You only need to have kept one eye open, and half an ear to the news, to realise that in the last month or so UK politicians have suffered some serious embarrassments at the hands of the country’s media. And it’s hard to have sympathy for them.
Dianne Abbott’s ridiculously underestimated costs of bringing in more police. Theresa May’s militant and much repeated ‘strong and stable’ chorus, and more recently her perceived heartlessness toward the Grenfell fire victims and their families. Even Jeremy Corbyn, who many herald as a saviour, has fallen foul when facing the British press recently.
Last week, Home Secretary Boris Johnson added yet another example, audibly fumbling through papers in a bid to respond to questions from Radio 4’s Eddie Marr about The Queen’s Speech, before being scalded for trying to answer earlier points after suddenly finding relevant information. “This isn’t a two Ronnies sketch” the broadcasting veteran quipped, a quote we used in our last Blagger’s Blog. Talk about on-air humiliation.
All these instances are notable for many reasons, but two stand out to me more than the rest. Firstly, each could have been avoided with appropriate preparation. Media training is essential – not just to give people a grounding in what they can expect when going face to face with journalists in general, but before every individual interview they do. Send a spokesperson in blind, or even squinting, and it’s not looking good. Give them a brief, and some key facts to remember, and at least they stand a chance of getting out alive.
A simple lack of heads up is only part of the problem, though. What’s notable from these nightmares is the way fallout has been handled, and how public opinion has swayed. Let’s take Abbott first. Not having even remotely accurate numbers to hand on what would be an enormous expense is a cardinal sin for anyone in Westminster, but her rationale for the blunder centred on health problems- specifically diabetes. Even satirical site NewsThump’s attempt to poke fun was met with widespread furore from readers, who sympathised and empathised with her condition. She was presented as human- with frays just like the rest of us.
Corbyn himself is something of a master when it comes to being seen as the everyman. Whilst the right wing press were outspoken in their criticism at him being photographed hugging a grief stricken women after the Grenfell fire, this display of warmth and humanity struck chords with huge swathes of the population. His own blunder, on the cost of childcare, was soon overshadowed by his defence of the reporter that showed him up, explaining to MPs that he would ‘not tolerate’ personal attacks aimed at people ‘doing the job the have been employed to do’. Understanding being the operative word.
Comparatively, May has been presented- even in usually-supportive media- as ignorant and insolent when it comes to questions. Insisting on reiterating the party line has only made her look robotic. Not meeting with the victims of Grenfell suggested a callous and uncaring attitude. As for Johnson, rather than responding to questions naturally, he has shown an equally one-track mind, often talking over journalists rather than listening and reacting appropriately.
So what does this say about Britain right now, and, more importantly, why is any of this relevant for a PR and marketing blog post? Put simply, the electorate- all of which are consumers, service users, business owners, and employees- have had their fill of avoidance tactics and cultist mantras. Instead, they want to see honest, human figures they can relate to, people who aren’t afraid to show who they really are. Some would call it being personable, in the branding world we label this transparency. And I shouldn’t need to explain just how important that is when it comes to retaining a strong and stable reputation.
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