Mayday – Why Theresa Should Have Taken Some Improv Classes

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll have seen how badly Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference went.

First off let’s reiterate just how important the leader’s speech is at any political conference. It’s the only bit anyone outside the conference really pays attention to. In recent years they’ve become dull because party leaders simply cannot afford to mess up so they play it safe. If you want to find the last Leader’s conference speech that was as disastrous, you have to go back to 2003 and Iain Duncan Smith’s infamous “quiet man” speech.

Mrs May took to the stage with all the usual pressure and then some. This year’s was even more important as she recently led the party to  a disappointing General Election result, there’s tension in the cabinet and Brexit negotiations don’t seem to be going well.

With that in mind it couldn’t have gone worse.

You’ll have read about the voice loss. You’ll have read about the sign falling apart directly behind her. But the part of the speech that got the most coverage was undoubtedly when comedian Simon Brodkin gave Mrs May a P45, supposedly from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

P45

Look at that! That is brutal! It’s iconic and it’s going to follow Mrs May around for the rest of her political career. There’s not much she could have done about the sign falling apart and sure, she could have rested her voice to try and avoid the cough, but once it started she could only struggle through. The one thing she had full control over was (as the stoics tell us) her reaction to the stunt.

Ignoring the question of how a man got that close to the prime minister,  May’s reaction completely fed into the image of her as an unemotional character. By all accounts she is a very warm person but in this instant we can see a microcosm of how people perceive her. Distant. Staring ahead. Droning relentlessly on.

Eventually she took the P45 from the comedian, placed it gently on the floor and continued on with her speech. As he was escorted out by security, she tried a joke about Jeremy Corbyn but by then the whole thing had gone on too long and it didn’t really land.

While Mrs May is undoubtedly damning every comedian under the sun, any comedian worth their salt would be able to tell her how to have handled it. This guy was just a heckler. I’ve worked with loads of comedians and they all have their own ways of dealing with hecklers, because being heckled is a part of being a comedian, it’s a skill they have to learn. The best advice I’ve heard for hecklers is “cut them off early and use the crowd”.

To explain what that means, let’s imagine the situation had gone differently. Imagine if instead of trying to ignore the comedian, May had reached down, taken the P45 out of his hand and spoken directly to the crowd. Remember she’s addressing conference, this is her crowd, it’s the heckler who’s in enemy territory (this is the same with comedians and their hecklers). Now imagine May had said to the crowd something like “This man wants to hand me a P45, but I say we’ve got too much work left to do, are you with me?”

The crowd would have gone wild for it. If May had ripped up the P45 while she said it, the party faithful would have torn the roof off the place and the press coverage would have shown May as triumphant, not awkward; victorious, not embattled.

It’s easy to think of what you should have said in hindsight of course and if I’d been in May’s shoes I might have just cried when I saw that P45, but there was a moment where she could have turned it around, she just didn’t have the skills for it.

I think there’s a really important lesson to be learned here, one that has come up already in my studies and that’s the importance of creativity. Suggesting to the Prime Minister of the UK that she sit in on a comedy class would probably have you laughed out of the room, but  May has for a long time had the communication problem of seeming like she’s incapable of reacting to other people naturally and in that context comedy classes could be a creative solution to a genuine problem.

So my question is this; What’s the most creative/left field/wacky solution to a communication problem that’s worked in real life? Tweet, email or comment, I’ll update if I find any really good ones.

 

Jason Ashford is studying for a MSc in Communications and Public Relations with Political Lobbying at Ulster University. He can be found on Twitter @jasonashford89.

Ribs, Bibs and Blackboards: In At the Deep End

I started classes for my Masters in Communications and PR in the University of Ulster on the 26th of September and one of the first things I’ve learned so far is that jokes about domestic violence are a terrible way to sell ribs.

That’s going to need a little context. Ribs n’ Bibs is a small restaurant in Belfast owned by a man called Malachi Toner. On the 27th of September images started doing the rounds on social media of their advertising blackboard:

 

 

Eesh. A “joke” in really poor taste that is deeply offensive to victims of domestic abuse. It did not go down well.

First things first, if anyone reading this has been a victim of domestic violence, here’s a link to Womens Aid NI. A lot of smarter and more eloquent people than me have written about why domestic violence jokes are so horrible, for example.

This blog isn’t about the joke itself but about how the company reacted and what I think they should have done. It’s going to be a bit of an experiment to look back after my Masters and (hopefully) have much better ideas and be able to back them up with way more knowledge.

When the image above started circulating on social media, there was an immediate call from some users to let Ribs n Bibs know how out of order the joke was in the easiest way possible; by leaving 1 star reviews on their Facebook page. A company like Ribs n’ Bibs lives and dies on its Facebook reviews. If you’re visiting Belfast and looking for somewhere to eat, you check online. You also  avoid the places with one star reviews.

Within a matter of hours, the restaurant had received approximately 200 1 star reviews, dragging its overall rating down to 1. As of writing there are currently 756 1 star reviews and 98 5 star reviews. It’s overall rating is currently 1.5.

Ouch.

The restaurant’s first reaction, or at least the first reaction of whoever was running their Facebook page was this:

 

 

I have a three month old niece. She’s the most perfect baby who has ever lived, but her entire communication skill set consists of staring, the occasional grunt and crying when she’s hungry.

I am certain that she could have come up with a better response than the one above.

The next morning the owner, Malachi Toner, did the rounds of the local Talk Radio shows to try and undo the damage. These will be on demand if you want to listen back. He apologised (which is good) and talked about training and fund raisers (also good) without any actual details (not so good). It didn’t go down as well as Mr Toner would have hoped. Many people online accused him of deflecting, of trying to paint his staff and himself as victims.

What Ribs n’ Bibs  have ignored is their conversations with their customers are two-way and symmetric. I gave it a bit of thought and came up with a three step process to try and deal with the problem. I like to think my 3 step programme is a) the right thing to do and b) helps the company resolve a difficult PR problem.

  • Apologise. Do it soon. Do it sincerely. Ribs n’ Bibs didn’t get a proper “I’m sorry” out for over twelve hours.  The boss needs to take the heat and needs to do it with humility. The most important thing here is speed. Social media doesn’t sleep, the earlier you get involved, the more you can direct the narrative.
  • There are plenty of charities and organisations across Northern Ireland that provide help, advice and support to victims of domestic abuse. Contact one of them, explain that you realise the joke was deeply offensive and you want your staff to go through training to explain why it angered so many people and what they should do in the future. Set a date.
  • With this same charity organise a fundraiser. I don’t mean a vague promise, set a date. 

Once step 2 and 3 are done, put out a joint statement with the charity with details of the training and fundraiser.

By the time you go on the morning radio circuit, you have the chance to move the narrative from “Restaurant makes offensive joke” to “Restaurant quickly learns lesson, donates to charity”.

The very same people who get angry and go destroy your rating on Facebook are the same people who will actually reward you for attempting to right your wrong. This might have been turned into good PR exposure while also raising money for a good cause.

Or maybe not. It’s my first week.

 

Jason Ashford is studying for a MSc in Communications and Public Relations with Political Lobbying at the University of Ulster. He can be found on Twitter @jasonashford89.