The Handkerchief Ghost

When news gets harder to report

Away from the oxygen, heat and, sadly, fluff of many news agendas has been the unfolding narrative of Iraqi-government forces retaking the key city of Mosul. Mosul had fallen to IS in 2014 and has now been retaken, with the help of US-coalition forces. Brutal, chilling information emerging about conditions inside Mosul in last three years. Good to read excellent journalism in the London Review of Books by Patrick Cockburn, Here’s a BBC background piece,


Increasingly curious communication methods of UK PM

Well, the public communication methods of the UK Conservative Party are getting odder and odder. Why did the UK Prime Minister not meet residents and community volunteers – she did meet fire chiefs/police – following the appalling fire disaster at Grenfell Tower, in London? Doesn’t good leadership entail empathy and listening? I note her omission is an issue now rising up the news agenda; the leader of the UK Labour Party did meet Grenfell Tower survivors and local residents. Needless to say, the UK PM’s shocking omission is an immense communication error. More importantly, didn’t she see the need to show solidarity with the residents, listen and learn?

Similarities between music and politics

For some time, I’ve pondered how the art of politics has much to learn from art forms such as music. Never has this been more so than what confronts us in the current UK political domain. I stress that I write this from a stance of being as impartial as I can be about the UK political parties. My interest is in their varying communication methods. This brings me back to the communication approach of the UK’s Conservative Party. It remains a curious affair. Quick random thoughts:

a) a successful external relations/communication strategy requires a compelling ‘vibe’ or atmosphere. It needs to feel good. Check out any Miles Davis recording from the 1950s and 1960s. The ‘Kind of Blue’ album is a classic. Each track has a great vibe. This means creating a rhythmic or harmonic hook, an atmosphere. Even if you don’t know what’s going on you want to keep listening. Switching to politics, what kind of communication atmosphere does the current UK Conservative Party create? It is possibly fair to say it lacks the positive ‘vibe’ of the Labour Party (whether Labour’s spending plans add up is another matter). The Conservative Party exudes an atmosphere of relative silence, it points up potential storm clouds and speaks of threats that require managing. This may be all well and good. It may be accurate, but you need light as well as shade. Where’s the feel good vibe?

b) great musical creativity is drawn from long-held convictions, musical beliefs, great techniques; if you like, it stems from a musical philosophy. Listen to Duke Ellington, J.S. Bach or John Coltrane…..These qualities enabled these wonderful musicians to create their own highly-individual maps with routes to levels of great creativity. I raise the question of what are the long-held convictions, political beliefs of the current senior figures in the Conservative Party? The art of politics means deeply-held beliefs come in handy, e.g. Margaret Thatcher and the thoughts of Milton Friedman, Clement Attlee’s socialism. Whether you agree with him or not, Jeremy Corbyn has long held clear political beliefs. His political convictions are clear. He may even subscribe to a political philosophy. By contrast, what are the political convictions of the current leadership of the Conservative Party? Great works of music, creativity, are drawn from deeply-held convictions, beliefs. Political convictions may form the make-up of the new UK Government – if so it would be helpful for me, perhaps others, to know what they are? More is needed than slogans such as ‘strong and stable…’.



Curious communication methods of UK Conservative Party

I try hard to view the UK election through  a prism of neutrality when looking at communication methods employed by major political parties. Their differing approaches are of interest. From this stance it has to be said the current UK Conservative Party leadership is using unorthodox and possibly counter-productive techniques. A few brief, slightly random but important, observations/questions. What was their campaign social media plan? Why is there no spokesperson this morning for the major news programmes? This is probably unprecedented in the modern era. It means their political opponents & others are setting the agenda. Even the former Chancellor George Osborne’s Evening Standard has said: “We now have a minority Conservative government that is in office but not in power. Its majority depends on the caprice of 10 Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland.”. Ouch. Moreover, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn – it is a fact that he did not win the election – has cleverly positioned himself as the election victor through well-crafted, instant public statements on multiple communication platforms. By default, by not having clear communication lines, and spokespeople instantly available for the public domain, promoting their political vision, the Conservative leadership will now be on the back-foot in its public statements, responding to the narratives of others. (Are they seeing their roles as political policemen, responding to the political views of others/only keeping political developments in check?) All this leaves an information vacuum. It raises the question of whether they can ever recover from a perception (rightly or wrongly) of lacking political vision, grasp of forward-thinking political details, and openness to public discussion & listening. These have become, through their own communication methods, bigger and wider challenges for them.

Crisis communication & British Airways

As the dust settles after the British Airways computer hiccup, it is surprising that airline bosses speak of learning that they have to “..become more flexible and more communicative about things….”. Err yes. Social media has been around for some years. When you have a high profile, reputation threatening issue playing out in the public domain, public communication must be immediate. This has been so for years, arguably before social media was ubiquitous. In an emergency, where in this case thousands of travellers were unable to fly, a first rule is to speak out, explain as best you can and offer solutions. Be available. Your primary target publics are external, not solely internal. An organisation that is silent leaves an information vacuum. Inevitably, this will be filled with the worse kind of speculation. It is surprising that airlines chiefs are only now getting to grips with these communication principles. Are Communication Chiefs sitting at their top tables?


