Shakespeare, Henry IV part 2, Act 1 Scene 1: Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office. Pretty eloquent stuff (well what would expect of the Bard?) but basically in modern parlance we’re talking “Don’t shoot the messenger”. Bad news is often reason enough to feel like pulling the trigger, but just plain bad communicating is just asking for the metaphorical bullet between the eyes. So how can we try to avoid the bullet?
Rule one in ensuring an effective message is carefully selecting the appropriate words and phrases. Culture, education, gender, language skills, age, even things as nebulous as emotions play a role in the way in which words, phrases and sentences will be perceived, and that’s not even catering for the vast number of words in English which possess differing meanings to different people. Context and the syntax applicable to that context (the rules of the Queen’s English do not always apply) also have significant effect.
Simplicity is key, and especially in media engagement, where context, culture etc will be a much more amorphous. The more simple (without losing the essence of the message) the less likely to be misunderstood, cause confusion or, even worse, offend. And this is where your average technocrat, official, reasonably educated guy or gal, often goes astray. When writing documents, briefing panels, scribbling papers, especially in an official capacity, there is often a mesmerising desire to use distracting, confusing, misleading, obfuscating, imprecise wording (try reading an official document – corporate or public sector – you’ll see what we mean). Now that’s acceptable (to a degree) on paper, but not in speech. If the audience is struggling to merely comprehend the wording, any message those words should convey, are going to be lost. At this stage, the receiver may well, check the magazine for bullets. So, for simplicity’s sake, what to avoid:
- Slang, jargon or regional expressions, as they might not be understood by everyone.
- Abbreviations or acronyms unless well-known.
- Technical terms unless the audience is fully aware of the topic.
- Neologism (see point above*)
- Politically incorrect words (unless of course that is the objective and also remembering the context (some audiences may be receptive)).
Now, in public speaking often we can gauge the crowd and thereby the context, but it’s a little more difficult over the media. Simplicity here really is key. And being simple in the explanation of a complex issue is far from simple. It takes time and preparation and is as far removed from technocratic, business speak as possible. Some see rapport as a major player in communication, or a common ground between speaker and listener (or viewer). But when millions are watching or listening, rapport as such doesn’t exist (it may between journalist and interviewee, which can help (if the journalist is respected/liked by the audience)) and the common ground will lie in simplicity and ensuring that as little effort as possible is required of the audience to decode the words and ‘get’ the message (and then hopefully do something with that message). It’s worthwhile pondering here that giving a presentation is very, very different to giving a media interview – the mechanics of the former, we practice every day when talking with others, the mechanics of the latter (talking to one person, whilst actually trying to engage with thousands, even millions, through that person) are rarely experienced. Being a good public speaker doesn’t necessarily make media interviews easy – it could even be a hinderance.
* By the way, it means the use of newly coined words or phrases
Keep the ego out of it
As mentioned above, keeping it simple, stupid, isn’t all that simple to do in practice. And that’s often because of ego. We all naturally communicate ego-centrically – I’ll say it this way because if I heard it, I’d certainly understand it. Yeah, well, the message isn’t for you, it’s for your audience. Public speaking and presenting always involves assessing your audience and servicing their requirements. Those audiences tend to be smaller and, to a degree, homogenous. In a media interview, the audience is as heterogenous as they come. Of course, if you’re really up to the mark, you’ll know exactly what your objective is and who, of that audience, you need to convince or persuade to achieve it. If not, or you’ve got to carry the vast majority of the entire audience, then the communication, the words, phrases, construct, need to cater for the needs of the entire audience. And that means decoding your syntax into theirs. And the more heterogenous the audience is the more neutral that syntax, and those words, are going to be. Note, this is not about being neutral in terms of position or passion but in syntax and style.
So it’s got to be as simple and as neutral as the audience, not the speaker or interviewee, dictates. Otherwise, the gun’s hammer gets cocked.
