Media training: in business or in politics, don’t knock the competition

This is not a political blog but there are two areas I would like to highlight about the general election. Reassuringly, standard practice is right in both cases.

The first, as the headline suggests, is that slating the competition never works well. Today we wake up to a general election result in which there will be a hung parliament. Among the many errors made by prime minister (as I type) Theresa May was the notion of attacking her enemy too directly.

He was going to “go naked into the negotiating chamber” over Brexit. He was going to “sell out the union” between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Previously David Cameron had told him to “put on a suit” and “for goodness’ sake, man, go”.

This was poor for two reasons. First, it looks vindictive and unprofessional. In business it’s the same. Years ago I worked on a trade publication in the computer industry and every three months or so, two software companies would send us conflicting reports about who was ahead in the market. They’d exchange unpleasantries, we’d write a thoroughly entertaining story…and the readers would hold the software companies in complete contempt. They didn’t want their suppliers focused on each other, they wanted them focused on service.

The second reason not to criticise the competition too heavily is that you manage expectations downward. This makes it simpler for them to exceed expectations. Frankly, all Corbyn had to do was turn up on time with his trousers on the right way around and he’d pleasantly surprise anyone who’d been listening to May.

She sounded amateurish and vindictive and set the bar low so he couldn’t help but outperform it. She also set her own bar so high that a result of Conservative 318 seats, Labour 261, ends up looking like a moral victory for Labour. That takes some doing.

So what about Corbyn?

It’s beyond doubt that he had a rocky start. Footage of him stomping away from a Sky News journalist has mysteriously vanished from YouTube; he’s also been snappy, grouchy and relatively recently he staged a “full” train when there were seats available.

He’s not the slickest performer. However, during the election campaign he’s smartened himself up. He’s worn better suits, he’s engaged with people and journalists. He’s prepared answers but not to the extent of ignoring questions.

In spite of people saying he’s different, he’s actually swallowed the entire rule book on media training – or at least the best bits. The friendly, sometimes self-depreciating Corbyn was always going to win friends if not supporters, unlike the robotic May with the “strong and stable” and “there’s no magic money tree” phrases, no matter how much she may have believed them.

There’s more to any election than presentation. You don’t elect someone because you’d like to share a pizza with them but because you trust them with the difficult decisions. However, presentation and media engagement plays its part, and on this occasion, quite unexpectedly, Corbyn turned out to be the more polished performer.

Five media training tips from the General Election campaigns

So what can business leaders learn from the communication skills demonstrated by the political party leaders in the UK so far in the General Election campaign?

This entry updated 8 May after a Conservative win. 8 May comments in italics.

The run-up to the General Election in the UK has made for fertile ground for communications specialists and media training companies such as mine. Here are some key lessons, both from delivery and from the messaging point of view – my own politics may show through here, which is not my intention; I’m aiming to offer neutral insights on all of the howlers that have been dropped.

  1. Don’t insult your audience. Last week UKIP leader Nigel Farage accused his audience of being left wing and referred to them as “this lot”. He’s now asked lawyers to investigate. Let’s leave politics out for the moment; even if he’s correct, he handed everybody else the moral high ground by dishing out insults. If you’re presenting on behalf of your business and you feel the audience has been stacked against you, remain above it – don’t hand them a moral victory without a fight. I stand by this one. Farage could have kept the audience on side and failed.
  2. Take part. The Conservatives have tried to paint David Cameron as Prime Ministerial and above last Thursday’s debate; however, in absenting himself he left the other leaders to say what they wanted about him unfettered. For him it’s a calculated risk, for you the gamble might not be worth taking. If there’s going to be a debate that concerns your brand, make sure you’re there to put your side when given the opportunity. I’d stand by this one too except three of the other leaders in the debate have now resigned. Whatever your politics, I suspect you have to concede that Cameron and his team read this exactly right.
  3. Don’t assume the other people will fall to pieces when you want them to. I have no inside information but it looks a lot as though the Conservatives gambled on two things. First, they assumed the rather awkward Ed Miliband would fall apart in election debates. Second, specifically last Thursday, they assumed the other parties, without the coalition members present, would end up bickering and a sprawling mess and put the public off. Neither thing happened. All Miliband has had to do during this election, and all he and the other leaders had to do last week, was to look averagely eloquent and civilised and undecided voters were left wondering whether these people were such a bad alternative..? If you’re pitching your idea to the public or to the press, make sure you’re not assuming the others will screw up and leave you to it. They may not. Make your own case. I’d still suggest clients make their cases properly but, once again, I suggest Cameron and the team read the electorate’s collective view correctly.
  4. Stick to your message. Since neither main party has pulled significantly ahead, we now have Labour claiming to be the party of economic competence and the Conservatives aiming for the workers’ vote. Now, I don’t believe for a moment that the previous caricatured extremes were ever true – but the sudden switching of priorities looks cynical and artificial. If you’re promoting your business and detect a lull in interest, don’t panic and change all your messages – nobody will believe you and your clients are bright enough to know panic when they see it. See above. It’s a gamble and a gamble that paid off for one side and may have been part of the disaster for the other.
  5. Prepare, even if you’re under the impression it’s an interview about stuff you know. The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 had an excruciating interview on Saturday, not with a politician but with a community leader(ish) of a group of American émigrés in Scotland. James Naughtie asked her about comparisons between our current election and the forthcoming US Presidential version; it was clear from the umm-ing, the aah-ing and his attempts to finish sentences – not putting words in her mouth but trying to help – that she’d put no thought or preparation in at all. That didn’t matter this time around, she wasn’t pushing anything or standing for election. However, if you’re ever invited to take part in a media discussion, even if you have only a short time to prepare, you need to make sure you have something to say. Make a point, be memorable – whatever you do, don’t let your first word be “Ummm…….” This remains completely right!

