Ten strategic communication lessons from the Alasdair Thompson fiasco

Today has been a remarkable day. Rarely do we see such an epic failure of communication as we have seen from Alasdair Thompson. Because these events have played out mostly in public, they also present an unusually transparent example.

What follows is ten specific strategic communication lessons which are clearly evident from these events. My analysis isn’t political — I have political and ideological views on this matter, and I intend to write these up after some reflection, but the purpose here is to look at things dispassionately and pragmatically and consider what was done wrong, and what might have been done differently. They are framed quite generically and can be pretty widely applied. This is a long post, so I’ve hidden most of it below the fold.

Everything here is presented on an “in my opinion, for what it’s worth” basis, and should under no circumstances be interpreted as reflecting the views of my employer, or anyone other than me personally.

A lot of this seems, if you’ll excuse the expression, bleeding obvious; but evidently was not to those involved. In addition to the initial 0741 interview on Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking Breakfast this morning, I’ve also referred to the Herald story, the EMA press release, the National Business Review story on the topic, Alasdair Thompson’s twitter feed, and the full versions of TV3 interviews by Rachel Morton and Mihingarangi Forbes.

1. Seek counsel.
Surround yourself with competent people whose judgement you trust, actively seek their counsel, and most crucially, take it when they give it to you.

If Thompson did not receive very strongly-worded advice to the effect of “this is a hiding to nothing; back away, apologise and let it wash under the forthcoming Canterbury earthquake announcement” in the two hours after his interview aired on Hosking’s show, then he does not have competent communications advisers, or he has them, but they aren’t willing to be frank with him.

If he received that advice and was in a position to unilaterally choose to ignore it without suffering severe consequences, the organisation has a larger governance problem.

2. Know your playbook.
If you’re going to make an argument, especially a controversial one, you need to know it inside and out. You need to learn the lines, learn the angles, have worked on the wording and the tone and the delivery so it’s second nature. You need to anticipate and prepare for responses — disputed facts or interpretation, outrage, disbelief, insults, exaggeration and decontextualisation, calls for evidence and so on.

Thompson patently did not prepare his argument. The wording he came out with at the end of the Hosking interview is so garbled as to be actually incomprehensible without the listener’s inference. He waffled and prevaricated and ended up saying just enough to piss everyone off. He was utterly unprepared for the utterly predictable response.

3. Know your discursive field.
Who you’re talking to, and about what topics, largely determines what you should say and how you should say it.

The norms of communication in the field of gender and employment relations are wildly different from other fields. Thompson made two crucial errors: he mansplained — to the effect of “now listen here, women, daddy’s going to tell you some home truths”; and he appealed to backup — by referring to the fact that the two highest-paid lawyers in his company were both women (in the Hosking interview and both TV3 interviews) and by repeatedly referring to how his wife agreed with him (and she’s a woman, so her views must negate the views of other women). This might seem innocuous, or even totally reasonable, if you don’t know how gendered privilege discourse goes — but it’s always a hiding to nothing in such an argument. Just as you would never get away with saying “I’m not racist, some of my best friends are coconuts!” in a discussion about race relations, this was never a winning strategy.

It is imperative to understand the discursive norms and parameters of whatever you’re getting into.

4. Know your media.
The medium is, to a large extent, the message — the same bare content comes across very differently in different media.

Thompson compounded his failure on the Hosking show in several ways. First, by talking to NZ Herald journalists in the same way he was talking during the Hosking interview on radio. The result was that he came across as huffy and arrogant.

Second, by issuing a defensively-worded press release which, while shorn of the offensive remarks, recalled them to the minds of people who — by then — were well aware of those offensive remarks.

Third, Thompson took to twitter (and presumably to other social media also), responding to criticism and commentary by cutting and pasting lines from the aforementioned press release. This was a double insult; first, by reinforcing the defensive tone of the PR, and secondly, by responding to actual human-to-human contact with an automated response.

