Is everything OK, Prime Minister?

28 November 2021 | 4 min read | Crisis Comms
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins
Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

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If you watched the news just once over the last week, you will have seen ‘that’ speech by Boris Johnson when he addressed business leaders at the CBI conference at the Port of Tyne in South Shields. It had it all.

There were references to Lenin and Moses, Picasso and, err, Daddy Pig. There was an awkward 21 seconds of apologies and paper shuffling. Not forgetting a seemingly well-rehearsed impression of a car. It was a tabloid journalist’s dream. You could not make it up. No wonder a post-conference journalist and the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, both asked: “Is everything OK, Prime Minister?”

But there is a serious side to all of this and a major lesson for business leaders to learn when it comes to how they engage and communicate with their audiences.

Be relevant or be cancelled

The CBI conference was a huge opportunity for Mr Johnson on many fronts. But it failed for two key reasons.

First, it was not contextual. Attendees were eager for the Prime Minister to provide greater clarity on what levelling up will mean for businesses in the North of England. Yet for some unexplained reason that minor detail was totally omitted from his speech. This aliennated him from delegates.

Second, it was insensitive. Holding up Peppa Pig as an exemplar of the British creative industries is all very well, but:

a) It has been foreign owned since 2019 and any revenues generated through exports no longer reaches these shores.

b) Peppa Pig World, which is where Mr Johnson urged delegates to go, is located near Southampton in Hampshire – 328 miles away from where the CBI conference was held in Tyne & Wear. Worse still…

c) Hampshire just so happens to be the fifth most economically prosperous region of England with a GVA that is more than double that of its North East counterpart. The contrast in economic fortunes between the two could not be starker.

Failure to plan… and you will look like an eejit

Had Mr Johnson done his homework and cited an example of a creative enterprise local to the region where he was making his speech, he could have linked this to the forecasted 26% growth in the North East’s creative sector over the next three years (this stat took me less than two minutes to find out yet neither his researchers or the Prime Minister himself even bothered to look it up).

Had the Prime Minister paid attention to his audience and tried beforehand to recognise the challenges they face and pain points they feel, and then communicate this in his speech, he could very easily have created a synergy between himself and the leaders he was addressing. If we feel listened to, we feel understood and that creates connection.

But he did not do either of these things.

This is a warning to business leaders:

If you fail to communicate with your target audience in the right way and at the right time you will quickly lose the respect, trust, and loyalty of both your current and future customers.

Key lessons for business leaders on gaining influence and creating impact

  • It is never about you: When communicating your organisation’s message, whether in the form of a speech, media interview, article, or social media, always consider your audience. It is about their needs and wants, and how you can help them. Keep the attention focused on that and park your own ego to one side.
  • Story tell your way to customer success: Selling is no longer about telling your audience how great you are, let them figure that out for themselves by sharing your stories. When using examples in your communications, make them relevant to the stakeholders you are addressing. That sense of familiarity breeds confidence in you as a product or service provider and reduces the perceived element of risk.
  • Make it memorable: Last week’s address will go down in the annals of history as ‘The Peppa Pig speech’. To have an impact means being remembered for a select one or two things. Remember Tony Blair’s ‘Education. Education. Education.’? Or even David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’? Both remain memorable for one simple reason: repetition. Be clear on what you want your audience to take from reading, watching, or listening to you and get your message out there in bursts.

Thanks for reading.