Tuesday, September 30, 2008

MediaCoach October Videoblog

Time for the October videoblog -

Is Sarah Palin out of her depth?

A viewing of the interview that Sarah Palin recently did with Katie Couric must give even her staunchest supporters grave doubts about her ability to run the country. She is hesitant, indecisive and unclear about the economic situation. She may have had a couple of weeks of intense briefing from her media advisors, but in my view, she needs a lot more before being a convincing candidate.

If she was a client of mine, I wouldn't let her in front of a camera until she learns how to deliver a message with clarity and purpose.

It got even worse in a joint interview with John McCain, where they tried to explain a complete disagreement between themselves. They complain about "gotcha" journalism. Well, Sarah, if you're going for the job, you've got to handle the media, not complain about them.

Delivering a barnstorming speech to party supporters is one thing. Getting up close and personal with an experienced political interviewer is something else. The upcoming debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden will be fascinating.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Osborne fails to bite head off bat

Unlike Ozzy, George Osborne doesn't do rock and roll. But he did perform reasonably well in Ozzy's back yard, Birmingham, getting a sustained round of applause for a pledge to freeze Council Tax bills. On closer inspection, it's not actually a pledge, since the levels of Council tax are set by local authorities. It's more a strong bit of encouragement to Councils to keep bill low, by offering to rebate any increases below 2.5%. Still, it's a good sound bite in a fairly dull speech.

Earlier, dear old Boris Johnson made an excellent speech, poking fun at his old rival Ken Livingstone, and at Arnold Schwarznegger, who last year criticised Boris's speaking skills. Boris remarked " it was a low moment, my friends, to have my speaking style denounced by a monosyllabic Austrian cyborg."

Politics apart, the Tories do seem to have better lines this year. Parties in opposition often do, since they have more time to prepare their speeches, not having to worry about day-to-day issues like governing the country.

The word is that Cameron's speech will focus on Corporate Social Responsibility - an odd choice, so maybe it's a smokescreen. I'm sure he'll have some good one-liners.

In terms of the quality of political speakers, I don't think the UK has an embarrassment of riches at the moment. My favourite orators (in no particular order) are Boris Johnson, Vince Cable, and - er - can't think of a current great Labour speaker at the moment. Luckily, there are still two brilliant political orators knocking around - Tony Benn and George Galloway. Agree with them or not, you have to admire their rhetoric.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Nostalgia or dumbing-down?

I used to love a dreadfully naff TV show in the seventies called "It's a Knockout", known in other countries as "Jeux sans Frontieres". Towns like Milton Keynes and Cumbernauld selected their finest youths to participate in mock gladiatorial combat with the likes of Frankfurt and Toulouse. The "games" featured giant inflatable rabbits, lots of water and revolving things. Comentary came from the peerless Eddie Waring and Stuart Hall. I thought it was a thing of the past.

But last night I turned on the telly in the early evening, to be faced with the image of six "celebrities" in baco-foil suits, looking like six assorted oven-ready chickens. Standing next to a pool of water, they were encouraged to adopt weird body shapes to avoid being knocked into the said pool by a polystyrene wall. Dale Winton shouted encouragement. I rubbed my eyes, but the show continued.

I'm not particularly fussed. Afte all, watching Vanessa Feltz taking an unforced bath was quite funny. I wonder if other shows might get reprised. Seaside Special? Challenge Anneka?

Maybe there aren't many new ideas at the BBC. Maybe the programme commissioners are all nostalgic. Anyway, I turned over and watched "You've been framed". Much more sophisticated.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Round one to Obama on points

Having watched the debate between Obama and McCain live last night, I'm struggling to stay awake this morning. They were so polite to each other, it barely got going. No knockout punches were landed, byt Obama had a few good lines ("I'd use a scalpel rather than a hatchet to make cuts"), but McCain scored on foreign policy (especially with detailed knowledge of Russia and its former satellites) and support for the veterans.

McCain rarely made eye contact with Obama, and started the more nervous. Obama kept using the phrase "John is right" before highlighting their differences. Clearly this was a prepared tactic, but I don't think it worked.