Fourth, Thompson responded to the two TV3 journalists by confirming the already-established narrative of “bullying, out-of-touch mansplainer”. He sought to dictate terms to both at the start of the interview on the pretext of “getting a fair hearing”, (more on this later) and was generally unpleasant, especially with Mihingarangi Forbes, who he stood over and shouted at when she requested answers from him after 20-plus minutes of him saying his piece. The instance of physical intimidation was probably the single worst move of the whole fiasco, in terms of public perception.

5. Get your facts straight.
If you make a claim, especially a controversial claim, be prepared to substantiate it, and be prepared to do so cleanly and legitimately.

The initial spark for Thompson’s outburst in the Hosking interview was Helen Kelly’s insistence that the evidence showed that women did not, in fact, take excessively more leave than men. But when later challenged to produce the evidence upon which his own claim was based, he could not, and would not do so. No public data exists, but he was making a judgement on the basis of his experience as an employer and based on discussions with other employers. This was a weak, anecdotal argument for such a strong claim. The bigger the call, the more robust the evidence required to substantiate it.

Moreover, when pressed by Forbes he refused to specify how he knew that leave, in the anecdotal cases he was citing, was as a consequence of menstruation. When further pressed, he seemed to threaten to make public the personal data of one or more of his own female employees in order to substantiate the argument. Quite apart from being poor, isolated, anecdotal evidence, this would almost certainly be illegal. To compound the failure, he later sought to claim that these statements were made “off the record” and that TV3 had no right to air them.

6. Your argument is not emotionally neutral.
No matter how much you wish it was, no non-trivial political argument lacks an emotional component. In almost every case, the emotional component of an argument is more powerful and more apt to be picked up by an audience than its more rational aspects. You can’t pretend this isn’t so; you have to develop ways to frame and contextualise the emotional content of your argument (and its delivery) so that it is consonant with whatever you’re trying to say.

Thompson, while acknowledging that his argument was not emotionally neutral — he knew people would be offended by it — nevertheless insisted upon people interpreting only the rational components of it, discounting the emotional components. This can’t work — you might as well ask people looking at an elephant to not to notice that it’s big. Brains don’t work that way, and brains didn’t work that way in response to Thompson’s arguments.

7. Excuses are for losers.
The baggage you bring to a media engagement, unless it is truly exceptional, is nobody’s problem but your own. It doesn’t excuse poor performance or loss of control. If circumstances are such that you’re not going to be able to cope, pull out. I was at a taping for a pre-election interview of Winston Peters in 2008. Shortly before Peters was scheduled to begin he had received the news that former NZ First MP Brian Donnelly had just died. He took a few minutes to compose himself and continued, on the agreement that he would say a few words about his late friend. These situations are accommodating.

Thompson began both TV3 interviews by explaining that he had been out late the night before, and most nights this week, and had been up early. He explained that he had agreed to record the interview early but had slept in and been woken by the phone call from Hosking’s studio — presumably by way of explaining his poor temper and disjointed arguments. None of that would have been very relevant, except that he was admitting culpability for the very thing he was criticising women for — other responsibilities getting in the way of his performance. This was particularly ironic given that one of the noted causes of absenteeism among men is being hung-over, and that one of the engagements he had been at was a monthly meeting.

8. The media are not the problem.
As soon as you blame the media, you lose. They are like a powertool; if you don’t control your engagement with the media, it controls you.

As noted, Thompson started out every piece of media contact following the initial interview with defensive hostility of one sort or another. This was never a good start. Then, most apparently in the TV3 interviews, he sought to dominate the discussion, trying to overpower the journalists and make them see things from his perspective or none at all. While doing so, he claimed to be a victim, saying that the media had all the power since they could slice and dice the interview to suit their agenda.

He knew, or should have known, that they would send young, female reporters to interview him — women who would be emotionally invested in the topic, since it impacted them personally — and he should have adapted his approach and demeanour to suit. He did not. They remained professional and polite throughout, and the power, as it turned out, was not in cutting the clips to their advantage — but in leaving the clips whole and unedited so everyone could see Alasdair Thompson in all his glory.

