As we brace ourselves for the election here in the UK, I thought it would be interesting to see what lessons our politicians could learn from three recent examples of how not to communicate.
First of all, the furore over the almost immediately withdrawn Pepsi ad featuring one of the ubiquitous Kardashian sisters. If you didn’t see it during its “blink and you miss it” moment of fame, the ad featured Kendall Jenner disarming a potential riot by presenting a beleaguered policeman with a can of fizzy drink. Made entirely in-house, without the benefit of any professional external counsel, the problem with the ad was that it was seen as trivialising the civil rights movement, prompting a sarcastic quote from the daughter of Martin Luther King amongst a torrent of other criticism. Bernice King tweeted a photo of her father being confronted by a police officer at a protest, saying “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi”.
I’m willing to bet that had an agency creative come up with this idea (and let’s face it, the path to the right idea is paved by the ones that get discarded along the way), someone on the team would have pointed out the obvious pitfalls way before it got to the client. It’s a great example of how groupthink can blind perfectly sensible people to the reality of how the outside world will interpret their actions. Mind you, once they realised they’d got it wrong, Pepsi pulled the ad and apologised absolutely everywhere to absolutely everyone, so full marks for getting that bit right at least.
Next, of course, there’s the United Airlines saga, which saw a paying passenger quite literally dragged out of his seat in order to make way for United flight attendants. To the protests of other passengers, he was hauled up the aisle like a sack of potatoes – all of which was captured on film and uploaded via social media within a matter of minutes. This was compounded by an official statement which spoke of “re-accommodating” passengers, failed to apologise and was then followed by leaked internal emails which appeared to blame the passenger in question for not giving up the seat that he had paid for. It’s laudable to want to protect your staff, but seriously, did nobody from the CEO’s office even watch the videos before sitting down to write the press statement? As a communicator, one of the most important things to do in a crisis is to take a step back and look at events through the eyes of an ordinary person, not someone bound to the organisation you work for. It doesn’t help to just blindly defend yourself and your people in circumstances like these. Be a person – a real person – and act like a real person would.
Last but not least, there is the shameful example of Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary, seeking to explain why missiles had been fired into Syria by dint of ‘ranking’ the misdeeds of dictators. This was, it appears, his way of establishing just how bad Assad really is in the opinion of the current US administration. Leaving aside the idiocy of this approach, and the vile nature of the comparisons made, did it never occur to him that the people watching and listening might also be aware of the lessons that history teaches us? Or that such attempts to categorise suffering merely serve to insult those who have experienced it? It is foolish in the extreme to discount the intelligence of your audience, the depth of their knowledge and the intensity of their engagement.
Shocking as these three examples are, coming hot on the heels of each other they do provide important lessons for politicians as we move towards a June election: 1. Think about how the outside world, the real world, will view your actions and revise them accordingly; 2. Be human – put yourselves in the shoes of others, empathise, understand when to stand down, say you’re sorry and find a new way forward; 3. Never underestimate the people you’re talking to – chances are they know more than you do, and they certainly won’t hesitate to tell you when you’ve got it wrong. If nothing else, it’s going to be an interesting few weeks.