Wikipedia defines a gimmick as “a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.” For the purposes of this post, I’ll define gimmick slightly differently—as an unusually theatrical device intended to make a speaker’s point much more memorable.
Because gimmicks are so attention grabbing, they fall under the category of “high risk, high reward.” When they work, they’re brilliant and become the one moment the audience remembers more than any other. But the opposite is also true: When they fail, they become the one moment the audience remembers more than any other.
As an example of a gimmick that worked, I once consulted with a scientist who was about to deliver a major talk about The Dark Ages. He described that period in great detail, explaining that the darkness was absolute, beyond any darkness that humans living today have ever experienced.
It occurred to me that killing the room lights could help the audience visualize that period even better, transporting them into the period of darkness better than his words alone ever could. We timed the moment to match his narration—and when the right moment struck, we killed the lights. For two minutes, he explained The Dark Ages to an audience that couldn’t see their own hands.
That moment worked well because the “gimmick” was tied directly to his message. It seized the audience’s attention at the exact moment that he had a strong takeaway message to deliver. Most importantly, it felt purposeful and sincere, not gratuitous and manipulative.
Another Gimmick That Worked Well
The excellent book Made to Stick tells the story of Geoff Ainscow, an advocate who lobbied for arms control. The problem he encountered during his talks was that his audiences weren’t moved by his presentation. He found himself unable to convey the scale of the problem through statistics alone.
He changed tactics. To make his point, he dropped a BB into an empty bucket and compared it to Hiroshima. What came next had a huge impact. The authors write:
“Next, he’d drop ten BBs into the bucket. The clatter was louder and more chaotic. ‘This is the firepower of the missiles on one U.S. or Soviet nuclear submarine,’ he’d say.
Finally, he asked the attendees to close their eyes. He’d say, ‘This is the world’s current arsenal of nuclear weapons.’ Then he poured 5,000 BBs into the bucket (one for every nuclear warhead in the world). The noise was startling, even terrifying. ‘The roar of the BBs went on and on,’ said Ainscow. ‘Afterward there was always dead silence.”
An Awful Gimmick
An example of a gimmick that didn’t work comes from Jeremey Donovan’s book How To Deliver a TED Talk. Discussing a speaker he had recently seen, he writes:
“To kick off his presentation, he asks his audience to stand up, put their hand on their heart, turn around, and take one step forward. He then goes on to say that he can now report to his own boss when asked how the presentation went, that he ‘got them on their feet, touched their hearts, turned them around, and got them moving in the right direction.’”
Ugh! Donovan describes the change in that audience’s body language, which clearly reflected their resentment at having been manipulated purposelessly.
My general advice regarding gimmicks is this: They should be meaningful, tied directly to the message, and delivered by a sincere speaker who truly believes in the tactic. If you follow that guidance, don’t be afraid to use an occasional gimmick.
Florida Governor Rick Scott failed to take the stage for several minutes during a live gubernatorial debate earlier this month against his opponent, former Florida Governor Charlie Crist.
Why? According to the moderators, Scott refused to debate due to a small fan placed beneath Crist’s lectern, which may have violated the debate’s prohibition against “electronic devices.”
For four minutes, Crist benefitted from the optics of appearing on stage alone and an opponent who refused to show up due to the presence of a small fan. Sure, he may have broken the debate rules, but the specific violation struck many people as petty and unimportant. The sublimely ridiculous political moment instantly became the stuff of ridicule, launching a #fangate hashtag on Twitter that trended nationally.
When he finally walked onto the stage and was asked why he refused to join the debate for the first four minutes, Governor Scott gave an answer that bordered on incomprehensible.
”Well, I waited until we figured out whether he was going to show up. He said he wasn’t going to come to the uhhh, he was, he said he was going to come to the debate, so why come out until he’s ready?”
That not-ready-for-primetime response solidified the moment, confirming for many viewers and members of the press that Mr. Scott was the victim of his own intransigence.
But that storyline, compelling as it was, may also be false. According to CNN:
“[Scott’s] campaign said later that it was actually Crist who was in the midst of intense behind-the-scenes conversations with debate organizers over whether his fan would be allowed — and that Scott was just waiting to see what happened. He hadn’t realized that Crist had gone on stage.
Scott said on CNN’s ‘The Situation Room’ with Wolf Blitzer on Thursday that he had been waiting in a trailer for debate officials to tell him to head to the stage. ‘They said he wasn’t going to show up, that he was balking about his fan,’ Scott said, adding that he didn’t care if Crist had a fan, a microwave or a humidifier.
The organizers of the October 15 debate backed up Scott’s version of events Thursday, saying Crist clearly broke the rules — and ignored instructions given an hour before start time — by having an aide place the fan on stage.”
It’s worth reading the entire CNN story; the timeline suggests that Mr. Scott’s version of events is true and that he had never told event organizers he wouldn’t debate.
Assuming that’s true, the quickly formed narrative about this debate—that Rick Scott refused to debate due to a fan—was false.
But political watchers know that facts and narratives don’t always line up, and it’s the responsibility of Mr. Scott and his advisors to ensure that he’s where he’s supposed to be at the moment he’s supposed to be there. That reporters predictably latch onto these types of stories is obvious; it’s the campaign’s job not to give them the opportunity.
“Fangate” was not a failure borne of stubbornness, as the media suggested. But it did represent disorganization and a lack of vigilance (did no one have a television monitor on behind the scenes, on which they would have seen Crist standing alone at the lectern?), and as a result, this debate will be remembered as the debate at which Mr. Scott appeared to refuse to debate because of a fan.
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Professional Golfers Association (PGA) President Ted Bishop was forced out of his job late last week after posting comments to his social media accounts that many people found sexist. On Facebook, he wrote the following to criticize a golfer:
“Used to be athletes who had lesser records or accomplishments in a sport never criticized the icons. Tom Watson (8 majors and a 10-3-1 Ryder Cup record) and Nick Faldo (6 majors and all-time Ryder Cup points leader) get bashed by Ian James Poulter. Really? Sounds like a little school girl squealing during recess.”
He also tweeted the following:
As career-ending tweets go, that one might seem mild. But it’s important to place it into the larger context of women in golf, an exclusionary history the PGA has long been trying to improve upon.
Mr. Bishop, like many others in his situation, defended his record on women’s issues, arguing that his words weren’t representative of his true views (here’s his interview and apology on The Golf Channel). I’ve written before about that fashionable but increasingly non-credible apology—and questioned whether it can be possible for a person to refer derisively to men as “little school girls” without harboring at least some disrespect for girls.
That canned apology has become such a cliché that fictional television character Selena Meyer—who plays the Vice President of the United States on HBO’s Veep—has recorded this spot-on parody of it:
If an apology has become so hackneyed that it’s the stuff of parody, it’s probably a sign that it’s no longer as effective as it once was. That said, it still may be the best of a set of lousy options for many people in crisis—and, depending on the context, it may still work for some people. But they shouldn’t expect this type of apology to be a panacea that erases their statements and leads to immediate forgiveness.
Thanks to reader John Kelley for sending me the “Veep” video.
CNN.com recently ran a fascinating piece about the “GOP’s secret school,” in which candidates learn how to interact with the media. The school is a reaction to the high-profile crises the GOP has inflicted upon itself in recent years—from Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment to Christine O’Donnell’s “I am not a witch” ad—and party officials are determined not to repeat past mistakes. According to the article:
“Since the beginning of 2014, the RNC says it has graduated over 200 operatives and placed many of them as communications directors and press secretaries in Capitol Hill offices and federal campaigns nationwide…[Instructor] Rob Lockwood has also conducted media training boot camps with nearly 1,000 candidates, staff and local political figures in a dozen states.”
It appears that this GOP training class is doing everything right in its effort to improve external communications. There’s good advice here for everyone involved in politics, regardless of party or cause. In this post, I’ll highlight the excerpts that caught my attention most.
1. Don’t Treat Reporters As Your Enemy
Tim Miller, the executive director of America Rising, says:
“‘If you treat reporters with hostility, there will be blood….As recently as 2008 and 2010, you would sit in these rooms and it would be somebody from the Lee Atwater era, talking about how the media is your enemy…My talk was about talking the ways to use the 24/7 news cycle and Twitter and social media to your advantage, as well as recognizing the pitfalls.’”
2. Think Twice Before Holding Press Conferences
“’Doing a press conference just to do a press conference doesn’t work anymore,’ Lockwood tells students. ‘It’s an antiquated way of thinking. If you don’t know what you want your headline to be, and think you can go out there and say what you want in five points, and answer none of the questions, that the news reports are going to be about your five points. Nope. The reports will probably be about the five things you didn’t answer.’”
