Three lessons on how to spin a message in times of crisis
Great communicators from Bill Clinton to the ad men behind Volkswagen knew to keep it simple and use humour to help sway audiences
Sometimes you get to feel sorry for the most unlikely of people. A case in point in France’s hapless President Francois Hollande who is accorded precious little respect these days. The deferential questioning of previous French presidents gave way in a recent television interview where Hollande was mocking asked “are you joking” when he was talking about his nation’s economic recovery.
As it happens the president was not joking because, after a long period of stagnation, France’s economy is indeed growing, unemployment is falling and it can cautiously be stated that the things are looking up. The problem is that very few French people believe this to be true, they see the economic data as being somehow false as it emanates from a distrusted government.
There is even stronger evidence of economic growth from the United States, where employment is rising and the equity markets are buoyant. However in this presidential election year, no one will make it to the White House by suggesting that the economy is doing well. President Obama recently laid out his exasperation over the way the public simply refuses to acknowledge the good economic news. In the public mind the figures just don’t seem right, yet they are hard to fault.
What we are dealing with here is impressions. And the simple lesson for politicians, not forgetting business leaders, is that mere facts are rarely adequate to unseat deeply held impressions. Hollande, for example, is the least popular president in modern French history and it follows that everything he does and everything he says is viewed through a prism of scepticism or downright disbelief.
He’s almost certainly a goner but as other politicians and businessmen have demonstrated; impressions can be changed. The master changeling was President Bill Clinton, who spent a large part of his presidency immersed in scandal, financial crisis while hounded by his opponent’s visceral hate campaign.
Clinton wisely chose to ignore his visceral haters because it was a waste of energy trying to bring them round but when it came to his personal affairs and management of the economy he showed his mastery of presentation by donning his “good ole boy” shoes and winning over even some of his more sceptical critics.
He never made the mistake of trying to bombard the public with data, aka facts, and he spent a lot of time formulating folksy phrases which fixed him in the popular imagination as being “one of us”, maybe not exactly a man on the street but at least someone who connected with ordinary folk. One of the best remembered Clinton era phrases was: “it’s the economic, stupid”. This is a classic piece of instinctively responding to people’s concerns about the economy, emphasising that fixing the economy was his priority, and, achieving this impression without using any of those off putting economist-type words.
Another example of impression changing brilliance came from Volkswagen (we’re talking pre-emission scandal days) when the company sought to do something about its boring and uninspiring image while being careful to preserve its reputation for reliability. This then was the genesis of the “vorsprung durch technik” campaign. Of course the words themselves meant practically nothing to English speakers but they immediately got it that the dour Germans actually had a sense of humour and therefore maybe it was time to have a second look at their vehicles which just might not turn out to be as boring as they seemed.
Impressions can take a time to build or they can turn on a penny. One of the most famous examples of this was the low cost jewellery retailer Gerald Ratner who had something of a hubris explosion and told a conference that his merchandise was “crap”. Almost overnight customers who had been perfectly satisfied with their purchases from the British retailer, decided that they had been cheated and most certainly would not be darkening Ratner’s doors again.
This was an astonishing self-afflicted act of reputation destruction. More often carnage results from events beyond control.
Recovery may be slow but impressions can change to the extent that people forget their previous impressions. Who now, for example, remembers the panic over Hang Seng Bank’s near collapse and its subsequent takeover by the Hongkong Bank. Today the bank stands as a paragon of stability and this dark period of decline is confined to an unvisited basement. What happened, in essence, was that Hong Kong’s most powerful bank of the day (with a little bit of government arm twisting) simply said we’re here now, your money is safe…do we really need to bother with any questions?
Impressions therefore are conveyed by deeds, by cleverly constructed words and by a whole series of seemingly arbitrary things like body language but never by a solemn recitation of “the facts”.
Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster