Let it snow.

JA10

 

When I was seventeen, I spent a week in Geneva.

It’s a beautiful city. I met nice people, I tried fondue for the first time and for the first time in my life I saw snow. I’m from Northern Ireland, we are a mild, wet little corner of Europe and some years in the winter we get snow. But Geneva was the first time I saw snow.

I’m talking about snow that comes up past a grown man’s knees the kind that a city does not simply weather for a few days but that they actively plan for, in the sure and certain knowledge that if they don’t, it’ll grind the city to a halt. What surprised me most was how completely unaffected the city was by a heavy snowfall, they were ready.

Geneva came into my head because of Toby Young. As far as I’m aware, Young isn’t Swiss but then I don’t know very much about him. I read how to lose friends and alienate people a couple of years ago (mostly just to see if there was a theoretical basis for what I was already clearly very good at) but I don’t have particularly strong views on him one way or the other.

Toby Young got me thinking about Geneva because he was, at the start of the year, at the centre of a ‘Twitterstorm’.

You’ve seen a Twitterstorm, there’s one almost every day. In fact the only thing that was remarkable about #Younggate was how unremarkable it was. You can google for the details but to summarise;

  • Toby Young was appointed to the Office for Students (OfS) which is a group the government set up to regulate the higher education market
  • Tweets surfaced of Mr Young saying some regrettable things
  • The proverbial hit the fan
  • The government doubled down and supported Young
  • Eventually Young decided to resign his post after the pressure wouldn’t let up

OfS is invested with a range of powers and responsibilities. One of its most eye catching powers is the power to fine universities that ‘no-platform’ certain speakers  a fairly blunt instrument approach to dealing with a problem that some people think exists.

The “Snowflake” problem.

The term is bandied about these days, primarily by middle aged white men, to decry the stereotypical student or “young people today” as soft and easily offended, too pampered and protected to ever listen to ideas they don’t like.

‘Snowflake’ is a stupid term for two reasons. One, it’s a bit like Justin Bieber jokes, funny at the start but now just lazy. Ironically, considering how it’s used, it’s actually a phrase designed to shut down debate i.e. “I don’t have to listen to you, because you’re a snowflake”.

Secondly it’s being used wrong. I know, there’s a lot of people who want to paint students and young people generally as unwilling and unable to listen to ideas they don’t like. Much has been made of Universities and student group’s no-platforming certain speakers. Milo Yiannopoulos and Germaine Greer are two very different people but both have been refused platforms by different University groups who consider their views offensive. No-platforming is criticised as being anti free speech and cowardly. The argument is that students should be opened up to ideas they might not like in order to challenge them and that all speakers should therefore be entitled to platforms at all University’s.

Have you been on the internet recently? This isn’t the 19th Century, the great debates of our day aren’t taking place in draughty lecture theatres anymore, they rage day and daily online. There are literally thousands of platforms for people to promote any ideas they have. Hard right news organisations like Breitbart are mainstream now. Even if you buy into the echo chamber idea and believe that everyone online is only listening to people they agree with, late last year actual Nazi’s marched through Charlottesville in the USA chanting “Blood and Soil!”. The actual Nazi’s are back in the mainstream news and the real world.

The “snowflake” generation aren’t avoiding hearing ideas they don’t like, if anything they’re inundated with them. Never in the history of humanity have so many people had so much access to so much information. It’s not that “Snowflakes” are incapable of hearing ideas they don’t like, it’s that they hear them and think “Enough”.

This isn’t a sign of weakness it’s a sign of strength.  People are realising that they don’t have to listen to stuff they find offensive silently and that social media provides not only a platform to make their voices heard but also a tool to organise, to amplify those voices.

People might be acting like “Snowflakes”, but only in the sense that they are realising their collective strength. Alone, a snowflake melts easily, but as part of a multitude, they can shut down cities.

So what’s this got to do with a blog that’s supposed to focus on PR and Communications? Well, these “Snowflakes” have the ability to drive news agendas and shape public policy without ever looking up from their phone. The Young example from the start of the year is just one example of how people who were dismissed as “Snowflakes” for finding Toby Young’s old tweets offensive used a social media app to dominate the news cycle and drive a change in the real world.

The genie is out of the bottle now the “Snowflake generation” have seen what happens when they flex their collective muscles and to dismiss them as “weak” or “afraid” is to fundamentally misunderstand them and more dangerously underestimate them. Instead, the lesson for organisations is to be like Geneva. Twitterstorms exist and sometimes they’re going to hit you, the only thing you can do is prepare for them.

 

Jason Ashford is currently studying an MSc in Public Relations and Communications with political lobbying at the University of Ulster. He can be found on Twitter @jasonashford89

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.