When it comes to dealing with the media, spokespersons do handle most for larger companies and in most companies few devote time/funds for training management and leadership to handle the media.
But, in today’s information environment, where the public and stakeholders demand increased accountability, especially of those industries who ‘fly close to the wind’ (finance, petrochem, automotive, aviation, defence, utilities, pharma etc – where (a) there are utter public reliance, safety, wellbeing aspects and (b) if things go wrong they have the potential to go very wrong) – trotting out the spokesperson has its limits – as BP, Toyota, the Prudential, British Airways, most banks over the last eighteen months etc, will prove. Spokespersons are utterly invaluable in the day-to-day dealings with the media, but most know that using the ‘big guns’ or subject matter experts (SMEs) is a necessity in maintaining a fresh, credible and mature relationship with the media.
Further, media relations do not exist in a vacuum. Any successful organization integrates its communication functions – PR, advertising, marketing – and has strong buy-in from leadership who provide sound guidance and fully appreciate that communications have the ability to contribute to organizational goals way beyond the mere promotion of products or services. As such communication management, and thereby media relations, is a crucial aspect of organizational development (as the widely respected Grunig ‘Excellence’ Model of Effective Organizations attest – straight out of organizational theory (systems)), just as communications has found its way into the dominant coalition of corporate boardrooms over the last decade or so. Some have learnt that media handling is not and should not be a bolt-on.
Just as successful companies will invest huge amounts of effort in market research, R&D, branding, advertising and marketing, the lean and mean, the aggressive winners in the marketplace should not skimp on PR and media relations. And part of the latter involves having key personnel, not just the spokespersons, prepared and able to handle the media. If it comes to a battle for reputation, it will most likely be fought in the glare of the camera, and the arsenal must be ready, otherwise getting into the ring with experienced journalists will be a painful and damaging experience.
The notion that ‘the spokesperson will deal with it’ is folly as has been shown time and time again – management at the very least need to be engaged in the media process and prepared, if necessary, to engage directly with the media. Further, if in crisis, a media interview can be a brutal event, both personally and for the organization. By not preparing anyone for such, any HR department can be seen as neglecting its duty in training its staff for their duties and responsibilities.
Of course, not all organizations, will find themselves in the media spotlight (although the potential is always there) and may not consider media training a high priority – a reasonable judgement call. But, many, many companies can quickly be under the microscope and media engagement can become, rapidly, very critical to the future fortunes of a company, especially during a crisis. By this time it may be too late to consider training.
Those caught in a media storm can then reflect on the fact that hindsight is a wonderful thing.
The bottom line is that while it may take years to build a good reputation, it can be shattered in hours through the media, and relying solely on the spokesperson(s) to save the day on their lonesome or wielding unprepared and untrained senior staff and SMEs, is asking for trouble.
What, with wikileaks, phone hackin’ journalists, social media on the interweb, a new UK Prime ministerial spin meister and things called quora, it’s all enough to give you a migraine. Of course, it hasn’t always been like this, and occasionally it is good for the soul to hark back to more tranquil times, just as Simon Hoggart of the Guardian did recently:
“Isn’t it a reflection of modern times that the prime minister’s appointment of a spin doctor has attracted as much attention as any new cabinet minister might? Rightly so – Craig Oliver will probably be more influential than almost all of them.
More than 60 years ago Clement Attlee had to be persuaded to install a Press Association ticker in Downing Street and only agreed when he was told it would allow him to follow the cricket scores.
One day Francis Williams, his press secretary, gave his usual briefing to the lobby. Later Attlee exclaimed in astonishment: “There’s an account of this morning’s cabinet on my cricket machine!” He didn’t even know what his spin doctor did.
I think that, on the whole, that was a good thing, and we were better off.”
A letter to the Daily Telegraph (22 August 2010) recently caught CB3’s eye:
SIR – The parlous state of the public finances in Britain provides the perfect opportunity for British taxpayers to end their half-century-long experiment with “development aid”, which has, since its inception, stunted growth and subsidised bad governance in Africa.
As Africans, we urge the generous-spirited British to reconsider an aid programme they can ill afford, and which we do not want or need. A real offer from the British people to help our development would consist of the abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy, which keeps African agricultural exports out of the European marketplace.
It is that egregious policy, combined with the weight of regulations, bad laws and stifling bureaucracy, subsidised by five decades of development aid, which prevents Africans from lifting themselves out of poverty.
Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development, speaks about a “moral imperative” to combat poverty around the world. We could not agree more. The British have a unique opportunity to cut the deficit and help Africa: please, ask your new government to stop your aid.
Editor, Independent newspaper, Uganda
Executive Director, IMANI Center for Policy and Education, Ghana
Lecturer, University of Ghana and Ashesi University, Ghana
Executive Director, Initiative for Public Policy
Now, the notion or concept of free market trade, tariff barriers, CAP, competitive advantage etc do not tend to feature in the public’s eye when considering providing aid and succour to the African continent (or elsewhere for that matter). Charities, doing sterling work, do concentrate on gaining funding from a variety of donors, but with cries of rampant corruption in aid-receiving nations, an increased desire of the public to see where there hard-earned cash is going and severe cuts in government aid packages, perhaps now is the time to look again at campaigning and lobbying for regulatory change, requiring people’s support, some of their time, but less from their currently beleagured financial coffers.
Of course,the major charities do so already, but is it a time to increase the emphasis on this tack, and tackle what many, including the contributors above, consider, with reasonable justification, the main obstacle to real development? It’s a difficult sell, but with the current problems of aid funding coupled with the continuing recession, the timing may be prescient.
Policy, relationships, practicalities, even thinking about a little bit of governance and leadership – these will all undoubtedly all pre-occupying the minds of many senior LibDems (and no doubt Conservatives). But right from day one of this coalition, the LibDems, probably more than any other party, will need to keep two things clear in their consciousness – those of identify and narrative – in order to survive the next few years.
The LibDems for generations have enjoyed an easy identity – the third party, centre-left, progressive even maverick – even though it didn’t feature strongly on the radar of the general public. Well it does now – with many who may have only had a vague, hazy idea of the party struggling to understand it. Yet in coalition it has already lost some of those identifying features – its connection with the left appears diluted, its radical outspoken tone muted and its position as the ‘progressive’ party will quickly be filled by Labour.
Regardless of how this identity has been shaken by recent events, the party will in five years time, possibly earlier, go back to the polls. At that time, the public will either know who the party is and its story or that public will be unsure of the party’s narrative and identity, both having been obscured by coalition dynamics. It is in the gift of the LibDems themselves to choose which outcome will prevail. This eventuality will also apply to the Conservatives, but their legacy of mainstream government or opposition has enabled a deeper impression in the public psyche – unless Team Cameron are transformed within a heady atmosphere of new concensus politics, and seen to be transformed, they will still be seen as the Tories – love’em or hate’em – at the next election. And Labour, with a rich and vibrant seam of history, unshackled from the constraints of power, can regroup and develop a powerful image within the vacated progressive left political sphere. But the LibDems, if they fail to maintain and enhance their sense of who they are as an individual party, may enjoy a brief moment of government only to be returned to the political hinterland.
As they say, a reputation takes years to develop but can be shattered in minutes. For the LibDems this hasn’t happened yet (although it has been shaken). In the medium term, actions and consequences – sheer bloody politics –of the Coalition will of course take their toll on the reputations of those involved. But if active measures – the determined maintenance of party culture, vision, ritual, ideals – are not taken quickly, to capitalize on the fact that the public are watching them, LibDem reputation – the very identity and narrative of the party, diluted and fragmented – could easily melt away anyway. Reputation management is an awful buzzword from the PR industry but, if anything, the LibDems will have to quickly start practicing serious identity management, in order to come out the other end of this Coalition intact.
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.
See below some wise words from Major Mehar Omar Khan (Pakistan Army) from his article “Afghanistan: Seven Fundamental Questions” found at Small Wars Journal (http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/319-khan.pdf)
Who should the coalition try to impress: Afghans or rest of the world?
While the pressure to present tangible results in terms that sound familiar to domestic and global audience is understandable, lives of young men should not be ‘wasted’ in pursuit of hollow ideals and empty slogans that mean woefully little to the people of Afghanistan. While there is essentially nothing bad about transparent ballot boxes, soap opera television, Afghan movies and a few dozen bold and beautiful women in the legislative assembly, the Afghan people look wearily at all these things. They are not impressed with these ‘achievements’, not just because they have an outdated mindset, but because it means so little to them in terms of alleviating some of their most basic concerns like hunger, malnutrition, disease, violence and fear. Coalition soldiers should not have to die for anything less noble than helping the people of Afghanistan forge a new future and a new destiny for themselves – a destiny that they will themselves determine in ways that they feel comfortable with.
