There are times when politicians give us good lines that resonate many years after they are delivered. Two examples have been running through my mind all week.
In one of their exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron memorably floored with Gordon Brown with this put down; “He is an analogue politician in a digital age”.
In his resignation speech after leaving No 11 Downing Street, Norman Lamont described then Prime Minister, John Major, as being “in office but not in power.” Two lines that perfectly sum up the mess Theresa May finds herself in this week.
Her electoral failure and subsequent mishandling of the result, her talks with the DUP and the tragic events at Grenfell Tower this week have seen her authority drain away as quickly as water leaves the emptying bath. She is only now in office because it suits Tory MPs – for the moment – to avoid an election; leadership or otherwise. Her days are numbered and if her performance continues as it has over the last week or so, those numbered days will reach single figures.
Her biggest problem – and that of many leaders in business I have encountered in my career – is that she is applying traditional approaches and attitudes to communications to a world that has long since moved on. We live with a 24/7 media; social media networks that carry news and views around the world to our pockets every second; print media who once shaped our opinions losing their influence; people expecting more personal disclosure and honest messages from leaders than ever before; a world where we are as likely to read a blog as a book; where 16m texts are sent a minute alongside 452,000 tweets and 156m emails; a world in which we all expect a personal, face to face touch as well as convenient online tools. We communicate more quickly and informally that at any time in living memory. It’s an over-used phrase but communication has been truly revolutionised.
I don’t know Mrs May so it is possible – although hard to believe watching her work – that she does understand the needs of modern communication but just simply cannot respond to it. Either way she is in a very, very deep hole. There are some rules that all communicators – leaders in every field, including Mrs May – need to understand and be able to meet.
Mange your own bad news
- Don’t let others tell your story for you, especially when it’s not good news. You need to front up, take the hits and show you are confident enough to handle the ups and downs yourself. Don’t leave it to others and don’t leave a vacuum when bad news needs to be communicated. You must take criticism on the chin and be seen to handle it.
Get on the front foot
- If you’re not on offense you’re on defence as our Americans cousins say. You must get in front of events, show leadership, demonstrate action, anticipate problems and questions before they happen and act – don’t wait to be asked something – get in there first and get in charge of proceedings.
Speak from the heart
- Be the opposite of a robot; parroting lines and answers like a computer. Offer some personal reflections, tell us how you feel and show us some emotion. We’re not asking for tears and tissues on Oprah but we need to know that you care.
Keep it simple
- Language is so important – use short, simple language. Talk in the language we all talk – stop using Westminster speak, jargon and cliches. It does not wash, especially in difficult times. The public want straight talking – they don’t want to feel like they are being fobbed off with platitudes.
Be able to busk
- Not every appearance or interaction can be managed within an inch of its life – you have to be able to talk off the cuff and at a time of others’ choosing. Know your messages, know your audience and roll with it. Enjoy it and your audience has a better chance of enjoying it too.
Mrs May is failing on all these fronts and is it now beyond painful to watch – including her latest effort on Newsnight last night. Whatever you think of their politics, think for a second about Bill Clinton, Tony Blair or David Cameron; think about how they responded to various major events (Oklahoma bombing, 9/11, 7/7, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry report for example) and look at the rules above. Now think about Theresa May’s response this week.
She gives analogue a bad name.
Think too about the leaders you work with day to day – how do they perform against these rules. Whilst the country is seeking emotionally intelligence, personable and authentic leadership, Mrs May is counting with an abacus; calling from a phone box and watching a black and white TV. The world around her has moved on – but she looks and sounds like someone from another age; a age that is long gone. Soon she will be and she has her approach to communications to blame as much as anything.