3. Remember That Dull Can Be Good
Lockwood tells his audiences that being a bit dull may be preferable:
“’Don’t use jokes that you’ve never told before … Jay Carney showed everyday that it’s better to be dull than offensive,’ referring to the former White House press secretary who is now a CNN political commentator. ‘Don’t introduce new phrases, like Etch-a-sketch.’”
4. Maintain a Bit of Healthy Paranoia
“’I’d rather have candidates being careful to a fault than, you know, having a fountain of blabber coming out of their mouth that’s not disciplined,’ [RNC Chairman Reince] Priebus says.‘ We are training candidates, training state parties, training operatives to appreciate that communicating isn’t just a free-for-all, natural-born type of activity. People need to be trained and disciplined.’”
5. Don’t Chase Every Story
Although “rapid response” is key to every political communications shop, it doesn’t mean you have to respond to everything:
“As much as the classes focus on the capacity of the web to drive a message, students are urged not to chase every shiny object or micro-story that pops on Twitter.”
Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. (source: Wikipedia)
I recently worked with a company that is frequently portrayed by the media as a “bad guy.” As a result of receiving some critical media coverage, the company’s executive team ordered a clampdown on external communications.
That means no more interviews. All interactions with the media occur solely through written statements. That way, the company figures, reporters will be unable to twist their quotes. By maintaining a paper trail, they feel safer and better protected.
There’s one problem with that approach: Their defensive posture results in media stories that contrast the company’s cold, lawyerly written statements with their opponents, who speak to the press, appear open, and look more sympathetic.
When working with the company’s representatives, I had an “A ha!” moment. I noticed that all of the spokespersons were smart, funny, and instantly likeable. Unfortunately, the public couldn’t see that for themselves, since their statements contained none of those things. But if they could—if the public could see that this company was made up of thoughtful people who were trying to serve their customers well—it could force them to change their thinking.
Think of it this way: A customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.” would believe that their beliefs were well founded when watching a news report that showed the company communicating solely through uninspired written statements.
But a customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.”— and who then sees a company vice president expressing sincere commitment to improving their service—might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance (“I thought they were jerks. I still don’t love them, but maybe they’re not as bad as I thought.”).
If your company is in a defensive crouch but has charismatic, credible, and thoughtful spokespersons, ask yourself this question: Would our interviews create cognitive dissonance for some members of the audience? And if they would, should we really depend solely on written statements to carry our message?
On October 20, 1999, Elizabeth Dole—a former Reagan and Bush cabinet secretary—ended her bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.
I was working at CNN in Washington, D.C. at the time. As I was leaving work late that night and crossing through the building’s quiet front lobby, I noticed Ms. Dole entering for her appearance on Larry King Live.
As I neared Ms. Dole, I watched as she looked past me, gave a huge, broad smile, and offered an unusually enthusiastic wave.
I was confused. I didn’t remember passing anyone else in the lobby, and couldn’t imagine to whom she was waving so excitedly. I turned around to see what I was missing, and there he was: a single, solitary news photographer.
Ms. Dole clearly knew how to play to the cameras. From the perspective of the photographer’s lens, the photo would have suggested that there was a throng of supporters greeting her arrival. No one seeing that photo would have had any reason to believe that she had actually arrived without even the slightest hint of fanfare.
I knew that politicians managed their own photo ops, of course, but I didn’t realize politicians were that calculating. I found the moment deceptive (she purposely sent a false message), impressive (here’s a woman who knew what she was doing), and instructive (be skeptical of photographic “evidence”).
If you’re an occasional Delta Airlines customer, you’re going to find it harder to reach “Medallion” frequent flier status in 2016. If you’re a frequent Delta Airlines customer, you may find it difficult to retain the status you’ve already earned.
Delta Airlines announced big changes to its 2016 frequent flier policy late last week which, in aggregate, reduces benefits to customers. In one article, The St. Cloud Times characterized the changes rather negatively as, “New Delta Policy Further Squeezes Economy Travelers.”
Delta sent an email to customers late last week to announce the change and help control the message. The manner in which they did so caught my eye; here’s the email I received:
Delta had two options: They could have written a letter to customers defending and justifying their new policy (economic realities in the airline industry necessitated the change, blah blah…) or spun it as a positive.
They chose the second option. They wrapped their announcement, which would widely be seen as a negative (it’s tougher for me to accrue points!) and presented it as a positive (our frequent fliers deserve to receive exclusive treatment).
Their email continued:
I saw right through this PR approach immediately, but I’m not sure I disagree with it. They wrapped the changes around a virtue—our best customers deserve the most exclusive service—and I suspect their best customers will appreciate being prioritized even more.