But there’s got to be flair
Brilliant – it’s got to simple and neutral, and that’s difficult to do, especially with a complex subject or issue. Well, we’ve not quite finished. Simple and neutral is getting there but there’s a hitch – too simple and neutral and the audience will fall asleep, and that’s only assuming the journalist or editor has bothered to air what’s been said and recorded. Got to have a little flair, a little ‘sizzle’ to it. If it’s boring, it’s going nowhere – the media will shun it and the audience will ignore it. Both will go elsewhere for their information. Of course, credibility matters, but many will be claiming that credibility and the ones who can be credible but interesting with it will win out. And that’s not just about words but also in the way that their said, both verbally and non-verbally. If the delivery doesn’t have that something special, fingers will tighten on the trigger.
Words simple, syntax neutral, delivery exciting and all via a third person or filter, the joutnalist/camera – easy!
If it’s bad news, the messenger often gets shot, but by preparing carefully and considering the above, then hopefully the wounds won’t be fatal.
Isn’t technology wonderful? In a world full of information and content is king, anyone with a video camera can film, record and download to their heart’s content. In the good old days, an organisation had to rely on expensive production companies to produce video material and then hand-deliver the tape to distribution centre. Now, it can be done by anyone, anywhere at any time and delivered to the wires almost immediately. And so began the rise of the Video News Release (VNR).
As part of any communication strategy in the digital age, producing one’s own video material is now widely accepted. Digital convergence has increased the demand for video, a demand driven by both print and broadcast media for web application as well as for traditional broadcast. If you’ve something to say or promote, why wait for the media to come to you (and deliver your message in their terms) when you can produce the content yourself (under your conditions and control) and provide it to them. Although there is always the issue of being seen as ‘propaganda or spin’, any quality content – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information – has a good chance of gaining traction in the media – a bonus when advertising is going through patchy times. In fact the media are hungry for these VNRs.
But here’s where the problem lies – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information (note: balanced and open – CB3 isn’t too keen on the ‘Fake TV news’ style VNR) Experience shows that much of the content provided through VNRs is of poor quality, even from top companies who have paid for production. Editors at Reuters, AP, AFP etc are constantly bombarded with VNRs which are indecipherable, poorly shot, almost unedited (or so they appear), with rambling commentary and little supporting data. One might as well pick at random something from Youtube and try and make something of it (and there’s some weird stuff out there!). Trying to make something useful from some of these VNRs is almost futile, disheartening and annoying – a waste of an editor’s time and the providing organisation’s effort.
The technical capability – a decent camera and basic software – to produce good VNRs is everywhere. The wise have embraced the idea of providing self-generated content to the media, even encouraged their people to do so (with some degree of control). That’s far from dumb – it’s very smart. But the knowledge to use that technical capability has been lacking, as many working in the newswires, those who will get the good content out across the globe, are attesting. They want, they need, the content but they need it to be good (not necessarily excellent – there’s room for a little grittiness). The more work they’ve got to do to make a mish-mash of poor quality material into something they’re happy to use, the less likely the can use it and, even if they do, that it’ll attract attention. (Same principle applies with press releases – make the journalist’s life easy). It’s not rocket science and not a new problem – the effective use of technological resources must be matched by the human capability to utilise them, which will involve a degree of training and experience. Unfortunately, as in many cases involving social media, organisations have failed to recognise this.
It’s not difficult – you don’t need cameramen, editors, soundmen etc – your people, be they in PR or on the front line, can do it. They just need to be given the knowledge (and we’re not talking about the camera manual here) and training to do it.
Good VNRs can be invaluable, be they internal interviews, product promotion, disaster reporting or simple news release. But if they remain dumbed down, due to the sheer lack of training and competence of those given cameras and told to ‘get on with it’, then they’ll be consigned to the Youtube hinterland (note: if they’re good Youtube will enhance their value anyway).
Having checked out cyberspace regarding the sacking of General McChrystal over the Rolling Stone Magazine coverage, it apears that there is chatter of conspiracy theories. Basically, they centre on the possibility that the good General (a man who certainly seemed to get communication within the counter-insurgency context) deliberately created/engineeered/concocted the circumstances which led to the article, in order to (a) get fired so he wouldn’t be responsible for the Afghan debacle or (b) as a test of resolve of the White House in a Pentagon willy-waving statement.