So, for me, Obama edged it on points.

Next up, "Caribou Barbie" as she is becoming known, against Joe Biden in the early hours of Friday morning. I can't wait.

Friday, September 26, 2008

McCain - singing the wrong song?

John McCain has a problem. He's starting to look uncertain about what to do. As I write this, there is still no agreement on the 700 billion dollar rescue package for the US eceonomy. McCain says there should be no presidential debate until agreement is reached. Barack Obama, on the other hand, says the debate should go ahead regardless since "Presidents should be able to handle more than one thing at a time". There are 3,000 journalists gathered at the University of Mississippi, waiting for the debate this evening.The hosts have spent over 8 million dollars staging it. A no-show by McCain could do his campaign real damage. His opponent could be left with 90 minutes of unopposed prime-time TV coverage.

However, McCain's supporters argue that he is putting the welfare of his country first, by staying in Washington until the crisis eases. They say he is looking like a statesman. I'm not so sure, but then I don't have to choose a candidate.

John McCain's team has even had trouble with a theme tune. Of late, they were using Chuck Berry's 1958 rock 'n' roll classic, Johnny B Goode. Unfortunately for them, dear old Chuck is an Obama supporter, and objected. They also had to drop an earlier choice, Abba's Take A Chance On Me, after the Swedish group complained. Senator McCain said: "We played it a couple times and it's my understanding that Abba went berserk."

Maybe he should stick to making oven chips.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ruth Kelly's sleepless night

It must have been noisy in that conference hotel in Manchester. All those Labour party workers singing and dancing 'til the early hours, celebrating a speech by their leader. Ruth Kelly probably went to bed early, after 'phoning home and telling her family what a great speech Gordon gave. But her reverie was interrupted by the partying downstairs. Pausing only to don her quilted dressing gown, she decided to take action. Thumbing through her Filofax, she rang every news outlet, explaining that she was standing down from the Government. With a satisfied smile, she must have dropped off to a deep slumber.

Imagine her surprise this morning when all of the headlines were about her and not Gordon's speech.

Of course, that's not what really happened. The official story is that Ruth wants to spend more time with her family (no, honestly), and that Gordon knew several months ago of her decision, but asked her to wait until the next Cabinet reshuffle. So why did she make the announcement in the wee small hours this morning? Couldn't she have waited until the reshuffle in a week or two?

That depends on the impact she wanted to have. Despite her protestations, her timing was a brilliant piece of PR, from someone disenchanted with the leadership of Gordon Brown. Cabinet ministers rarely resign. She knew it would be a huge story, and knock any feel-good factor from yesterday off the front pages. In my view, she made a calculated political decision to inflict damage on a leader who she used to strongly support.

That's the way it goes in politics. Timing is everything. It's a lesson for us all. If you deliver the right message at the right time, everyone listens.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Conference Speechwatch Number 2 - Gordon Brown

I had the great privilege of being able to talk over Gordon Brown on air today. I was giving a live commentary on his speech on Sky Active (if you've seem fanzone on Sky Sports, you'll know what I mean). I was in a voice-over booth at Sky News with a screen showing the speech live, and a microphone. I was told by the guys in the newsroom that over 500,000 people listened to my commentary, and I was the most popular of the eight "active" windows under the red button. Even some of the Sky Newsreaders were listening to me. Frankly, I'm chuffed.

Oh yes, the speech. It was typical Gordon, I thought. Unspectacular, steady hand on the tiller, Labour are the party to steer us through, etc, etc.... A good move for Sarah Brown to introduce him, I thought. The sections on the NHS were when he looked most relaxed,and got the best response. He doesn't do the humour thing well, and delivered few telling sound bites. Nevertheless, as a "can I keep my job?" speech, it worked, I think.

As for policy, I make no comment for or against. I'm not a politician, I'm a speech expert.

