before…

…and I remember the moment a few months after Robbie had started working for me when a taxi driver said to one of our team – with all of these stealth taxes Labour are introducing I wonder the Tories aren’t making more of it – which illustrated the rule perfectly.

Messaging explained

Whilst, the link is available for a couple of weeks on BBC iPlayer (starting at 9.29) we have transcribed this one minute of radio because it brilliantly explains messaging. Messaging is one of those words that people have a rather woolly understanding of but for us, it has a very precise meaning. Our meaning is the same as Maude’s ‘classic rule of political communication’.

I particularly love that Maude identifies you need to spend ‘quality time’ working out the few things you want to say.

You can over do repetition

On the point of repetition, we might differ slightly. We don’t think it is a good idea to annoy everyone with key phrases as Theresa May did in the election with ‘strong and stable’. If you need reminding here is a write up of one particularly underwhelming Maybot speech.

One does have to apply intelligence and judgement when using messages but the Maude principle is right. You need a few key phrases, with a solid argument behind them and then repeat them in different forums (rather than the same interview or speech) as often as possible.

And of course, if you need help identifying and crafting your messages you really might benefit from the support of an experienced ex-journalist. They are usually good at messaging but often not so good at many other parts of the PR job like strategy or dealing with internal sensitivities. Should you feel such a need you have the option of poaching someone from the BBC  on an inflated salary, understanding they might be ill equipped to do the rest of the job – or you could employ one of the Media Coach team for just a few hours to facilitate a message building session.

Meanwhile, it will be very interesting to see how much difference Robbie Gibb makes to Mrs. May. I suspect we will see the effect very quickly.

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

 

 

Election and other bits and bobs

Election and other bits and bobs

It’s election time –  unexpectedly – in the UK. This gives those of us that follow public communications lots to think about and discuss. Instead of our usual article I decided to just share a few things I have been thinking about:

Just to restate a basic – this blog is apolitical. I comment on communication style, skills and lessons. Not on who people should vote for.

Watching Corbyn’s election communication style

Having become something of a lame duck leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a rather good first speech of the campaign last week. You can both watch and read it here. He has since spoken in Scotland and been interviewed on Andrew Marr and he looked relaxed and reasonably happy. Somewhat more in control than he was at the start of his leadership. He could still learn a thing or to from us about controlling interviews. 

Election and other bits and bobs

Someone pointed out to me that Corbyn is looking as if he is going to follow Trump and the Brexit referendum Leave campaign and concentrate on big picture assertions and ignore the detail: Shout loudly about ‘enemies of the people’, threaten big business, Philip Green etc. and avoid the complexities of reality. It has worked for others.

Blair steps into the fray with a confused message

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair – in my view normally a brilliant communicator– stepped into the campaign with a very confused message in an interview on BBC Radio 4. What he was probably saying was vote liberal or vote tactically but it was not clear. I know he was trying to avoid the wrong headlines but he needs to rehire Alistair Campbell.

Theresa May loses key comms personnel

And a final observation about the UK election this week: we note the departure of two key people from Theresa May’s PR team as explained here in the FT. Katie Perrior Downing Street Director of Communications resigned immediately after the election was called, while Lizzie Loudon, the Prime Ministers personal press secretary announced her resignation last Friday. This is a significant change and it will be interesting to see if May’s buttoned-up ice-maiden style changes.

French elections fascinate

We are also watching with fascination the French Presidential election. Not much to say about this today yet but more (from Laura in Brussels) in the near future. But we did notice this article in the FT which suggests politics is all about style over substance.

Election and other bits and bobs

Airline apology: how it should be done

In other news, there was this snippet you may have missed about an unfortunate incident on an American Airlines flight. Clearly, there were echoes of the United Airlines story of earlier in the month but this time the apology was swift and apparently unmuddied by ambiguity.

