Why are there more car-crash media interviews than ever?

The number of “car-crash” media interviews is rising all the time. Just over the last few days we’ve had Diane Abbott and Angela Rayner receiving the Nick Ferrari treatment on LBC. Other recent victims include government ministers like Chloe Smith, shadow ministers like Richard Burgon, elder statesmen like Ken Clarke and even party leaders, with the Green’s Natalie Bennett having an extraordinary “brain fade” in a pre-election interview in 2015.

So why are we getting so many more than ever? Why are politicians unable to cope in the spotlight? Here are five reasons:

The media is a results business, and broadcast journalists, in particular, can raise their profile by skewering a politician. Nick Ferrari’s profile went up no end last week after his interview with Diana Abbott, which quickly went viral. When Victoria Derbyshire riled Ken Clarke, goading him into disagreeing with her over the nature of rape, he had to fight to save his career – whereas hers got a huge boost. There is a big incentive for journalists to go hostile – more shares, more clicks, more revenue.

Over the last few years, MPs have come in for lots of stick – not least with the expenses scandal – and every aspect of their lives is now scrutinised. In fact, politicians remain the profession least trusted by the British public, even below bankers. The result? Only those with the thickest skin are standing for parliament, and bright, talented, knowledgeable people with just average skin thickness are no longer willing to put themselves forward – especially as they can earn so much more elsewhere. We’re narrowing the talent pool from which MPs are chosen, with the result that some of today’s politicians lack the intellectual authority of their predecessors.

The cult of youth means that many politicians are promoted to senior positions way too quickly, as experienced cabinet ministers go off to make money outside politics. According to research by Stephen Taylor of Exeter University, between 1964 and 1997 the average time between being first elected to parliament and being appointed to the cabinet or shadow cabinet was 12.6 years. For the period between 1997 and 2015 this figure had gone down to just eight years. Chloe Smith, slaughtered on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman, entered Parliament in 2009 and was promoted to a ministerial post just two years later at the age of 29.

In this age of social media, voters are far more accustomed to public humiliation of others – from contestants on Britain’s Got Talent to celebrities and political leaders. There’s simply a greater appetite for aggressive interviews. Far from empathising with politicians as ordinary people doing their best, we see them as a breed apart, ripe for a good kicking. And social media only amplifies the mistakes, people love to share car-crash interviews and many have become viral memes.

The sheer number of broadcast media channels continues to rise exponentially. There are now nearly 500 TV channels available in the UK alone, all looking for content, and countless radio stations too. In the 1970s, there were basically three TV channels. Many more channels means many more interviews, and therefore much more chance for politicians to mess up live on air.

None of these trends is going to reverse anytime soon, so we can expect more car-crashes over the coming years. What is painfully obvious is that all public spokespeople need media training, sooner rather than later.

Does endless message repetition really work?

Does endless message repetition really work? Over 20 years ago, Peter Mandelson spoke about messaging at a client event I organised. He was compelling, as you might imagine, full of great advice and revealing anecdotes. And I’ll remember to my dying day one particularly pithy piece of advice he gave: “It is only when you’re sick of hearing yourself repeat the same message over and over again that your audience is just beginning to get it.”

The truth of this was brought home to me last week when I saw some research by YouGov showing that only 15% of people polled could spontaneously recall Theresa May’s “Strong and stable” line. Considering the number of times Tory politicians have uttered those words, and with such sheer relentlessness – so much so that journalists and commentators have been pulling their hair out in frustration – you might have expected a better recall rate.

But given also that ‘strong and stable’ isn’t the most inspiring slogan ever, and that 67% of voters tell YouGov they are finding the election ‘boring’, a 15% recall rate is actually pretty good. And, in any case, those who say they will vote Tory (currently around 45%, according to the polls) might well be influenced by a slogan even if they can’t spontaneously recall it.

Does endless message repetition really work?

To my mind, Labour’s ‘For the many not the few’, which they’ve used for donkey’s years, is more evocative and powerful. Yet, during this election campaign their politicians haven’t repeated it with the same ruthless and robotic discipline that the Tories have mustered. So, according to YouGov, only 2% of people recall it. A poor return.

Drilling the message into the voter’s minds by endless repetition is, clearly, an important part of an election-winning strategy. But for communications strategists, there is another vital consideration: the slogan has to be credible. It has to have a ring of convincing and distinctive truth about it – preferably in a way that puts the opposing parties in a negative light.

For example, Ed Miliband could never have used ‘strong and stable’. It wouldn’t have suited him. Likewise, David Cameron would have struggled with ‘for the many not the few’, which, of course, made it all the more potent for Labour. But ‘strong and stable’ really is a good line for the doggedly determined Theresa May. Likewise, ‘take back control’ was a beautifully simple shorthand for the Leave campaign last summer, and ‘make America great again’ resonated with Trump supporters at least in part because it reflected the candidate’s seemingly unshakable self-belief. ‘Yes we can’ was the ideal accompaniment to Barack Obama’s young and fresh surge for the Presidency in 2008, as he broke through all sorts of glass ceilings.

