Sunday, 23 November 2014

The big story of the week and we didn't see it coming

It’s a week since I sat in the Hospital Club studio and watched Myleene Klass have a go at Ed Miliband during the recording of ITV’s The Agenda.  The spat (just in case you’ve been on the moon for the past week) was about Labour’s plans for a mansion tax.  It was good box office but no better than watching Victoria Coren-Mitchell felling Boris Johnson.  It also had the uncomfortable undertones of rich metropolitan whinging about a tax that would affect her.  Just in case you missed it, you can view the punch-up here:

Klass, who was brought up by her mother, a nurse, is no schmuck.  She studied at the Royal Academy of Music and had done her homework on matters like ‘fiscal drag’.  She joined the other panellists in a verbal demolition of the tax, claiming it was ill-conceived and would affect the wrong people: “When you look at the people who will be suffering this tax, a lot of them are grannies who have had these houses in their families for a long, long time,” she opined.   “The people who are the super-super-rich, buying their houses for £140m, this is not necessarily going to affect them because they have got their tax rebates and their amazing accountants. It’s going to be the little grannies who have lived in those houses for years and years.”  Her rant had already gone on for longer than most panellists’ allotted time, but she wasn’t going to be stopped:  “Is that your only option? You may as well just tax me on this glass of water. You can’t just point at things and tax them.”

Sitting only feet away from her, my principal observation was ‘”Blimey she’s skinny”.  And “I actually feel a bit sorry for Miliband”.  None among us – journalists and former journalists - imagined it would turn into a major story that would still be rolling on a week later.  The most we thought it would make was a paragraph; as a senior former news man commented after the recording, “That’ll probably make a nice diary item – ‘Klass act’.”

So why did it take off?  And for that matter, how does any story turn into a major news item?
Looking back at the press coverage, it appears not too many other journalists recognised its significance on the Monday evening either.  However, social media did.  Klass has 454,000 followers on twitter which may have helped to build a head of steam.  Some stories are flashes in the pan and some have legs.  And what’s startling about this story is that it definitely had legs.
By the following morning, Tueday, @KlassMyleene was trending on twitter.  Time for the politicos to jump on board.  Guido Fawkes, Safraz Mansoor and a variety of newspapers scented Miliband blood and joined the hunt.  But the line which launched a thousand tweets was “Myleene Klass does a Paxman”, enabling The Metro to share this with us:

Ed’s rather weak response to the attack, which didn’t appear until lunchtime that day, was “Here’s why our NHS needs a mansion tax. It’s Pure and Simple. …” Did it really take him more than twelve hours to come up with that?  Maybe he wasn't familiar with the Klass canon.

Of course, eye appeal is one of the major drivers of a story.  And the juxtaposition of the very attractive Klasse with Miliband (late of the bacon burger photo op) was irresistible.  Even the serious-minded New Statesman led with a picture of the glamorous former pop star when you might think it would know better.
By Wednesday, the clash resurrected in PMQs with Cameron claiming Ed had been “pasted by a pop star”.  Radio 4’s The World at One and BBC2’s Andrew Neil among others wrote it into their scripts.  Not everyone on was on Klass’s side.  Some wits set up a fake JustGiving account to help her pay her mansion tax.  Thousands signed a petition to have her sacked from her contract with Littlewoods because she “has shown herself to be an inappropriate representative for a brand such as yours which is aimed at customers who have to pay for their belongings in installments (sic) because they cannot afford to pay up front”.  Her supporters, not to be outdone, started a counter-petition to keep her in the job, “Calling for a single mother to be sacked because of her political opinions is as absurd as it is ugly.”
All good fun; but what can PR learn from the way the story continued to rumble on for so long.  As ever, coverage depends on what else is around.  The story you think/hope will hit the headlines may not even make a NIB (news in brief), because there are so many other stories to cover.  In this case, you’d think the Rochester by-election would eclipse it.  But in fact it helped to perpetuate it: Emily Thornberry’s resignation over the photo gaffe enabled the press to conflate the two stories to portray an accident-prone Labour party.  Events dear boy, events.
The lesson we can principally learn is the continuing power of twitter and other social media.  Too many press officers I’ve come across instruct their execs to tweet about what’s happening with no support or guidance.  What irresponsible folly!  And then they have to clear up the resulting mess.
Others think appearing on telly with a bit of glamour will mean it rubs off on the client.  Miliband’s press officers may now put them right.  However, if Miliband had handled the onslaught with charm rather than his default defensive stance he may have come out rather better.  Think about how Alan Johnson would have handled it: he’d have listened politely but quizzically and talked about his poverty-stricken roots in super-wealthy Notting Hill.
Training will always help clients to handle tough media encounters, but they have to have at least a smidgeon of natural charm about them.  People say Miliband has but his advisors are yet to find it.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Language matters

Earlier this year, while I was studying part-time for my MA in Applied Linguistics, I attended a lecture by a well-known feminist linguist who has a chair at Oxford.  It was shortly after Nigel Farage had described travelling on a train through South East London and hearing no English spoken.  The lecturer’s response was to sneer, whipping up laughter from the audience.  She also sneered at Labour’s commitment to ensure new immigrants could speak English.  ‘I hear different languages every day I walk across Gloucester Green, hwa hwa,’ she scoffed.

