A 101 for press conferences

I have no idea why, but today, I’m prompted to share some hints a tips on press conferences.

Some key principles:

  1. Unless you have something earth-shattering to communicate to all of the media, at the same time – don’t do a press conference; for businesses a conference call is often more effective
  2. Use the first couple of minutes for an opening statement, covering the two or three key messages you want to get out during the session
  3. Answer the question, then shut up; if in doubt, leave it out
  4. Use answers to communicate your two, or maximum three key messages
  5. Don’t talk about yourself, or how good you are, the size of your brain, or how unfairly treated you feel
  6. Don’t insult the journalists and don’t belittle them, their questions or their news organisations
  7. If you have answered the question previously, you don’t have to include that answer to other questions
  8. Use simple language, especially if the topic is complex or technical, but don’t use slang and don’t swear. If you have to explain a phrase, like ‘con-job’, you shouldn’t use it
  9. Don’t call people who are not in the room ‘dishonest’, ‘low-life’ or ‘bad people’ – they can’t defend themselves at the event, but will definitely get even later
  10. Press conferences are streamed, so both friends and opponents can selectively cut your comments and post them on social media to support or harm you. So keep the messages as simple as possible

Anything I missed?

With thanks to my mate and all-round comms expert, @liamherbert, who sometimes sanity-tests my drafts.

Photo: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, October 26, 1973.

The Presidents Club: the sound of British businessmen in five-speed reverse

20-20 hindsight is a great thing…

Bear with me on this, because the fallout from this dinner is a great crisis, business ethics and risk management case study.

Case study scenario: Bosses of company X are invited by supplier Y to a charity dinner as their guests where they will be treated to entertainment costing around £1,000 each at the men-only event. The guest list is packed with clients and competitors in the industry. Should they attend? End of scenario.

The ticket price of £1,000 would be ‘trigger one’. It would prompt a deeper dive into whether attendance is a good idea, initially relative to the UK Bribery Act and the Gifts and Entertainments clause of ISO 37001, the anti-bribery standard.  At a rough guess, the invitations should have been rejected at this stage by many guests, as attending the event, with this ticket price, could be seen to represent a significant potential compliance issue. Whereas they probably wouldn’t take a £1,000 bung for a business favour, a dinner ticket worth a grand needs careful handling. Alternatively, executives could be offered the chance to pay for their own tickets to avoid any whiff of a business ethics issue.

But if the company still considered allowing executives to accept the invitation, it should have a policy on, and a process to evaluate, offers of gifts, entertainment etc and give or refuse approval to attend on the company’s behalf.

‘Trigger two’ would follow, once due diligence had established the real nature of the event (men only except professional hostesses), aside from its charitable fund-raising.  And perhaps it would be good if men AND women were involved in this due diligence.  At this stage, it would probably be a ‘no’.

But in a broader context, if any scenario identifies a risk as having potential to hit the company, it must decide what to do against clear criteria.  Should it mitigate the hazard, avoid it or share it (insure against it)?

Avoiding it is the only option. It’s almost impossible to ‘share’ the risk of attendance at the Presidents Club dinner by insuring against it – and post-hoc mitigation attempts by those invited have been hilarious and represent some are excellent examples of throwing fuel on the fire.  Companies refuse to comment (their name is already in the Financial Times), so they’re guilty by association.  Individuals, including politicians say they were invited, but claim they left early (presumably before any of the harassment or groping got underway); some said they weren’t aware of any bad behaviour and others say that although they were invited, they weren’t there.  It’s the sound of British business in five-speed reverse… 

Anyone who thought a dinner like this couldn’t possibly be the subject of headlines of the Financial Times – for consecutive days – and that the Presidents Club itself would be dead in a day and a half following these revelations – needs a reality check.

So what should have happened?

A company wanting to avoid reputational damage and possibly a big-ticket legal item, like being the wrong side of the UK Bribery Act, should have implemented a systematic and arm’s length approach to event due diligence, which may include the following:

  • A diversity of people should review events the company is involved in on a strategic basis – and a case-by-case
  • The review needs to thoroughly determine the type of event – by using multiple sources
  • It needs to evaluate whether the cost of the tickets offered are in line with its own gifts and entertainments policy. If it doesn’t have one, it needs to get weaving PDQ…
  • On a company basis, it should avoid the hazard and not attend the event, as mitigation is also almost impossible. Mitigation, in this case, would be like choosing new material for the deck chairs on first day of the first voyage of the Titanic
  • And finally: Executives should do their own risk management 15 second test, by answering this question: “What would my kids think if they knew everything about the event I’m about to go to?”

As my old news editor used to say: “If in doubt (lad), leave it out.”

Toby Young, tweets and the challenge of hiring the right people

By early Tuesday morning, the name ‘Toby Young’ had been trending on Twitter with nearly 50,000 tweets. The outraged Twitterati were celebrating that their pressure on the government had resulted in Young falling on his sword. And this, despite earlier support from the PM and senior government ministers, like the Johnson brothers.

Just days earlier, Young, an abrasive ‘shock-jock’ of a journalist turned founder of schools, had been appointed to the UK government’s Office for Students (OfS).

His downfall, it seems, stems from a combination of his long-form articles on eugenics, among other topics, and his track-record of obscene tweets which are covered in detail elsewhere.

And aside from the time it took for Young to go (many were presuming it would be a firing by the government, when they realized about the man’s previous form), the whole sorry affair prompts questions about how people are appointed to quangos. What is the process, who administers it, and who made the final decision that Young was the preferred candidate?  Or was this a case of ‘jobs for the boys’ – or as the phrase went on the radio on Tuesday morning, the ‘chumocracy’. Or worse still – was there no process, was it finessed, or was it ignored?

When my son joined the forces, his background check included my background and even my parents’.  When I appointed someone to my team in a large company, for some sensitive roles in security, with the candidate’s permission, we undertook deep due diligence into the person’s professional and personal background in order to ensure they were what they said they were on their CV. It’s also common for references to be taken from a candidate’s previous boss AND the colleagues on the same level with whom they worked.

The key challenge for the government now is to share the process whereby Young and the others appointed to the regulator are selected, applications processed, decisions made and background checks undertaken.  It’s not clear to me how this works, but as the committee is funded by the taxpayer, it should be made clear.  And specifically, was this process properly applied to Toby Young, or was there a nod and a wink between old mates?

It’s disappointing that the government cannot immediately spring to the defence of the human resources processes in this case, but it’s not surprising. Perhaps if they had done their homework, they would have been ahead of the curve and may not have been in the position of having to reactively deal with this fiasco.

Lessons learned?  Apply a clear, transparent and robust process for the appointment of members of regulators and watchdogs that is at least as tough as the processes used for the appointment of civil servants and managers in many businesses.

Classic final lesson? An issue ignored (or not searched for) is a crisis ensured.

STOP PRESS: Commissioner for Public Appointments, Peter Riddell, said on BBC Radio Four’s PM programme later on Tuesday that the process was followed, interviews conducted by an independent panel, but that the candidate’s web and social media profile wasn’t ‘googled’ and ‘common sense plus’ wasn’t applied in terms of flagging his social media activities to a minister.