9. There is no cabal.
Blaming shady conspiracies for your trouble is an excuse, and excuses are for losers. Take responsibility for your words and actions, especially for packaging them up in ways which deliver an advantage to your opponents. Because if you do that, you can’t really blame them for maximising that advantage.

Thompson’s initial denunciation was that the objections to his statements were political — variously he mentioned the unions, Labour, the Greens, socialists and communists. And indeed, there was criticism from all these groups (except the socialists and communists, which we don’t meaningfully have in New Zealand). He claimed support was 90% in favour of him, and made much of the fact that the “hate mail” he had received came from anonymous account providers and was similar in tone, suggesting it came from a few coordinated sources within the aforementioned groups.

But he persisted in these claims after the comments on the National Business Review’s coverage of the initial interview were substantially against him; and after the Ministers of Labour and Economic Development had robustly denounced his arguments, both within Parliament during Question Time, and in media stand-ups afterward — Paula Bennett notably referring to him as a ‘dinosaur’.

Howling about a cabal of angry lefty feminists stretches credibility when the cabal supposedly includes NBR readers and two quite conservative members of a centre-right government, and suggests desperation and a lack of willingness to take responsibility for failure.

10. Have an exit strategy.
Know when to bail. Know when to not even engage. If you don’t know, see point 1 — seek counsel. Have an exit strategy planned before you begin — anticipate probable outcomes, especially worst-case outcomes, and consider how you will manage them.

This particular episode should never have gotten started. If Thompson’s argument had been vetted beforehand he would never have had leave to say what he said in the way he said it, and the whole problem would have been obviated. Even if it had gotten started, the appropriate time to end it was mid-morning — before it had really spread its wings. As noted above, today was always going to be a big news day, with the Canterbury earthquake recovery package announcement; a humble retraction and apology would have been humiliating, but probably written off as an isolated brain explosion. The interview backed up by press interviews, a press release, social media engagements and at least two long-format TV interviews is not carelessness. It is not a brain explosion, it is a severe strategic error which required real dedication to follow through with. Any of those stages would have been a better time to call the whole thing off than now, or tomorrow.

I think the likely outcome from this is that Alasdair Thompson will be forced to resign from his role at the EMA. It’s one thing to hold and express the views he holds — that in itself may be distasteful, but it is hardly exceptional. But his — and by extension the EMA’s — handling of the fallout has been abysmal. The two worst points are undoubtedly the intimidation of a senior female TV journalist, and the apparent threat to make public an employee’s personal information. I think it is these two aspects, and the widespread general outrage over the whole affair, which will lead the EMA’s member businesses to reconsider whether they want their brands associated with such an organisation, or such a person.


36 thoughts on “Ten strategic communication lessons from the Alasdair Thompson fiasco

  1. Something else that startled me was his claim in the interview with Mihingarangi Forbes that his staff member who kept the leave records would back him up. I’m sure she would, because the alternative might be losing her job. It made him sound even more bullying.

  2. Something I noticed was that he turned to the male cameraman for backup when he disagreed with Mihingarangi Forbes’ interpretation of what he said. Didn’t look good.

  3. The ten points could be of use to anyone considering charging through the undergrowth out into the public arena. I guess it may emerge whether the EMA employs people or training capable of delivering such tips to staff members.

    If it does-what an arrogant sod Thompson is.
    If it does not-perhaps we should be thankful, for revealing that the bullying, bombastic boss dude exists in reality not just caricature. Who would be better off really if such managers merely learnt to mask their real views and disguise/manage their unpleasant behaviour.

  4. I think the employee he meant was the HR one who knows why the ladies take their time off, she being a lady. Though, again, he wasn’t clear, and the “I’ll put her on air if I have to” was rather… mantrolling?

    In my dream interview we would have seen him realise the basic point that the whole period thing was entirely irrelevent. Checkpoint got closest, but I think given the interviewee it was rather unlikely.

  5. Having done comms, and watched a fair share of crises unfold, this is very good advice.

    Had Thompson cut his losses early (before 11am or so), he would have had the strength of his brand to back him up. The EMA’s position in the public consciousness/media landscape is one of saying unpalatable things that people (workers) find uncomfortable. Telling workers that they are wrong about what they think about their jobs.