It takes time to find the ideal strapline, mantra or slogan – in political marketing just as in advertising. It requires trial and error. But once you land on a line that works, you need to commit to it and, yes, repeat it as often as you dare. The lesson of this election, so far, is that endless repetition makes journalists groan and moan – but it really does work.

In the age of instant news and live streaming, leaders can benefit from media training

In the age of instant news and live streaming, leaders can benefit from media training. As Theresa May flew over the Atlantic to meet President Trump, she surely reflected upon how well she has picked her opponents. Labour is in a trough. The LibDems are climbing, but from the lowest of bases. UKIP, post-Farage, is an unknown quantity. Only the SNP is in the groove.

It all means that her position seems unassailable – even with the huge uncertainty over Brexit.

But for how long? As David Cameron knows, a leader can quickly go from hero to zero. Once the honeymoon period is over (and they all end eventually), May will be scrutinised like never before. And all those things that commentators are, for the moment, letting pass – an ill-conceived comment here, a botched decision there – will be used against her with far greater hostility and purpose than at present.

In the age of instant news and live streaming
The US and UK – a special relationship

The danger for May is particularly acute, as she is no natural performer. Yes, she is a serviceable public speaker when she’s in total control of what she says and how she says it, and she more than holds her own in the bear pit of PMQs against a limited opponent. But her challenge comes when interaction and spontaneity are required away from the House of Commons, such as in media interviews, press conferences and speaking on the hoof. Then she looks tense and awkward, sounds evasive and struggles to project warmth.

Naturally, people will compare her with Margaret Thatcher, who also had difficulty, particularly in the early days, with her media image. Thatcher realised this, and employed coaches to help her – and, as a result, she became reasonably good, though always better at conveying conviction than humanity.

Likewise, May needs to improve markedly. Her evasiveness is her most obvious challenge. Just like Gordon Brown, she seems to regard too many questions as potential banana skins. For sure, some questions can be dangerous, but not as many as May seems to think. Take her interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr last Sunday. He asked her four times whether she knew about the Trident missile failure, and each time she dodged the question. The result? The watching audience assumes the worst – that she did know, but didn’t want to admit it. Cue a massive scrambling operation in Downing Street, and a brick removed from her wall of unassailability.

A golden rule of doing media interviews is always to answer or at least address the question. Dodging it altogether, especially four times, makes the dodger sound untrustworthy and even deceitful. May must quickly get out of that destructive habit while she has time.

She also needs to work out what her personal story is. Like it or not, successful leaders tell us a lot about themselves and their “journey” (think Bill Clinton, “the boy from Hope”). Yet May is clearly uncomfortable talking about herself and, for example, the trauma of losing both parents when she was young. That’s understandable, of course. But the danger is that her opponents will frame her story for her. Already titbits are leaking out that she is a control-freak when it comes to running the government. She needs a counter-story to challenge these damaging rumours.

Finally, what about her meeting with President Trump? As Prime Minister she hasn’t yet appeared at ease with foreign leaders, looking like Billy No-Mates at the EU summit in December. With Trump, there are other dangers. Let’s hope it’ll be a case of opposites attract, because they could hardly be more different – she guarded and shy, he belligerent and provocative. If she carries out a joint press conference with him she’s bound to be asked about his comments on women, disabled people and ethnic minorities – minefields, all of them. It will be a big test of her ability to be diplomatic, while conveying strength and thinking on her feet, and an equally big test of how much she has learned and improved since last summer.

May has many strengths as a leader, and has impressed onlookers by her determination, steady competence and ability to navigate through treacherous waters. She has earned public respect, if not public affection.

But as a media performer she’s weaker than any Prime Minister since Edward Heath 45 years ago.

So now is the moment, with her opponents struggling, to develop her personal communication skills. The time will inevitably come when she’ll need them to keep her premiership going.

Could Corbyn’s reboot to campaign like Trump work?

Spooked by diabolical poll ratings, Corbyn’s team want to ape some of Donald Trump’s campaigning tactics. Could Corbyn’s reboot to campaign like Trump work?

They want him to be unashamedly true to himself and his beliefs, reaching out directly to the voters and building up support not because of media approval, but despite media hostility. It will be ‘Jeremy Uncut’.

Could this work? In theory, yes.

Donald Trump proved it. His media strategy was anything but conventional. He delighted in confrontation, even with the Republican Party, attracting terrible headlines.

He tore up the rule book for media handling and campaigning, stretching to the very limit the theory that no news is bad news.

He made little attempt to win over journalists, but often attacked them, and portrayed the media as part of the discredited elite.

This neatly fed into voters’ frustration about the state of the economy, the forces of globalisation and the need for radical change. “At least he says what he thinks,” they said.