Points on communication…

What follows here could be said to be statement of the obvious, however, on an almost daily basis too few people ‘get’ these points. How many times have you heard mention of an organisation producing a report – with what can only be honestly referred to as a vague purpose or objective behind it? So here goes – a quick and dirty list of some of the starter questions to be posed when wanting to communicate with a target public, or publics: why do we want to reach out to a specific target public; what are our objectives in communicating (call to action, awareness-raising…..); where does our target public gather its information & which sources are trusted (big questions & yes – this can mean bespoke research); what is the preferred communication channel (some people eschew the digital domain & prefer a traditional hand-written note…); what form of language do we use – informal, formal…we avoid jargon and acronyms; should we use multimedia and avoid the written word (is it possible that in years to come some folks will build their information universe solely from video and images?)…..and so on? To use the old cliche; if I had five pounds/dollars/euros for every time someone waffled on somewhat vacuously when I asked why they had produced their new report & who they were targetting, I would be a wealthy chap……

How can smaller NGOs (& organisations) punch above their weight in the media 3?

Smaller NGOs (non-governmental organisations), and more generally smaller organisations, have an immediate advantage over their larger competitors/peers and bigger beasts in the private, public and global diplomatic sectors (e.g. United Nations) by being more nimble, flexible and quick. Nothing new in this. As we know, smaller organisations usually do not need the time-consuming, multiple sign-offs through extended hierarchies, and usually smaller organisations eschew the oft-found in-built risk adversity of larger beasts. Picking up again on the value of evidence-based ‘new and significant’ information (see earlier blogs), the standard process of a ‘rapid assessment’ of a fast-moving issue or situation is where smaller organisations may come into their own. Smaller organisations frequently conduct rapid assessments of an issue – for example flows of refugees through a country or countries – and within days can use these rapid assessments as the basis of news media outreach (among other purposes). You have lots of exciting new data to work with. This tactic of maximising the value of a ‘rapid assessment’ can immediately deliver higher brand profile and consequently broader fund-raising and advocacy results. Never overlook the multiple ways of using a well-conducted and speedily turned around ‘rapid assessment’. It can produce wonderful data and a significant snapshot that sometimes challenges preconceived ideas about what’s happening on the ground.

Avoiding ‘key message’ confusion

Rules of news media engagement – avoiding confusion over ‘key messages’. ‘Key messages’ are an important part of the advocacy toolkit. Crisp and clear lines that get your points across in a variety of potentially influencing situations. However, too often confusion arises in using ‘key messages’ when conducting media outreach. Some deem them capable of impact in media outreach too; that the media target public will be hooked by them. Put simply, ‘key messages’ are rarely newsworthy. By definition ‘key messages’ have been crafted for using in multiple contexts and on many occasions. They are unlikely to be new; hence unlikely to be newsworthy. Be wary of using them when preparing your newsy topline in any media outreach. Of course, they can support whatever it is that you have to say – but it is highly infrequent that they provide the rapier that will cut through congested media space. Don’t fall into the trap.

Panama Papers & crisis communication

It’s fascinating to read the drip-drip of stories from the ‘Panama Papers’ leak; and watch those caught up in it, who live in what we might term as ‘open media spaces’, struggle with some of the basics of crisis communication. The Icelandic PM came a cropper at the first hurdle. (The following does not apply to those elites living in ‘constrained media spaces’ e.g. Russians, Azerbaijanis and Chinese caught in the ‘Panama Papers’ spotlights.) To be unable to quickly and publicly lay-out what has happened, if you are caught up in this story, only leaves a vacuum that will be filled with the worst kind of speculation. Leaving questions unanswered creates the whiff (rightly or wrongly) of there being more that we should know, which leads to journalists becoming even more interested in a potential story. Then, some real journalistic digging begins. Anticipate that problems will get worse.

Segment your audiences

Rules of news media engagement, part II; NGOs are no different to organisations in any other sector in that they need to be clear about segmenting their target publics. Too few NGOs are clear about this. When you produce a report, who exactly is it for? Who are you really targeting (or is it a case of hoping lots of people many be interested in what you have to say)? Who do you want to read it? Where do your target publics gather their news? What action(s) do you want your target publics to take? Segmenting your wider audiences into more precise target publics is a worthwhile exercise. It will, in turn, influence how you produce your media assets, how materials are written, how you deploy your media assets and should contribute to far more impactful news media outreach. Any potentially impactful newsworthy material needs to have clear news media targets, informed by your audience segmentation exercise.