Here are some ideas.
One, please understand the hearts and minds that you are trying to win. Most of these minds are illiterate, unschooled and locked in the last century. Most of these hearts are raw, romantic, sentimental and pure as a pearl. Help them start where they actually are and not where you want them to be. At their present level of socio-economic development, Afghans do not truly need a majestic parliament building, a palatial house for the president, five star hotels and nicely suited dummies as rulers in Kabul and Kandahar. They need small schools, clean drinking water, some pills for that headache which refuses to go away, some money to buy food for their kids and some assistance to kick-start their farming or that little shop in a mud-hut. People want their liberators to know that they need ‘electricity before they are asked to destroy their kerosene lantern’ and that they need to at least be able to read names before they are asked to choose one out of a long list of people vying to be their President.
Two, coalition must refuse to lock itself in a fight that tramples the people. This will involve some sacrifice in the short term but huge dividends in the long term.
Three, people need soldiers that respect their values and their traditions because, however outdated they may be, these are their values and their traditions. This land belongs to a ‘people’; it’s not the property of ‘a state’. In this context, is it not fair to ask how much of an effort, in terms of resources, has gone to ‘Afghanistan the state’ and how much to ‘Afghanistan the people’? How much of the money and resources and security has stayed and stagnated in Kabul guarding criminals and drug-lords; and how much of it has actually reached a far flung Helmand village caught in the center of the storm? How much of attention has gone to people most bitter about being ousted from power (Pashtuns) and how much of it has been lavished on communities that have generally always enjoyed a relative peace? Asking the right questions is the true test of honesty. Giving the right answers is a test of leadership. Questions carry their own correct answers as well as consequences for wrong answers.
The UK’s new Minister of Defence, Bob Ainsworth, gave his first public speech on Wednesday 8 July at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), wordled below. Now, Ainsworth, unlike his predecessors, has previous in the area of defence, as in he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces from June 2007, so he’s pretty much up to speed on what it’s all about. Further, he’s known as a straight talker.
So his first speech as Minister of Defence could have been expected to be a no-nonsense justification of UK military operations and presence in Helmand, especially with casualty rates amongst his troops currently so appalingly high, which has given the media extra focus on Afghanistan. The circumstances, unfortunate and saddening as they are, the timing and the platform gave an opportunity for the MoD to give heightened voice to a message which is not being heard by the British public, a message clearly articulating why the UK is doing what it’s doing, and suffering because of it, in a far off counry.
Indeed, Ainsworth was refreshingly forthright, admitting that the problems faced are grave and serious. Further, he did attempt to show signs of a strategy, articulating several steps necessary, many already under way, to stabilise the situation and reach an ‘end state’, not an end date. Indeed, he stated that ‘more lives will be lost and our resolve will be tested’ – no pulling of punches here. In fact, that was the message received by the media, as scores of headlines, from the BBC to the tabloids reiterated the warning of further lives being lost.
Yet as to explaining why, an opportunity was missed. Of the 2943 words of the speech, only 220 words, less than 10%, were invested in that crucial element of explaining why. Any message explaining why it is vital that the UK continue to puts its people in harm’s way was drowned out, if really attempted at all.
The MoD itself seemed to be caught up in its own tight worldview, panglossian in its attempt to be seen to be filling this yawning information gap. As can be seen from its own website, despite the lack of real attempt to deal with the ‘why’ question, MoD were keen to portray the speech as one in which “Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has given a speech today explaining why the British Armed Forces are on operations in Afghanistan”.
Unfortunately he didn’t. A fine speech it may have been, but it didn’t do what it says on the tin.
Of course it would be naive to think that good old-fashioned politics would merely allow such a speech to go ahead. Yet politics is about power and influence and retaining it. And modern democratic politics cannot achieve such things without an informed public. With operations at high tempo, and serving personnel working bloody hard to achieve their objectives, and suffering in order to do so, the media ensures that Afghanistan remains in the spotlight in the eyes of the public. Under this spotlight and with a new, straight talking Minister, there is a window of opportunity to articulate the governments reasons for pursuing such a difficult course, to inform its public so they may at least understand. Those at Chatham House might understand (and remember this was a public speech – Chatham House was the location not the audience), CB3 might understand, most journalists might understand, but the majority of the British public remain unclear as to why our Armed Forces are being asked to do what they are doing. The window of opportunity for changing that won’t stay open for long.