On the spring evening of 22 May 2017, the nation was appalled by the cruelty of the Manchester Arena bombing. Twenty two people died as they left an Ariana Grande concert.
And last week, my heart went out to the families of the victims again, as I listened to four officials, sitting in the spotlight at a live news conference, apologising for what happened — and explaining what had been done to ensure it can never happen again. They were responding to a one thousand page report, just published by the Chairman of the Inquiry, Sir John Saunders.
They looked, at times, pained. None of them had been in post at the time. But they were doing what leadership required.
I was listening in my car at the time to BBC Five Live, who broadcast the entire event. I’ve now carefully listened back on BBC Iplayer, and hope this article may help any other senior leader who may face the cameras in future. I offer three brief thoughts, as a journalist, on what those officials got right at that lengthy Press Conference — and three thoughts on what might have helped them more.
And I end by suggesting a device that I’ve applied throughout my own broadcasting career, the Pub Test …
What they certainly got right …
1. Emotional Honesty … from the very start
“This report makes for difficult and distressing reading” said Steven Watson, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester. “Significant errors were made in planning and preparation” said Lucy Dorsey, Chief Constable of British Transport Police. Within seconds of taking the mic, David Russel, Chief Fire Officer of Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service, had stated: “Our response was wholly inadequate and totally ineffective.” Darren Mockery, Chief Executive of the North West Ambulance Service, summed things up in his opening remarks like this: “We have deep regret that we fell short as partners.”
Placing these thoughts at the opening, rather than in the middle, of the statements showed vulnerability and honesty, and as such they immediately built trust.
2. Painting a Picture with Detail
Chief Fire Officer David Russel was particularly good at this when explaining what changes had been made. He didn’t simply state that changes had been made. He spelt some of them out in ways that I (not an expert in emergency service protocols) could immediately picture in my head. He spoke of a “dedicated radio channel, guaranteeing contact 24/7 between blue light services and control rooms.” Chief Constable Steven Watson didn’t simply state that investment had been made into First Aid. He described it. “All vehicles, for example, have enhanced first aid kits, including tourniquets and more defibrillators.”
Using language that paints a picture lies at the heart of effective communications.
3. Vivid words and language … from the very start
Chief Constable Watson’s opening is striking. He uses the words ‘murdered’, ‘barbarity’ and ‘distress’. Chief Constable Dorsey repeats the brutal facts: “these were murders”, there was “bravery and danger.”
Communicating in everyday language in front of reporters isn’t a sign of intellectual weakness — it’s a sign of respect for your ultimate audience, beyond the reporter: the listener/viewer/reader.
What they didn’t quite get right …
1. Body Language
Reading an apology from a script isn’t a good look. I’ve never had to do it, and accept that the pressure of a live news conference is intense. Lawyers will be watching and listening, too. But if there is one moment when the eyes need to look directly at the camera for more than just a glance, it is the moment of apology and contrition.
If you are training your Chief Executive, the look-in-the-eye is the bit to rehearse.
2. Missing a chance to paint a picture with the detail
Chief Constable Dorsey simply stated that ‘our officers are better trained.’ With just a couple more sentences, she could have described an aspect — any aspect — of that training. Her audience would then have been able to visualise and relate to it. It’s what lies at the heart of storytelling. And storytelling rarely fails.
If you’re proud of a policy you’ve introduced, don’t sum it up in a phrase … sum it up in an image or a story.
3. Corporate Speak
This is the flip side of the ‘vivid words and language’ that worked so well in the openings. The four statements read out last week included several references to the ‘local resilience forum’, an ‘operating model’, a ‘memorandum of understanding’, ‘multi-agency communication methods’ (mentioned multiple times!), ‘situational awareness reports’, ‘incident declarations’, ’organisational learning’ and ‘debrief processes’.
Phrases like these may be required in official reports. But if your statements are being read out to the public, put them to the Pub Test. Would anyone naturally use these phrases over a pint?
A final thought …
I don’t envy anybody having to appear in front of the cameras at a live news event. I admire hugely, as I’m sure we all do, the emergency services who (as Chief Constable Dorsey put it) ‘run into the face of danger.’ But perhaps my overall thought having pondered that live News Conference this week is this:
There is a fundamental difference between preparing a statement to be read to the camera, and writing one to be recorded in a document. They can’t both do the same job.
The four honourable leaders did their very best on a challenging afternoon. But perhaps if they had been given less to read, and more freedom to speak from the heart, the afternoon would have been less painful for them — and their messages to the public, even more heartfelt.
If you want to explore these ideas for your own staff in a supportive and authentic BBC scenario, designed for you and your team, I can help.