Tag Archives: Jeremy Corbyn

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.

What’s changed in communications for 2017?

Communications is something on which I coach people – and it may have changed irrevocably during 2016. Let’s look at the evidence.

The standard media training mantra is that you should bridge into your topic, away from others that cause controversy, and make your message known. You don’t criticise the competition, you tread carefully and ensure you’re seen as reasonable. You need good relations with the press.

So far, so sensible. Now let’s examine a few key players in 2016.

Communications get Trumped

We might as well start with the big beast. President-elect Donald Trump has been anything but reasonable. He has not only criticised his opponents, he’s positively libelled them. I would never have advised someone to call Hillary Clinton “crooked Hillary” or threaten to lock her up, getting crowds to chant along with the suggestion.

That’s what he did, though. And he insulted Mexicans, suggesting they should pay to construct a wall to constrict their own movements, and also he had a go at Muslims, including the family of a fallen soldier.

And he won. I’ve suggested before that what he was doing was offering a story; the comments on that page will tell you all you need to know about whether everyone agreed with me. I stand by my assertion, we’ll come back to it in a second.

Communications and fake news

One of the things that affected the Trump result was the impact of fake news. This is deliberately faked news, like reports that Clinton was in charge of a paedophile ring or something, rather than honest mistakes.

It all added up to an echo chamber in which a change was needed and the agent of change literally couldn’t be the wife of another president.

Fake news and facts also played a part in another major event last year.

Brexit: where’s our £350m a week?

On 23 June last year, Britain voted to leave the European Union. One of the factors in the decision was the deliberate falsehood, that we would save £350m a week and could put it into the National Health Service.

That’s been debunked so often – by the Brexit campaign informally immediately they won and officially in September – that it’s not worth repeating, except to note the sneaky lie the Remainers have brought in on the back of it. See my sub-headline above? “Where’s our £350m a week”, I ask, and many people have said the same thing.

OK, here’s the news: Britain has not yet activated Article 50. It has therefore not started the formal process of leaving the EU. Before the Brexiters had abandoned their pledge, it was dishonest to start calling them out on its non-appearance; even the handful who still believe in it can’t be expected to produce money saved by leaving something before we’ve actually departed.

Both sides of the debate appeared to leave the truth pretty much at the door. Instead, they resorted to “mood music”, as I think of it. There’s a book called “Inbound Marketing” and a great deal of work on the subject besides. The idea is that you create a lot of content so that your client, or voter in the case of the politicians, feels comfortable in your environment. The fact that the rants of Trump and the claims and counterclaims in the Brexit debate don’t adhere to any reality matters less than the tone being right for the supporters.

It’s this sort of tone-setting that I’d identify as the new storytelling. Trump may be an incoherent story teller (I say “may be”…) as people pointed out when I highlighted this as one of his selling points. But he had a compelling tone. This is something businesspeople can learn from.

Which is where I bring in the third piece of evidence to suggest that communications is changing, but maybe not as comprehensively as the previous examples might have indicated.

Communications and Jeremy Corbyn

The leader of the opposition in the UK should never have won the leadership election, never mind winning it twice, according to the old rules. He’s polite but he’ll also snub the press when he’s in that sort of mood – there are many clips like this one, and of course Have I Got News For You has made great fun of his knack of hiding from the cameras, sometimes behind a glass door.

Only…he did win, twice. You can’t get away from it. He is criticised – his supporters say vilified – by the mainstream media (they call it the MSM) – but he’s a serial winner of elections to become party leader. Remember the prime minister hasn’t even faced one such election. Again, his mood music has been about the ordinary person being left behind by large concerns, including the government and including his own party. And if this involves pretending to be on a crowded train when there were plenty of seats, so be it. The message worked and continued the mood for his chosen constituency. On the face of his leadership elections results he’s a resounding success.

So have things changed?

I’m currently working out how to accommodate these factors into my media training offering for 2017. There’s no doubt things have changed and the old rules need refreshing if not complete scrapping.

