The big political story this week has been the possibility of the ‘end of austerity’. This is being posited by the media as ‘stirrings’ against Theresa May. But I would posit it is anything but. So much so that I cannot believe a media-savvy, erm, media has missed the story and bitten the hook. For me, it is pure PR.
Since Sunday, the likes of Heidi Allen MP and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have been touring the political chat shows, radio news shows and journalist’s favourite meeting spots to espouse their views on austerity, but only in two limited areas. These are the wages of some public employees, notably nurses, and education, notably the funding formula for schools. There has been no outward criticism of Theresa May and no notable criticism coming the other way.
The reason for this? Well, I’d say it is part of a complex, reactive PR strategy with multiple stages. Most of which you never really see.
Let me explain.
I’ve been involved in the ideas stages and execution of PR campaigns like this in the past. They can bypass a problem or create news from next to nothing, if executed correctly. But they are complex and rely on a chain of events.
So, for example, I was involved in one campaign where a video was made and released with the express intention of creating a public reaction, which would necessitate a government reaction, which would allow the client to respond, which would then make a news story. Still with me? No? Well, that is kind of the idea. You don’t see the working out, only the results.
So, here we have an unpopular and, dare I say it, unstable government in need of some love from the electorate. They’ve finally worked out that populism does rely on popularity and public mood. So, they need to pay the nurses and other NHS staff (though probably not tax office admin staff or Job Centre Plus employees, as they don’t garner the same levels of support) and get some money to schools, where parents are organising against them.
Problem. None of this was in the manifesto. For Theresa May to simply announce it goes against the spirit of what the nation voted for and also gives opponents another u-turn to pin on her.
So, what she needs to do is send some whispers out about softening the government (never her) stance. Enter Allen, Johnson and anyone else willing to spend the day eating croissants in green rooms and drinking bad coffee in return for a merit badge and pat on the head later on.
Importantly, this also introduces the idea that to give the nurses etc a pay rise in line with inflation will denote an end to austerity. This creates a positive narrative and makes us all feel good. It may even get us spending. The economy needs it.
Stage two has been to involve Philip Hammond, (intentionally or not on his part) first as target and then as someone acknowledging that it may be time to ‘end austerity’. This may sound far-fetched or conspiratorial, but believe me it isn’t.
The next stages may be similar, with feed and counter-feed to the media, so that we eventually believe that Theresa May has always been behind ending austerity and loves paying nurses what they are worth. In short, we have always been at war with Eastasia. Watch this space.
I was not a good kid at school. I was annoying. I asked questions. But not the ones you are supposed to.
I wanted to know how history spoke to now, why only one opinion was being presented and how much my teacher was being paid.
This led to lots of detentions.
The form for these was to write an essay, which was usually a pointless piece of writing about your own behaviour and its consequences. Little did I know that these 45-minute writing exercises would prove to be great practice for how I work in ideas now.
My essays (which teachers usually dramatically tore up without reading) were usually extreme ‘what if?’ monologues, where my refusal to toe the line now would eventually end up with my own homelessness and, ultimately, my death.
I would bring in events of the time, unlikely scenarios and political discourse to lead the narrative to my ultimate demise. I died in that gutter many times.
Unknown to me at the time (and horribly unappreciated by my teachers!), I was learning to think out ideas to their extreme conclusion. The conclusion reached was logical, but the process that led there was not. I travelled various routes to the mortuary, with many twists and turns along the way. But each step followed on from the last, each consequence was initiated by an action.
This is precisely how I test and stress test my own ideas to this day. Having ideas for a living is close to madness and the results can certainly border on the unhinged. Hundreds of ideas banging around inside your skull will do that. I live in fear of being judged for the scrawlings in my notebooks. I’m not sure I’d be let out again.
But idea creation necessarily means exploring the extremes of your brain. You certainly don’t put everything in the brief you deliver to the client. But you do have to throw in some of the more extreme ideas in case they like them. To be honest, after a while you may even lose track of just what extreme is. Okay, okay, so kidnapping a rival CEO is extreme. Who knew?
People who have great and unusual ideas cannot be bounded by social mores or what has gone before in their thinking. They have to mostly colour outside the lines. Sure, you’ll get some good ideas from 9-5 thinking. But for things that stand out you’ll need an ideological extremist.
Political debate can be frustrating. Just when you think the representative of your ‘side’ has landed a knockout blow you see the opposing leader (or patsy) come back with something reasonable, well executed and stress-relieving. Before you have time to examine the answer, things have moved on.
This is no mistake or coincidence. Each side will have rehearsed the potential questions and their own responses time and time again, whether for Prime Minister’s Questions or a TV debate. This is why the only time you see politicians truly rattled is when a journalist or a member of the public throws them a complete curve ball. An ‘I was there, actually’, a ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’. Refusing to accept the rehearsed answer works too, but even that may have been rehearsed beforehand.
Debate of this kind is often compared to chess and that is a great analogy. The best players think dozens of moves ahead, mentally playing out different scenarios or unusual moves and able to adapt to each one. It is truly obvious when you see a politician who has been too busy, stressed, tired or lazy to stress test their ideas. It often makes the headlines or sets social media alight.