Next week, Cameron's speechwriters will have a field day, I'm sure. He's a much better orator, and gets the advantage of going last. Look out for my report.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Urgent - Nick Faldo's PR Advisor - apply here

Poor old Nick Faldo. He's still reeling from "sandwichgate", when he inadvertently revealed the European pairings for the first day of the Ryder Cup. Now the whole thing has imploded, and his "best 'til last" strategy has gone down the Swaneee. Alas, Nick does have a bit of a history when it comes to dealing with the media. Ever since his victory speech at the 1992 Open championship, when he thanked reporters from "the heart of his bottom", some hacks have been waiting for an opportunity to get their own back.

The time is now.

Even some of his closes confidantes say the Faldo doesn't have friends, he has "admirers". Winning US Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger has little time for Faldo, who he once described as a "p**ck". I first met Faldo many years ago, when he was playing his home course in Welwyn Garden City. Even then, as a 20-year-old, he had little time for small talk or PR. I saw him interviewed by the local paper, the Welwyn Times, being almost monosyllabic. The reporter had to make up most of his quotes.

So, the point is, does he need a PR advisor? I think, on balance, probably not. He hates the idea of "spin", and would be unlikely to temper his comments in order to present a "media-friendly" front. Maybe the European team had an off-weekend, and Faldo shouldn't be blamed. But blamed he will be, and the press payback could be brutal.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How long have I got?

There's a word that media interviewers say to interviewees that makes them talk at great length. The word is "briefly", as in, "So, tell us briefly, in the few seconds we have left, what your new business is about". Alas, on most occasions, the hapless interviewee will begin their well-rehearsed response with a history of how they developed their business, only to be cut off with the words "I'm sorry that's all we have time for". The interviewee leaves the studio annoyed and frustrated that they failed to deliver their message, and furious with the presenter for cutting them off.

Well here's the thing; the news bulletin waits for no-one. It will be broadcast on the hour, regardless of what else is going on. That's why you need to be able to condense (or expand) your answers to fill the time available. Over the years, I have developed a sense of timing that allows me to speak for 30, 45 or 60 seconds, to within a second or two. It has been invaluable to me in media interviews.

Before you go on air, it will pay to practice delivering your message in a limited time. Here's an exercise that I've used with media spokespeople. Take half a dozen sheets of paper, and write a different number of seconds on each. Turn them face down and shuffle them. Take one at random, turn it over, and try to deliver your message in exactly that time. Get someone else to time you - maybe a fellow spokesperson, so you can exchange roles.

When you learn to speak to a precise time, your media interviews will be much more effective. Not only that, you will be surprised how much information you can deliver in a few seconds.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Conference Speechwatch number 1 - Nick Clegg

OK, this is not about politics. It's about speaking. Which makes sense, since I'm currently President of the Professional Speakers Association, and not a political commentator. So it's my take on the party leaders' conference speeches, starting with Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems.

He spoke for just over 38 minutes, on a stage with no lectern (though one lurked in the shadows at the rear of the stage, just in case. Unlike Cameron's speech in 2007, this one seemed to be delivered without any reference to notes, though there may have been prompt screens visible to him.

Nonetheless, it was a good performance, with well-used gestures and a number of strong applause lines. He needs to work on the strength of his voice, which lacks depth when delivering the big lines, but for his first leader's speech at a conference, he did nothing wrong.

Unlike other commentators, I'm unimpressed by politicians speaking without notes. It's something that I and my fellow professional speakers do several times a week, and actors are pretty good at it too. What I am impressed by is a speech with a strong theme, well delivered.

I'd give Nick Clegg 7 out of 10 for this one, and look forward to seeing Brown and Cameron.

Best wishes


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's all the fault of the meeja, innit?

I've been in the office all day today, listening to the soothing babble of BBC Radio 5 Live. The main topic of conversation has been, of course, the twitchy stock markets, collapsing banks and sliding house prices. A number of guests have been asked what, or who is to blame. The most popular answer has been....the media. Now, as a part-time journalist myself, I'm aware of the power of the written and spoken word. But it's not that powerful.

Blaming "the media" for all sorts of troubles and tribulations is the last resort of many a scoundrel. I've lost count of the number of celebrities whose indiscretions were revealed, only to turn round and blame "the media" for their demise. Of course, not doing the silly thing in the first place might have been a better way of avoiding public humiliation.

