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.

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