Now CB3 isn’t one for conspiracy theories but on balance can see why, in this case, they are getting some profile – and it’s because of the “what the xxxx were they thinking?” factor. The sheer absurdity of the events is mesmerising, especially to anyone who has ever worked in public affairs, public relations or media operations. In fact, I’m sure many journalists are also pretty dumbfounded as to how it all happened.
It appears McChrystal’s team had absolutely no idea of their objectives regarding the interviews. They hadn’t asked the WIIFM question (what’s in it for me (or rather, the General – or to be precise, the mission)). Then the team seemed to abandon any notion of this having a strategic effect, wandered off subject, spoke outside their responsibility, forgot about research, treated Michael Hastings as a beer-drinking buddy, gave ill-thought through access, and generally behaved totally unprofessionally. But these are experienced blokes – surely they know the game?
Well, it just goes to show that even the experienced can become complacent and hence make catastrophic mistakes, especially in a field as slippery, intangible, nebulous, unpredictable and downright tricky as dealing with the media. No conspiracy, just complacency – just Generals and media advisors forgetting that once engaged with the media, they no longer dominate the ‘battlespace’ (or for a corporate analogy, the marketplace).
And on complacency … for all those CEO’s and senior business leaders who think “no, we can handle the media … we’d never make mistakes like that”, it’s worthwhile remembering that McChrystal (just like BP’s Tony Hayward) was certainly no fool.
According to the Times, BP said that its costs for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico spill have reached $1.25 billion (£870 million) as it set out plans to place a second cap on the leak. Further, as of 1 June, BP’s shares had fallen by 13%, as reported by the BBC. It has lost nearly a third of its value since the Deepwater Horizon blowout on 20 April.
There is no doubt that the sheer severity of the Gulf catastrophe has had a monumental effect on the reputation of BP, justly or not, and the financial cost will be staggering. But with perception being reality, how much has the ‘perception’ of BP’s response contributed to the financial accounts?
BP’s engineers, along with countless others from several agencies, have worked tirelessly to stem the oil flow, yet still they are seen as the culprits, while the US government and its loose legislative approach to oil drilling in the area, Haliburton, responsible for the mechanical upkeep of systems that failed, and Transocean, the drilling company hired by BP, largely avoid the ire of the public. BP’s response has been massive, practically and financially, yet their efforts are all painted against the blame which is thrown at them.
The fact that public anger is concentrated on BP, and not others, may have something to do with the media response they put forward. It terms of crisis communications they have acted quickly and succinctly, as can be seen from their online work. But their words, coming from their spokesperson of choice, CEO Tony Hayward, have acted as a magnet for anger and distrust, not sympathy and understanding. And the question, albeit unquantifiable, must be raised: how much has the performance of Hayward in the media contributed to the financial hammer blow? 1%, 5%, 10% (even at 1% we’re taking lots of zeros)
It is ironic that Tony Hayward, a very capable CEO, has always been known for his aggressive approach to maintaining and raising safety standards. His experience in the field of oil exploration and the industry as a whole is (or should be) beyond reproach. But all that counts for little when dealing with a vengeful media, encouraged by a public baying for blood, feeding a crisis maelstrom.
The cleverest, most capable, experienced, sensible, respected, even honest, CEO is never necessarilycapable of dealing with a media storm. Such circumstances tend to be way outside their comfort zone, in an environment normally way out of their control. The angel of the boardroom may be adept at managing people, resources, time, finances and the market, but without considerable forethought, experience, and training in dealing with the media these management attributes will count for little, and may cost a lot.
Hayward has been castigated for his performance in the media – from wanting his life back, when 11 were killed in the initial tragedy, to claiming that the ocean is very big, when to locals that’s not quite the point. There are many other examples, in which Hayward has added (excuse the pun) fuel to the fire.
CB3, having looked into Hayward’s background and career, has no doubt over the honourable intentions of BP’s Chief, but if CEOs, senior managers, subject matter experts and spokespeople are ever going to face the media under such an onslaught, preparation, practice, mentoring and extensive training are utterly vital. Working your message (assuming you know what it is), reconnecting during interview, handing tangential issues, subtle bridging, persuasive techniques, linguistic dexterity – these are all cerebral actions which must be almost second-nature during the sparring of a harsh media interview, manifesting itself in a rapid mental obstacle course. Speaking confidently at the annual AGM, providing lively and humourous dinner party chat amongst other titans of industry, eloquently arguing your case in the boardroom – all good and well, but such attributes, whilst handy, will not enable the dynamics, strategy and tactics required of a crisis media interview (or any media interview, come to that). It is a different ball game, in a different ball park, in a different country.
