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Why a key message can unlock failure: the race for Number 10

11 Apr 2020

We’ve never winced as much – save enduring a Thai massage (to note, NOT relaxing) than when watching the 2019 race for number 10.

Dwindling interest in what felt like a fait accompli process, given the lack of credible opposition, piqued during the BBC “debate” otherwise known as Five Talk Over Each Other and Patronise Emily Maitlis. We sacrificed intellectually-stimulating TV (Eat Well For Less) in favour of a the small screen equivalent of Enid Blyton-meets-George Orwell with Much Hand-Waving.

In respect of interview technique the Tories seem to be walking, talking media interview text books.

Of 2003.

One useful byproduct of an otherwise frustrating hour of televisual mediocrity was this: clear reasons why old school “key messaging” just doesn’t cut it any more.

So, to recap:

Each of the then-final-five acted like they were men of the people, didn’t they?

They’re just like you and I.

They know the price of milk and they worry about their family’s future and they walk among us on the mean streets of Islington where there’s a limited range of Waitrose essentials.

Take Jeremy Hunt, for instance. He’s been to Kidderminster. KIDDERMINSTER!

Michael Gove’s even more down with the common people – like a more rotund Jarvis Cocker – because his dad was a shopkeeper. Imagine that! Adopted son of a hard-working business owner not so much teetering on the breadline as relaxing upon a giant artisan ciabatta island surrounded by fish in homage to a highly successful wholesale venture.

Around the time Emily Maitlis looked close to lamping Boris for his constant, first-name references (possibly preferably to being called a “female friend”), we were writing a list – theoretical of course – about what the SPADs may have briefed their trusted, not-at-all-disconnected-with-the-reality-of-life charges to focus on.

Jeremy: You’ve spent time with ordinary people – you know – up north and that. Don’t forget to mention that woman with her sheep farm and fear of socio-economic change.

Rory: You’re the only one who’s different – you don’t really know how or why but give it a whirl, it’s only Europe. If it gets tricky take your tie off and look exasperated. And different.

Sajid: Are you sure you want to do this?

Michael: Remember, he was a shopkeeper, not an entrepreneur like Jeremy. If it gets heated move to Plan B: Bash the other Jeremy. Don’t mention the drugs unless a cool student type brings it up.

Boris. Your name is Boris. The lady presenter’s name is Emily. Everyone is your friend and a distant relative if we put the research in. Let the other four squabble. Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t say anything.

Hypothetically, you could see the tactics a mile off and to be fair, they stuck to their pre-briefed scripts in the main.

Which is fine, if the script is credible.

Media training is an essential part of political and public life – it’s right to equip interviewees with the knowledge and skills that prepare them for the unforgiving spotlight. It’s also entirely sensible to consider what questions may be posed and what you might say in response.

One of the four pillars of media relations is Presence. If you’ve been prepared to the hilt to parrot key messages you don’t believe in regardless of what you’re being asked, or to bridge away from tricky questions again and again, you’re not present.

You’re not showing who you are or why people could possibly trust, empathise, or even rather like you.

And we tend to like people who have their own opinion, who admit things are tricky, who aren’t afraid to say they’ve come from a particular background but, so what, they’re exceptional at what they do.

All the media training in the world won’t help if you don’t have the inner conviction to believe in what you stand for, to listen to questions, to respect the person asking them and to engage in the conversation, even if it’s a tough one.

If you can’t do that – the best advice is to avoid the media limelight. PM race wise – that strategy seems to be working.