Need media training? Talk to me – check my media training page here or just email or phone 07973 278780.

Media training isn’t about dissembling, Jezza

I was disappointed to read Jeremy Paxman’s comments in The Times (you’ll need to subscribe or hand over some cash to read it I’m afraid, Mr. Murdoch is like that) on Saturday in which he covered the political leaders’ debate. The specific passage that annoyed me was the reference to politicians who’d received media training “probably carried out by some shabby member of our trade earning a few bob”.

Now, I’m turning 50 next week, so as a mere slip of a lad had to ask my mum about this “few bob” thing. Apparently it’s not very much money, but leaving that aside the idea that there’s anything wrong with media training is utterly baseless.

Find an expert

Let’s say, for example, you’re a politician and you’re not a natural in front of the camera. For the sake of argument we’ll call you “Ed”. You have a lot to say but you know what? You know you’re perceived as a little awkward and the media has started picking on you even when you eat a bacon sandwich in public.

So, should you carry on regardless or should you get some help with your presentation skills? Just so you can make your view known on equal terms with some of the more fluent broadcasters present (we’ll call them Nicola, David and Nick, again completely at random)?

Note, I haven’t mentioned dissembling. I haven’t mentioned lying or avoiding issues, just speaking on equal terms. That’s what this is about.

Coaching can be good

Think about what happens when people want to do well in other areas. Three years ago we hosted the Olympics in London. Our athletes did pretty well, but they didn’t do it without a decent coach who had expertise. Andy Murray is no doubt preparing to try and win Wimbledon a second time; he is doing so with the aid of Amélie Mauresmo, same as he did with Ivan Lendl when he actually won.

Nobody accuses him of not playing his own game. Nobody says he’s avoiding the other player’s shots by making sure he’s prepared for them.

It’s not an exact parallel I grant you. However, the idea that it’s somehow wrong to get a bit of coaching for an event that’s likely to stretch you is frankly ridiculous.

Bad media training

There are instances in which people offer poor advice. I’ve sat there in media training sessions while the PR people who’ve commissioned me have come out with the dreaded Mehrabian myth – in which people quote Prof. Albert Mehrabian stating that 93% of communication is non-verbal – and it’s nonsense, his own view is 23 minutes into this interview here. He never said it and it’s quoted completely out of context.

I’ve also heard the PR person commissioning me stating that it doesn’t matter what the journalist asks, you should just come out with your statement regardless. Fine, go ahead, I’ll just find a more co-operative interviewee and you won’t find me quoting you in the future. I tend not to work with those clients again.

Nobody should say all media trainers are good or that it will all help you communicate. I agree, some of the polish on some of the politicians last Thursday was a little excessive.

However, at its best, media training is a perfectly respectable thing to have and to seek. It helps people who may not be the best interviewees to understand the process and put their view fluently and in language the journalist will report – so the reader or viewer (remember them?) can make up their own mind rather than have a journalist write someone off because they’re a poor speaker.

And that’s got to be a good thing. Hasn’t it?

For information on my media training service click here.

Image: Flickr: Duncan Hull