Lucy Kellaway shares her embarrassing public speaking experience

I am a dyed in the wool Lucy Kellaway fan, she is always an entertaining read. Assuming you have a subscription to the FT, this column from her is about how she got over confident and did a bad speech. It is worth a couple of minutes if only to remind ourselves it can happen to any of us. I did something very similar many years ago. Pride comes before a fall!

And finally…we make the news (in Estonia)

And finally, Laura Shields the Brussels Director of Media Coach International Ltd made the media herself in Estonia. The Environment minister there blogged about his training with her – including posting pictures –  and it was picked up by a prominent online news site. If you can read Estonian you will find it here. We suspect google translate doesn’t do it justice.

Laura Estonia Environment Minister

 

Photos used under creative commons licence, Wikimedia etc.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legs-it distraction: what women should wear

Legs-it: what should women leaders wear?

Legs-it was the clever caption on The Daily Mail front page photo of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon showing a lot of leg last week. An article that prompted a great deal of coverage. As was widely noted at the time, the picture and cheeky headline received a great deal more attention than the substance of these powerful women’s frosty meeting or the issues surrounding it.

 

Legs-it distraction: what women should wear

 

Legs-it prompted a storm of twitter protest

As well as mainstream media there was a storm of Twitter protest with a lot of big names weighing in. From a journalists point of view it is all good clean fun and it will certainly have helped to sell newspapers.
 
Legs-it distraction: what women should wear
Among the more intelligent and thoughtful comments there was this from Jo Ellison at the FT – generally bemoaning the obsession with any woman’s physical assets, whilst bizarrely arguing that studying and commenting on their clothes is helpful and legitimate. That article led me to a much more interesting FT piece by novelist Joanna Trollope, on how women in the city no longer dressed in a modified masculine style and how the tech revolution has fuelled a fashion revolution in the corridors of power.
 

Legs-it PR lessons

There are a couple of PR lessons that jumped out at me from the legs-it furore.

First, I think short skirts are a nightmare in any context involving cameras and sitting down. I don’t mean just mini-skirts but even on-the-knee skirts will ride up when you sit.
 
It’s okay at a wedding when almost all shots will be whilst standing. But – as this picture demonstrates – once a woman sits the dominant visual element is the legs. (Flesh coloured legs are to my mind much more distracting than the coloured tights favoured by many younger women.) So among all the much more important affairs of business it is worth giving these things a thought. This is not a huge ask because almost all female leaders think about appropriate dress code every day. There are a huge range of risks and sensitivities that have to be navigated and it is all part of the job. It had not occurred to me until I was reading about this but Angela Merkel always wears trousers, apparently deliberately avoiding the sort of distraction evidenced by May and Sturgeon. Hillary Clinton is another powerful woman who, years ago, took on board the practicality of trousers and became queen of the pantsuit. 
 
Secondly, I would point out that, to get this shot, the cameraman would have had to stoop quite low, literally as well as figuratively. If you were the PR minder, you should have been thinking about that. Minders can and do step in although this is another fraught area as you don’t want to become part of the story.
 
Of course, serious professional women should not be judged on what they wear or the shape of their legs. It is a nonsense and sexist. But I am inclined to think boys will be boys and journalists will be journalists and we don’t have to condone it to want to avoid the situation in the first place.
 
So here are my takeaways:
  • As ever, what you wear and how you look should be controlled to ensure it is not a distraction. No dangly earrings, no flamboyant jewelry, no crazy shoes and men should avoid hilarious ties or bright socks.
  • Serious women might consider avoiding knee length skirts if they are going to be filmed or photographed sitting down. Men should avoid short socks that will show too much hairy leg between sock and trouser when sitting down.
  • If you are the PR man or woman – think about controlling the shot. What is in front, what is behind and what is the angle of the cameras.
In the end this is the sort of story that is tomorrow’s chip-paper as used to be said. But remember the media – even at their worst – really only reflect the society we live in. So while Guardian and FT readers will be genuinely exercised by the substance of the niftily named indyref2, an awful lot of others would have been thinking what a lot of leg! And that is a distraction from the important bit of the story.