The most important reason why "the media" is not the guilty party is simply that there is no such thing as "the media". There are no journalistic cabals, no conspiracies, and certainly no Government control. If there was even a hint of the latter, then successive Governments would not get into difficulties, and blame, er - you know who - for their poor image.

All of us hacks simply report what we see and hear. And yes, bad news does make the headlines more then good news. That's what most people want to see and hear. Best advice is to take everything with a pinch of salt anyway. Life is good, and mostly funny. At least from where I sit.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Black Hole appears between New York and Newcastle

As someone pointed out in a text to BBC Radio 5 Live this morning, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva did create a black hole after all. It's currently located somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, and a large financial institution (Lehman Brothers) and a Premiership Football Club (Newcastle United) have already been sucked into it. The hungry vortex may yet claim more victims if the rumours are anything to go by. If I were Gordon Brown, I'd be chaining myself to the banisters in number 10, for a start.

Doom and gloom? Well not from where I sit. As it happens, I was in Wall Street a few weeks ago, watching the investment bankers shouting into their mobile phones. It struck me as all a bit eighties, and there was an air of unreality, almost as though it were a film set. Turns out it's a disaster movie.

As for Newcastle, home of my grandfather, I do have a lot of sympathy for the fans. Mind you, it's clear that a choice of shirt sponsor can have a dramatic impact on a club's fortunes. Mike Ashley, the current owner of Newcastle (though for how long, who can tell?) proudly sported the words "Northern Rock" on his manly bosom. West Ham, also going through some troubled times, opted for XL leisure. And who would have thought that Manchester United would be languishing in fourteenth place in the table this morning. Could it be that the travails of their shirt sponsors, AIG (who are seeking a forty billion dollar bail-out) are having an impact?

So who's next? ( a particularly good album, by the way). My guess is as good as yours. Let's take a look at the Premiership table. Spurs are propping it up. Their shirt sponsors, Mansion, are described on the Spurs website as "a gaming and entertainment company with strong Asian interests". Nineteenth placed Stoke have the Britannia Building Society across their stripes, while one place above them, sport the Crown Paints logo. No doubt they're all fine and stable companies. I'm sure the fans hope so too.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Two Years is a Long Time in Politics

Poor beleaguered Gordon Brown. No sooner does he start a "recovery" strategy, than it all falls to pieces again. It's how publicity seems to work. Once you get into a hole, even if you stop digging, other people queue up to throw dirt in on top of you. For example, the "fuel strategy" announced by Gordon this week turns out to be lukewarm, with only pensioners of a certain age or circumstance qualifying for free insulation. However, that was not what the PM said at his press conference. It's hardly an earth-shattering mistake, but it adds to the mess he's currently in.

Now a handful of disaffected Labour MPs have put their heads above the parapet and called for a leadership election. Although they are hardly likely to muster the seventy supporters they need, it's worth recalling that a similar bid by backbencher Sir Anthony Meyer led to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. As BBC Political editor Nick Robinson put it this week "It's sometimes the peasant's revolt that brings down the monarch".

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, preparing for his first party conference as leader, must be pleased and annoyed. Mostly the latter, I suspect, since the potential backstabbing of Brown will keep the LibDems out of the headlines, yet again. They can't seem to buy publicity (unless one of their MPs admits to sex, drugs or even rock and roll). David Cameron and the Tories are looking happier, but not as much as you might think. Their danger is peaking too early. We may be two years from an election, and a lot can happen. Brown may recover (unlikely in my view), or young Milliband may take over and revive party fortunes. No-one knows. The best that Brown can hope for is a sudden change in economic fortunes, for which he can take the credit (without the crunch).

I have no political allegiance (since I work with MPs pf all parties), and I've worked in and around Westminster long enough to know that politicians are mostly well-meaning people overwhelmed by events, just like you and I would be. Despite the ravings of a few critics, none of them is "evil" or means harm to any sector of society. More often than not, events outside their control shape their destinies. If I was Gordon's PR advisor (a job I would need to be paid a lot to take), I would tell him to sit tight and not try any gimmicky initiatives. Cameron, on the other hand, needs to take every opportunity to increase his poll lead, which will surely weaken at some point in the future.