It’s a fine line between spin and straightforward communication, and the lines are often blurry. Some of this blog’s readers might view this PR approach as spin that intentionally buries the lead and ignores the bad news. And I’m not sure I find the memo entirely credible (when they write, “That’s why we’re adjusting the 2016 Medallion Qualification Dollars thresholds,” I’m skeptical—I suspect the changes were simply the result of a strategic business decision).
But in the end, I’m with the Delta PR team on this one. I support their approach of using exclusivity as the mechanism to announce these changes, and believe they made the most of a tough announcement.
But that’s just my view. What do you think?
Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, made some controversial comments about Muslims during one of his recent programs, during which he had a well-publicized debate with one of his guests, actor Ben Affleck.
A few days later, Maher was scheduled to give an interview to a reporter from Salon about a different topic—his “Flip a District” campaign—but the writer understandably wanted to ask Maher about his “spat” with Affleck. Maher made clear he didn’t want to talk about that; here are three excerpts from the interview:
“Yeah, let’s leave that for a while. I’ve said enough about that.”
“You know, I don’t want to talk about this. You just said we’re not going to talk about this and now we’re talking about it.”
“I’ll tell you something interesting — and then I am going to get off the subject because we’re here to talk about “Flip a District,” was my understanding.”
Maher’s responses made me think about a question we hear a lot during our media training sessions: What should I do if I’m asked a question about a topic I wasn’t originally booked to speak about? Do I have to answer it, or can I insist on speaking only about the topic we agreed to discuss in advance?
In that situation, you have a few options:
1. Answer The Question
This is often the best option, particularly if the question is one that the audience would expect you to be able to answer. Deflecting a straightforward question that deserves a straightforward response often plays like this infamous 2008 interview, in which Sarah Palin refused to name the newspapers she reads.
2. Give a Short Response, Then Transition Away From It
Maher used this approach, reminding the reporter that he had agreed to speak about a specific topic and insisting that they keep to the ground rules. He provided a short answer to the questions about his controversial comments, then moved away from them.
This approach can work for more experienced spokespersons—Maher used it well—but it requires a deft touch to avoid being portrayed as evasive. But there’s one problem with this approach: By giving even a short response about his controversial comments, Maher allowed Salon to run the exact headline he didn’t want: “EXCLUSIVE: Bill Maher on Islam spat with Ben Affleck: ‘We’re liberals! We’re not crazy tea-baggers.’”
3. Confront The Reporter
In a 2012 Republican primary debate, Newt Gingrich was asked about accusations that he had asked his second wife for an open marriage. He deemed the question out of bounds—we’re here to talk about serious issues, and you’re asking me about a personal relationship—and went on the offensive.
Gingrich used this approach brilliantly, but he also deployed it in front of a supportive audience that shared his dislike of the media. Generally speaking, this is a high-wire act that few people pull off well.
4. Refuse to Answer The Question
Here’s where things get really tricky: Let’s say you agreed with a reporter in advance that the interview would be limited to a specific topic. When the interview begins, the journalist breaks his or her promise. Cameras are roiling. Do you refuse to answer it, perhaps reminding the reporter of your agreement, even if doing so risks making you look evasive to the audience?
The answer is “it depends”—on the context, the topic, the format, and the spokesperson. This option is risky, and in my experience, only a small percentage of spokespersons have the media savvy and personal qualities to pull this off well. But assuming you do refuse to accept the question, keep these two things in mind:
First, make sure your tone doesn’t convey even a whiff of defensiveness.
Second, you can refuse to answer the question with a response like one of these:
“I’m not here to discuss that topic today. I want the focus to be squarely on our new product, and I’m aware that if I comment on anything but that, the headlines won’t be about the product. So let’s get back to that…”
“You know, Janet, I’m surprised you would ask me that. Before we began this interview, we agreed that you would ask me only about this project, and now you’ve broken that promise. I’m happy to do this interview with you if we focus it on this project, which is so important to so many people. But if you insist on breaking your commitment, you’ll leave me little choice but to end this interview.”
The second option is similar to “confront the reporter” approach, but with one key difference—whereas Gingrich still proceeded to answer the question, the spokesperson in this example didn’t.
This post focused on what you can do during the interview itself. But you can also help reduce the need for saying “I’m not here to talk about that topic” by negotiating the ground rules before the interview, and you can register a complaint after the interview (and disclose that breach to your audiences through your blog and social media feeds) if the reporter breaks them.