But, so often, this rigorous process is not carried out when thinking about ideas within business or organisations. Rehearsing and stress testing ideas and their consequences is a service that I offer for businesses, but it is also something that I do with ideas that I have for clients, whether they are charities, companies or individuals. I often have ideas that rely on a second trigger to work (such as in a media campaign – creating a scenario that thrives on response), could cause controversy or could play out in a number of ways.
Stress testing is a game of chess
So I am there at my mental chess board, exploring the outcomes. I want to know if I have thought of something that will get a client on the front pages or simply crash their share price. They do too.
When I am commissioned to come up with a broad set of ideas for a client, I do just that. As broad as they come. From ideas that will please your grandmother to ideas that will make her hair stand on end. One to frighten the horses for every one that pats the finance manager gently on the head. You can guess which ones undergo more stress testing.
This testing is sometimes best done within the proposal document itself, or in front of the client. Showing your workings can often make them more daring and emboldened to try something new. Some may even choose the ideas that rely on the reaction of others to work. They’re a calculated gamble. But even the favourite at Ascot loses every now and again.
“How on earth does selling ideas work?” “You do what?” “Are you making this up?” “Is that even a job?” How do I get in on this?”
These are just some of the reactions I get when I tell contacts, friends, family or acquaintances what I do for a living. Ideas are at the hub of everything, from business to faith, from politics to the arts.
But they are so often neglected as an isolated part of a process. Some people are great at selling, organising, leading or creating. But not all of these are great at ideas. Which is where I come in.
Selling ideas is a sensitive business, which relies on subsuming ego. After all, our ideas are what make us who we are. Letting someone else put their name on your ideas means losing all the glory, as most people or businesses don’t want to admit to going elsewhere for idea. That is why a lot of my ideas work clients are not listed here.
But as someone who has hundreds of ideas a week, letting go is actually a good thing for me. Releasing ideas into the wild means that great things can come of them, and it also leaves brain space for new ideas to flourish.
So, how does the process work?
How do you buy and sell ideas?
Mostly, the process begins with a business or individual approaching me. They may have a desire or a project in mind. Or they may just want a blanket set of ideas as to how they can promote their business.
I usually set up an initial two-day contract. One day for learning about the client and one to have ideas and writing them up. This can increase for large projects, such as re-branding. But two days is usually enough to begin with.
The ideas are then presented as a report, with notes about their execution or variance. These ideas vary from the safe to the brave (and, often, the extreme), as I am freed up from internal politics, potential for toe-stepping and massaging the egos of whichever department head usually gives these things the nod.
There may be critiques of current practice, ideas that counter the business’s usual narrative or ones that delve into its data or heritage. The ideas could include prompts for anything from an office party to new products and new markets. It’s a mixture of business thinking, scriptwriting, storytelling and connecting the dots. It is all those blue-sky, outside the box business jargon clichés, but for real. It could undo a business disaster, find new ways to keep my clients’ own clients happy or finally nail what a brand is.
But mostly, clients want to know how they can get noticed, get in the papers or become a wow on social media. In a world where every PR idea has been used up, it helps to be someone who knows how the media works and has a track record of innovation outside of the PR world. After all, if you don’t start with an idea then you don’t have a clue. Which means you don’t have a hope.
“Can you make us a viral?” is something that I get asked a great deal. It’s an occupational hazard of selling ideas for a living. The answer is usually no and sometimes maybe, but never yes. You can guess at the formula, but it shifts constantly in the wind. What is seen as witty one week is try-hard the next.
So, to give you a very live example, the above tweet, a flip remark on how a scene on Sky News looked as I ate my lunch, went viral yesterday and today. Well, if you consider almost 5,000 retweets to be viral.
It was no more aimed at getting shares than anything else I post on social media. After all, pretty much everything we post is a search for the dopamine hit of rising numbers and people laughing at your gags. But somehow it struck a chord. Why so?
Well, it is current, as it speaks about the election and Theresa May’s growing reputation as someone who shuns the public. It also speaks to popular culture, which is always a winner, according to arch-troublemaking PR men the KLF’s guide to how to have a hit single. People compared the image to scenes from Line of Duty, Street Fighter, Breaking Bad and Grand Theft Auto. It is also (if I may say) a good gag. Easy to get, Easy to share, as others will get it. It has a dig and a punch line. And a funny picture to boot.
So, can you follow that formula and have a social media hit? Well, sadly not. The web runs on ideas and originality. Where once a Cassette Boy video was a sensation, the video cut up is now standard and the people who were his biggest fans are now a bit meh about his latest. He’s done well as a gun for hire, but the sharers want something new, even when his ire is turned on the targets they want to see satirised.
Those who want their campaign, policies, brand or star to go viral would do well to engage with original thinking, and lots of it. I tend to start at the extreme end and edit back towards sanity. The best and bravest clients are those who know how to say ‘stop’ at precisely the right moment.