When the election finally comes, just like last time, there will be scant differences between the party manifestoes. As Harold Wilson said, "a week is a long time in politics", and there's no telling who will win two years hence.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Knees up Mother Brown

So the third-largest package tour company in the UK has gone belly-up. XL (funny name for a company) grounded all its planes last night, leaving around 70,000 travellers stranded abroad, and around 200,000 people with no holidays to go on. It's a disaster, and so unexpected, Eh? Well, maybe. XL are also the shirt sponsors of Premiership football club, West Ham. One of the West Ham fan forums (a bulletin board on the "Knees up Mother Brown" website) has had a discussion about XL for the past month. A week ago, fans were posting messages about the "imminent demise" of the company, and speculating about who the next shirt sponsor should be.

So why were passengers arriving at check-in in the early hours of this morning, still unaware of the collapse of XL until the check-in staff handed them a leaflet? A glance at the past few months of XL's history says it all. In May, CEO Peter Owen said "Our future is promising" and announced a re-structure of the company called "Fit for the Future". In June, Mr Owen resigned, citing "personal reasons". In August, XL Airways cancelled Caribbean flights,blaming rising fuel costs. In early September, XL Leisure confirmed refinancing talks, which a company spokesman said had "no connection" with the Caribbean flight cancellations. Today, September 12th, the company collapsed.

So far, so disastrous. I wonder why no-one seemed to expect it? The West Ham fans saw it coming. As one said last week "At least I won't have to wear my shirt size on my front any more". Maybe the financial journalists should spend more time on the terraces.

PS - Top marks to Travelcounsellors.co.uk - they snapped up the google adword "xl" and now appear top right of every search screen - brilliant business.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lipstick, Pigs and Pit Bulls

Far be it from me to pass judgement on another country's politics, but the US Presidential, and Vice-Presidential race is turning out to be riveting. The latest spat has been fuelled by an Internet advert for the McCain campaign,accusing Barack Obama of insulting Sarah Palin, by calling her a "pig". In fact, Obama made no reference to Palin in his speech, when he used the phrase "lipstick on a pig" to describe McCain's policies. The advert linked this remark to Palin's "Pit Bull with Lipstick" comment in her speech to the Republican faithful.

However, in politics, as in war, truth is often the first casualty. It doesn't really matter whether Obama was referring to Palin or not, it's the perception created by the advert that counts. It seems that many people in the US believe that it was a deliberate insult, which creates a problem for the Obama campaign. In my view, the speechwriters should have spotted the potential for harm, and used another phrase.

Every day that the news is about Sarah Palin, rather than the issues, is a good day for the McCain campaign chiefs. They must have been rubbing their hands in glee when Obama unwittingly dropped an opportunity into their laps. There's a long way to go yet,and many twists and turns to come. On this occasion, the McCain camp scored a point. It will be interesting to see how Obama responds.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Too old for the Beeb?

I've been the victim of age discrimination by the BBC. Well, to be more precise, by a researcher at the BBC. I called Radio Five Live this morning to offer a comment on how sports stars cope with the media - a topic that I know well, since I list sports stars among my media clients.

My call was answered, as expected, by a researcher. He asked me what I was calling about, and said "that's interesting". He asked me where I lived, and then said "is it East London?". Of course, the phone system had worked it out for him. Then the killer question "May I ask how old you are?" I replied, quite honestly, "55". There was a brief pause "Oh dear" he said "too old for our demographic. I'm sorry. Bye". And there was a click as he hung up the phone.

I was stunned. I was calling the Victoria Derbyshire show at 9.30am. It's a show I have appeared on several times as a guest - as recently as three months ago. I have never been asked my age before. Is it a new policy by the Beeb, or an over-zealous researcher? I hope the latter.

A couple of weeks ago, it was reported that newsreader Selena Scott is suing Channel 5 news for age discrimination. I was at university with Selena, and she has my full support in her claim - she's no age at all. What's going on with the media?