In defending one’s reputation during a crisis, being seen to do the right thing is crucial but as Hayward has shown, words spoken in the media during a crisis can be very, very expensive, immediately and for a long time afterwards.
There is a conventional wisdom when in media interview that the interviewee always address the journalist – and rightly so. At that moment, one is in a dialogical process with the journalist which is then transferred to the public. Journalists as media trainers, as well as professional media trainers, teach this.
However, CB3 has always thought that occasionally a direct appeal to the audience, by addressing the camera, does have some utility. Take for instance the recent prime ministerial debates in the UK. It is widely considered that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, won the debate and much has be said and written on how he did it. Now, none of the candidates are great orators, and Clegg may have had the advantage of being an unknown underdog, but some have reported that his use of the camera, specifically adrressing it directly, may have gone some way to him ‘connecting’ with the audience.
Although this was in a debate, not a strict media interview, this is a lesson how addressing the camera directly may be beneficial. In interview it is not a recommended tactic but if a heartfelt appeal is to be made to an audience it may be worthwhile considering this direct approach, only briefly, for certain phrases or messages. Journalists may not like it but, from a public affairs or media relations perspective, there is a certain power of connection that can be derived by doing so. It is unconventional and must not be overdone – the context must be right and it is risky – but as they say ‘ do what you’ve always done and you get what you always get’. Think creatively in the conduct of an interview – live on the wild side!
And a little update after the second debate: Lo and behold, David Cameron is now doing it too – if a little more awkwardly!
Without doubt the information age has brought with the idea of ‘real’ dialogical communication, in which the global extent of networked society has blossomed. A quick history lesson in from the classrooms of public relations adequately plots the transition from the hypodermic method of communication aimed at a centralised model of society, through to the two-step flow approach focussed on a decentralised society and finally into the contemporary networked communication process of a distributed system.
Amongst the vast majority of communication practitioners, and beyond, this shift is explained and celebrated by new/now/digital/social media. So far so good – nothing earthshattering and novel yet. But does modern day ‘messaging’ cater for this environment?
The very idea of a message – something transmitted to an audience, the very fact one ‘sends’ messages infers indeed a one-way transaction. But as we’re constantly informed by the social media gurus the new world is all about the ‘conversation’, dialogue, two-way communication, the community etc. The notion of a message, purveyed hypodermically, is anathema to the new protocols and ethos of the information environment. It grates against the sensitivities of the community involved.
One example is thst conducted by the Obama campaign forged around a slogan of ‘Yes, we can!’. Throughout Obama’s campaign, in every media interview he gave, he embodied a sense that his ideas, his objectives, his desires, via the words and phrases he used were those of a larger community, not of a single man or entity, such as a future administration. Less of the message, more of the idea. His engagements with traditional media translated very well into the cyber domain, took place as part of a conversation and the techniques used, subtle as they were, allowed traditional media to converge with the needs of new, social media.
Does traditional media training cater for this change in the environment?
The output of a modern media interview is now one that is part of a wider conversation, one that is placed on the web immediately, directly or indirectly, inviting immediate comment and, if required, a response. It’s not a one-off maneouvre. But much media training relies on the interview being such a singularity – get your message out, full stop.
Much would be gained by interviewees being aware and being trained to treat their interviews as not just a transmission mechanism for their message but as part of a conversation. This requires knowledge and understanding of that conversation, what it is centred around, how it is conducted, its tone and style. Once again basic presentation is important – hands out of pockets, body language, dress code etc – but the timbre, wording, structure and emphasis are subtly altered, to align with the nature of contemporary information exchange and the format of the medium.
The media interviews of old for TV, radio or print are still relevant and require specific techniques. But more frequently these interviews form part of a wider format of communication, relying less on the message and more on the conversation.