However, I don’t think all of the changes are permanent. To demonstrate this I point to a couple of incidents over the last couple of days.

Today the Fabian Society said Labour would not be able to win a general election in its own right in 2020. They’re a founding body of the party so they have no reason to be particularly anti. This may be a sign that the mood music isn’t quite enough to change everything in the way that some people believe.

You can argue that they’re known “moderates” or “Blairites” depending on your point of view. OK, but Len McLuskey, seeking re-election as head of the Unite union, has said Corbyn may have to step down if the party still looks unelectable at the beginning of 2019. That’s an uncontentious statement of the obvious at first glance but you have to consider who’s saying it; McLuskey has been a major Corbyn supporter so far. Obviously he’s going to try reaching out to non-supporters during his own re-election campaign but for such a major backer to express doubts (and McLuskey is a seasoned media player) is potentially serious.

So the mood music effect may be slipping, it’s too early to tell. Things have changed, though; I’ll be advising clients this year to set the mood as well as to put set-piece sound bites together, and will continue to advise consistency of communications across all platforms, much as I always have. Meanwhile later this week I’ll consider the importance of the press itself – is it diminishing in the eyes of the readers and viewers?

Do you need help with your communications and interview techniques when faced with the press? I can help – drop me a note by clicking here or fill the form in below.

Do you actually need the press? Jeremy Corbyn thinks not

Here’s a controversial thought: your business may not actually need the press. Those of you who haven’t been living under a rock will have noticed the UK Labour Party has a new leader. Here he is being asked questions about his choice of shadow cabinet in which nearly all of the top places have gone to men:

First, let’s accept a few things. He was knackered, for example. He’s been working hard and Sky News is no friend of Corbyn – he’s unlikely to be sending its owner Rupert Murdoch a Christmas card this year. He’d had a hard day – he may not have realised just how many of the existing shadow cabinet were going to retreat to the back benches.

Let’s also accept that the interviewer, although ostensibly polite, was definitely “in pursuit”, long after it was obvious Corbyn wasn’t going to give an interview.

But walking off and telling his staff member “these people are bothering me” is one of the least engaging media appearances ever. So, does Corbyn need the media?

Is Jeremy Corbyn bullet proof?

The obvious initial answer is yes, he may be, for the moment. After a 59% win in a leadership election in which the media said he was a rank outsider, you can understand an attitude that says “these people are second rate and I don’t need them”.

There are a few things to bear in mind, though, a great deal of which has to do with how changeable the public can be but the first of which has to do with the nature of the Corbyn “landslide”. A huge half a million voted in the election and 59% voted Corbyn – that’s around 295,000. It’s impressive but compared to the 11m that voted Conservative in the last election it’s a gnat-bite.

He needs, in other words, to reach voters he hasn’t reached before, and he needs to reach them before May, when the Scottish, Welsh and the London Mayoral Elections happen.

There are ways around this and he and many businesses are using them. Social media bypasses the press, by all means, and Corbyn’s outreach was superb when preaching to the supporters.

But is it enough? Some of the supporters criticised other candidates for wanting to win (ironic given the scale of Corbyn’s own victory) but if you want to change the country you’ve got to get to power eventually. This is going to mean talking to people and it’s likely to mean having a strategy to avoid unwanted interviews.

I always advise my media training delegates, who are typically in business rather than politics, to have a number of strategies available for those occasions on which they are “doorstepped”, as we call it:

  • Be polite
  • Offer an interview but not right now. Tell journalists you want to talk to them but you want to do their questions justice.
  • Explain that all of your interviews are conducted through the press office and ask that they respect that.
  • If you have to walk away, walk towards and past rather than away from the camera – don’t let them get that shot of you running away.

Had Corbyn said either of the above, and repeated it when asked a followup question, the journalists wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on.

You’re unlikely to face the same sort of scrutiny to which Jeremy Corbyn is about to face from now to the rest of his leadership – but if you need help with your engagements with the press, click here to email me and we’ll talk.

My thanks to David Bridson for drawing my attention to the Sky News clip