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.

Pourquoi ?

Pourquoi, the French word meaning why. A question that I’ve been asking myself several times since moving from Toulouse, situated in the sunny South of France back to the cold, rainy hills of Donegal. I was happy there, felt settled and have made some lifelong friendships. One word stands out in that sentence to me. Settled. In my eyes, being settled in this context is synonymous to being in your comfort zone. Does anybody like the feeling of change? It can be rather scary and overwhelming at first. Anyway, I decided a change is what I needed to gain a career I’ll enjoy.

During the first week of uni, our lecturer, Conor McGrath, told us to question everything in PR – including his own words. I find this a refreshing outlook to have in life in general. Mind you, since moving home, I’ve already had the joy of attempting to answering why the simple things in life are the way they are to my four-year-old niece! Is it just me or do we seem to lose this curious nature the older we become? We don’t seem to question anything until it directly affects us.

 

 

During the same week, someone else asked me about the master’s course I was going to be studying. When I told them about it, the response I got was ‘Oh, public relations, are they going to train you how to answer the phone?’. Oh, touché my friend. A few hours later, I was reading the first paper we had been given for our seminar the following week. One part of the paper stumbles upon the professionalisation of public relations. It briefly comments on how there are few people outside of the profession that accept it as that: a profession. It made me realise how oblivious many people are to what is behind PR and the power in which it holds from the way we view the world to how we view people in the media. Perhaps this ignorance plays to the advantage of PR practitioners. Or am I already feeding into that stereotype of PR practitioners being nothing but untrustworthy beings out to do us all wrong?

Having just finished my second week on the course, I find myself questioning one event. PM Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference. Firstly, the lyrics ‘Who knows why it’s gotta be this way?’ from Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ song ‘This is what you came for’ filled the room as she entered. Why pick this song? I’m guessing this is her attempt to form a link between herself and the younger supporters of the party?

Those who attended the conference got more than what they had thought they came for. You couldn’t make it all up. Between a P45 being handed to her by prankster, Lee Nelson, to her coughing fit that went on for what felt like a decade, to the Chancellor giving her a lozenge to somehow help the situation, to her coughing some more, to the letters of the slogan on the wall falling behind her mid-speech. Not long after the conference she posted this on Twitter:

 

 

Right, so she is making light of what just happened. Top marks for having a witty response on social media within hours of the event happening. But can anything help her reputation at this point? Today, the day after the conference, numerous ministers have been backing her publicly. However, former Conservative minister, Ed Vaizey, has suggested that numerous MPs feel it’s time for her to resign. Her lack of leadership is evident but who would replace her during this crisis?

I have many British friends living in France, currently EU citizens living in another EU country, wondering what Brexit has in store for them and their livelihoods. Theresa May isn’t exactly giving them the picture of hope. Likewise, she isn’t giving me any hope. I live a short 15-minute drive to the border of Northern Ireland and I had no say in the Brexit vote yet the outcome of what is yet to come will potentially affect my town and community.

I would say I had a mild interest in British politics up until around two years ago. Like I said at the beginning, we don’t seem to question anything until it directly affects us…

Louise Harvey is studying for a MSc in Communications and Public Relations with Advertising at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter: @louiseharvey_ Instagram: @louiseharvey93