And Trump isn’t alone. Here in the UK, Nigel Farage pulled off a similar trick, portraying himself and his supporters as the people’s army fighting the establishment.

Like Trump, Farage refused to soften his message, happily provoking his opponents, unafraid of media scorn.

So what about Corbyn?

Could Corbyn's reboot to campaign like Trump work?

Could he become the anti-establishment populist of the left? After all, he too has faced a critical media from the moment he was elected, and deep animosity from his own party.

And many voters in Labour’s heartlands feel that same frustration about their economic prospects and the pace of change in a globalised world.

But whereas Trump has spent the last two years picking fights, lashing out and dominating the news bulletins – often distastefully, but always effectively – Corbyn has done the exact opposite, shying away from the spotlight and prevaricating for fear of offending.

He was practically invisible during the EU referendum campaign, the biggest decision this country has faced for 40 years.

He has no coherent message on immigration, which has become an obsession, particularly in Labour’s northern heartlands.

And when he does land on a radical initiative, such as a wage cap, he appears to take fright and back away – something that Trump and Farage would never do.

If a Corbyn reboot was ever going to work, it needed to be about a month after he was elected, after the negativity had started but before the outright hostility had set in.

He would still have had almost zero chance of becoming Prime Minister (he’s just too left wing for that, with priorities and beliefs way out of kilter with those of the average voter), but he would have gained respect for boldly saying it as he saw it, with a little more class than Trump displays.

The authentic Jezza – from the start.

Now it’s too late. The voters have made up their mind about him, with most, fairly or not, marking him down as an eccentric irrelevance.

Apart from his relatively few devoted followers, his support is draining away. Sadly, then, rebooting him is doomed to fail.


Can France’s mainstream media stop Le Pen?

Can France’s mainstream media stop Le Pen? Jolted by the shock results of Brexit then Trump, the western world is now braced for a third major upset – a possible victory for the far-right Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election next year.

Could it happen? Well, it looks unlikely. But that’s what people said about Brexit and Trump. It couldn’t happen because it was unthinkable. Then it happened.

Can France's Mainstream Media Stop Le Pen?
Politics is no longer Left vs Right, it’s now Globalist vs Nationalist

So what can the French mainstream, left and right, do to stop Le Pen marching in through the gates of the Élysée Palace? Here are this year’s lessons from the UK and US:

  1. Assume the worst. Hillary Clinton thought she had the presidency in the bag, so failed to campaign in states such as Wisconsin that Trump sneaked through to win. The UK’s Remain campaigners were convinced people would “see sense”, so failed to address their deep-seated resentment towards the EU and their thirst for a return of sovereignty. If France’s mainstream wants to stop Le Pen, it must take her threat seriously. Assuming it’ll be all right on the night – just because the alternative is unthinkable – will lead to disaster.
  1. Don’t take the voters for fools. For all his strengths as a campaigner, David Cameron tried to pull the wool over the voters’ eyes with the absurd “concessions” he claimed to have negotiated with other EU countries on free movement of people. The concessions were close to worthless. He knew it, the voters knew he knew it, and they resented his seemingly desperate, some would say dishonest, attempts to pretend otherwise. He’d have been better off with no concessions at all.
  1. Don’t insult the voters. Cameron once called UKIP voters “a bunch of fruit cakes, loonies and closet racists”. Hillary Clinton described Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables” consisting of “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it”. If you want to drive voters away from you, insulting them is a great way of doing it. Instead, you must show that you understand – genuinely – their concerns about immigration, globalisation and the threats, as they see them, to their way of life. And if you really find it impossible to empathise with the way so many of your fellow countrymen think and feel, you shouldn’t be running for office in the first place.
  1. Set out a passionate and positive change agenda. Britain’s Remainers were arguing for the status quo. So was Hillary Clinton. In contrast, Trump and Britain’s Leavers offered a sea change – not just from the past few years, but from the past few decades. France is full of anger and resentment at a stalling economy, terrorism and “waves of immigration”. Unless Le Pen’s opponents show the French people that they offer wholesale change to match hers, she’ll have a great chance of victory. 
  1. Get your message right. Britain’s Leave campaign offered the beautifully simple yet powerful “Take back control”, which resonated with so many. Trump’s message was “Make America great again”, and the voters loved it. But what did their opponents offer? Clinton’s “Stronger together” was puny by comparison, and Remain’s “Stronger, safer and better off” tried to be three messages in one, which is always a bad idea. Win the battle of the topline message, and you go a long way towards winning power. 
  1. Be truthful and authentic. People are heartily sick of spin and lies. Yet, what was Hillary Clinton’s instinctive reaction to physically collapsing on the campaign trail? To seemingly lie about why it happened. And that’s before we even begin to look at email servers while she was Secretary of State. No wonder Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” line wounded her so much. People agreed with him, and could see how over-spun she’d become. In contrast, for all his deep faults as a human being, the voters recognised in Trump someone who “says what he thinks”. This is the post-spin age, where authenticity and sincerity matter most.