A student put his hand up.  A former factory worker, he said he was funding his PhD, by returning to his home in the north to do shifts at the factory.  He admitted to the feeling of alienation Farage had described because most of his former workmates had left and had been replaced by a workforce made up of East Europeans.  They didn’t speak English so he was unable to have conversations with fellow-workers.  He put it in linguistic terms: ‘I don’t feel part of the in-group any more.  I find it quite hard.’

The student’s assertion caused a problem for the academic.  He had all the credentials she would endorse: a working-class lad, paying his university fees by hard graft in a factory …but here he was sounding like Nigel Farage!  She hesitated and you could sense her computing how to deal with his point.  Then she did what most politicians do: she acknowledged his ‘interesting experience’ and moved on.  In other words, she fudged it.

There is no doubt that the lack of English among shop workers, waiters and even staff at university libraries can be infuriating when we go about our busy lives in London.  This isn’t racism or – more properly – xenophobia.  It’s just another hindrance, like delays on the Northern line.  However, it can lead to people feeling alienated – part of the out-group.  The way to address expressions of alienation isn’t to sneer; sneering leads to people suppressing their annoyance - and articulating their feelings at the ballot box.

After the lecture I had a conversation with the PhD student who had described his ‘out-group’ feelings.  We agreed that sneering at people’s sense of alienation would simply deliver them into the arms of UKIP which none of us wanted.  That was in March.  Seven months later, it looks as though we’ve been proved right. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Amnesia versus autocue? The perils of delivering a conference speech

Much fat has been chewed over the Ed Miliband conference speech debacle when, having shunned the autocue, he omitted to mention the deficit or immigration.  Why memorise a speech if you’re going to forget two of its most important sections?  He claims it is more natural.  However, it didn’t help him deliver his excruciating jokes.  And it didn’t help his anecdotes about the ‘ordinary’ (normal?) people he said he met while hanging around Hampstead Heath.  So why take a risk when the autocue will ensure you never forget?

A glance at George Osborne’s conference speech gives us one reason for avoiding the autocue.  Osborne with his Peter Pan hairdo rarely cuts an authoritative figure.  His voice is light, his hand gestures weak but add in the autocue (other brands are available) and he becomes glassy-eyed and frozen-faced.

Autocues aren’t easy to use.  In TV studios they’re screens that slot onto the front of the camera.  Someone who later became a war correspondent once told me about his brief, abortive attempt at studio presentation.  One day, when the camera swung back taking with it the autocue, instead of reading his paper script he climbed onto the desk in an attempt to follow the camera across the studio – in full view of the audience.

As someone who needed glasses but was too vain to wear them, I struggled with the autocue until I discovered that you could change the font and the background.  The text ended up looking more like a shopping list but at least I could read it.

Rookie newsreaders can always be identified by the rabbit-in-the-headlamps look as they desperately cling to the autocue.  For some reason, people always fear that if they blink, they’ll lose their place.  They often do not realise that the autocue operator will adapt to their pace so they speed up or slow down until their delivery sounds wholly unnatural.  Which brings us back to George.

Normally, conference speakers have up to three transparent screens onto which the speech is projected.  Cameron seemed perfectly at ease with the set-up for his conference speech.  However, Osborne’s autocue seemed to be projected on the wall at the back of the hall, above the heads of the audience.  He therefore looked not just glassy-eyed but appeared to be gazing above his audience into the middle distance.  It isn’t a good look for anyone.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.  Having experienced the dangers of the autocue live on air, I feel well-placed to advise.  If you have to use autocue, get some proper training; give yourself time to get used to it; and learn that if you blink or look away you will be able to pick up the words again.  One client asked me to train the Chief Nurse of a major Trust to use autocue for their awards ceremony.  Presenting off autocue is certainly not on the RCN list of nursing skills and no-one would expect her to do as well as she did.  However, with advice and guidance she performed like a pro.  It helped that I wrote the script.  Dickensian passages are out for autocue speeches.  Writing needs to be natural, composed in short sentences and devoid of complex clauses.  

These days, no exec presenting to a major conference should fear the autocue. The trainer can provide a simple bit of kit that fits on the camera and is operated via an iPad.  It can also be operated by a foot pedal which is surprisingly easy to work – even if you’ve never been a seamstress - so you control the speed.  But it is a new skill and one to be learned and polished.  It is never worth the risk of looking gormless.  Even when your audience is the adoring Tory faithful.