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.

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