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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.

 

 

UK Prime Minister Media Style

UK Prime Minister Media Style

The UK Prime Minister Media Style was this week on display for the first time. Theresa May gave her first major interview since taking office to the BBC’s Andrew Marr. It runs more than 17 minutes and from it I can draw some clear conclusions about the media style of this Prime Minister.  But the question most people will have in their minds when watching this interview is: why don’t politicians answer a direct question with a direct answer.

My advice to the PM: more direct answers please.

May has clearly been well prepared for this interview. She has her messages in place and there was certainly no thinking on the hoof, all the questions had been anticipated and her answers were rehearsed. Thank goodness. For me this is more evidence of a ‘safe pair of hands’.

What’s more, while the hair and make-up were perfect, the outfit was not overly formal (are those bare ankles?) and the setting is the rather faded glory of, what I assume is, the Maidenhead Constituency office, complete with cracked fireplace and 1970’s carpet. I think this was a deliberate choice, indicating that this Prime Minister is not interested in the glory of the job or the opulence of the offices of state.

We also saw a warmer, more animated performer than in the past, with a marked reduction in her frosty impatience with the media process.

Her use of messages was, perhaps overly obvious, just a bit too much repetition and not enough new information for such a set piece interview.

On her vision for Britain the message was: “I want to see a country that works for everyone, a society that works for everyone, an economy that works for everyone…”

On schools: “Good quality education, giving opportunity…”

On Brexit: “We will make a success of it” and “We want to be an outward looking, independent Britain forging our way in the world.”

On the timetable for the exit negotiations  “We need to take time to prepare, we need a period of preparation” and “We will not trigger Article 50 before the end of the year”.

But the rhythm of the interview is annoying. For the first 15 minutes May makes a point of never answering a direct question with a direct answer. This I think is a mistake, probably the only substantial criticism I would make of her style. It was clearly a deliberate strategy, but a misguided one.

So, for example, when asked:

“Would you like to see at the end of the first Theresa May administration more grammar schools open than there are now?”

The answer was:

“What I would like to see Andrew is ensuring an education system, regardless of where people are, regardless of the school they are going to that is ensuring they are getting the quality of education that enables them to take on those opportunities…”

This sort of response drives listeners and viewers nuts. I just don’t understand why politicians won’t say ‘We are looking at that’ or ‘I am not giving you an answer to that today’ or ‘This is something we are still discussing’.

Making a direct response to the question before moving to a wider point makes the speaker sound much more honest and credible.

Here are just a couple of comments from below the interview on YouTube that show how people react to this communication style.

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

 

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

 

 

 

 

Theresa May did actually adopt the strategy I would have suggested, towards the end of the interview  – at 17:18 if you want to find it.

When asked a follow-up question on her stalling over the Hinkley Point decision she said:

“I think you are trying to get me to give an indication of what my decision is going to be Andrew, which I am not going to do.”

She did it with good grace and was not aggressive about it and it worked a treat.

How to survive a TV debate, David Cameron

How to survive a TV debate 1: Cameron the smooth

Those wanting to study how to survive a TV debate could do a lot worse than dissect the performance of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a high-profile, live-grilling on Sky News. However, the headlines Cameron got after his one hour marathon by both a political correspondent out to make his name and a live audience, were universally negative. The Week ran ‘Cameron mauled by TV audience’ and most of the coverage focused on a rather rude student who accused the PM of ‘waffling’.

You can watch the whole one hour here.

How to survive a TV debate: Cameron did an excellent job

All of which seems unjust if not plain misleading. Not normally a fan of Cameron I have to say I think he did an excellent job. He was superbly well briefed, he did not get caught out by any question, from either the correspondent Faisal Islam or the audience. I am pleased to see that I am not completely alone in my assessment. Rather begrudgingly, the Chief Political Commentator for the Independent newspaper at least, agreed with me as you can read here.

How to survive a TV debate: anticipate the tough questions

For students of the PR lesson, it is important to understand that one of the tricks of the journalist is to find a damning nugget of information and then go on and on about it. If the question hasn’t been anticipated the interviewee is left struggling to confidently and credibly answer. The problem is, of course, that there are a huge number of possible ‘damning nuggets’. Faisal Islam started with the manifesto promise from 6 years ago that net migration would be reduced to tens rather than hundreds of thousands, something that the government has failed to deliver on. He moved on to the recent promise that VAT would not rise and noted that the European Court of Justice had overruled a UK law that made solar panels VAT free, suggesting that UK government did not have sovereign control over its VAT rules. He also tried to challenge the Prime Minister with the number of times that the EU Council of Ministers had over-ruled the British government. None of these were questions the Prime Minister looked surprised by or did not have a clear response to. He dismissed the last as a ‘totally spurious figure’ before Islam could actually say it.

Once the set piece political interview was over the PM faced a studio audience. The problem with responding to a public audience is they are, by definition, very diverse and you have even less idea what is coming up. Cameron faced questions about issues as unrelated to the debate as the funding of mental health and his previous pronouncements on the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Again he had clear credible arguments to all of these questions.

How to survive a TV debate: use examples

The Prime Minister not only answered questions credibly but repeatedly landed his main message, that leaving the EU would be ‘an act of economic self harm’; he used lots of examples to back up his points. He talked about why Britain sells no beef or lamb to the US (no trade deal), how the UK’s car industry currently sells all over Europe but outside the EU it would be likely to face a 10% tariff. He also explained that it is easy now for someone from Bolton making fan belts to sell them to all 28 countries, rather than outside the EU trying to meet 27 different sets of rules.

How to survive a TV debate: stay polite

When dealing with the audience he was endlessly polite. The question from the student who accused him of waffling was incoherent and much more waffly than the answer. And despite her rudeness the Prime Minister did his best to answer her.

I saw no evidence of mauling.

I do happen to agree that the missing bit from the whole Remain campaign has been an articulation of the positive vision for a better functioning EU. But this cannot be a mistake. The campaign must be polling, researching which arguments play well, and must be concluding that the positive vision piece just doesn’t work. Perhaps the EU fails in so many ways it is better to not draw attention to what it could do and could achieve.

The question remains, if the Prime Minister did such a good job why did he get negative coverage for the debate and why did it not get ‘cut through’.

The answer, I suggest, is that no one believes anything he says. This is not just Cameron’s problem. It is a problem throughout the world. Since the financial crisis of 2008 cynicism about politicians in power and anything that can be called the establishment has never been higher, at least in the countries commonly called ‘the west’. In the wider Brexit debate there is an endless call for real facts and yet every attempt to deliver serious analysis, projected numbers or explanations are dismissed as unreliable or untrue. It is difficult to see how democracy is going to adapt to this new reality.