    He would have been able to claim oversensitivity on the part of the unions, political conspiracy by Kelly and attack Labour, and play a victim card by invoking political correctness. This is what good counsel would have done. However, as you note, by pushing ahead he lost all of this rather quickly, and put himself in a position where he couldn’t back down without conceding their point, losing face, and hurting his poor inflated ego. From then on he ‘had to’ fight it out and win. Which was very unlikely even before his shocking behaviour. The EMA has felt particularly empowered by this government, and they’re not fighting from a position of weakness – it is impossible to think that he would have tried to do the same under the Clark Government, not because Clark was a woman, but because it would further marginalise the EMA in the political environment to be being hostile to policies the government holds strongly but which impose small costs on business.

    The obvious (to me) comparison is with Tiger Woods. Thompson is just as dependent on his sponsors, because he is a public advocate for them, and without them he falls (as he surely will). The difference is that Woods had the best PR team money can buy, and went into damage control as soon as it appeared the story had too much power to quietly die.

  6. Excellent analysis. Indeed, someone should recommend most strongly that Mr. Thompson read it if only so that we could see or hear his reply.

  7. What he should have said was “I’m sorry. On reflection I was talking crap”. Apologies work when made wholeheartedly and humbly.

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  9. Great reading. Hope media remember he was the MAYOR of THAMES before this job!

  10. “as it turned out, was not in their cutting the clips to their advantage — but in leaving the clips whole and unedited so everyone could see Alasdair Thompson in all his glory”

    Yes – and it was SUBLIME.

  11. Great post.
    The hole Alasdair Thompson finds himself in is all of his own digging.
    His own arrogance and high opinion of himself meant he was not able to judge when to pull back.
    He will never be able to credibly represent the EMA in the future – this will come back to bite him (& them) again and again …

  12. Alasdair stated a fact – that some women take time off for bad periods, or for looking after sick children. He NEVER said:
    + that he SUPPORTED lower pay for women because of this.
    + or that pay rates should be DIFFERENT between men and women.
    + or that he felt women had a lower work OUTPUT simply because of their biology.
    But some employers DO pay women less because of their biology, or their child-nuturing, or don’t promote/train them too highly (in case they fall pregnant and thus be off-work and a loss to the company)…or just ‘because they’re women and that’s the way the pay scale’s always been’ (I briefly studied this issue last year at uni).
    Yes, it’s sexist. Yes, it’s a sour part of the current employment reality. Yes, it should be changed. And no, I don’t have the solution. However, sacking Thompson is not the answer. The debate should be about how to remove sexism in the workplace.

    Read more: http://yardyyardyyardy.blogspot.com/2011/06/thompsons-tampon-talk-realistic.html#ixzz1Q9VAUgrK

  13. PhilBee, I refer you to point 6 above: “your argument is not emotionally neutral”.

    You can’t just wave a magic wand and make people focus on the aspects of an argument that you want them to focus on. You have to craft your argument such that those are the aspects people will be naturally drawn to.


  14. Lew: Sadly, you’re right…and it’s possible that this might be AT’s downfall.
    It really SHOULDN’T BE, given his intent. However, since when have good intentions ever featured highly in NZ politics???

  15. Phil, I think that’s a particularly generous view of his intent. Of course, it’s perfectly true if you take his stated position as his true position, but if you take his comments and actions in totality I think they rather belie that assurance.


  16. Time will tell, eh. But if he DOES swing, it shouldn’t be up to rabid folk like CTU president Helen Kelly (who nearly singlehandedly shot down the filming of ‘The Hobbit’) to play executioner.

  17. Very good analysis there. You are correct that this was a failure of communication. The main points that Alasdair was making (I’m referring to the uncut Mihingarangi interview here) were entirely straightforward and factual: that there are many factors that affect the pay gap; one of those is productivity; a factor in productivity is your level of absenteeism; a few women have to take time off from work to cope with their period or looking after children, increasing their level of absenteeism. None of that is (or should be) controversial, it is simple logic.

    The problem comes because Alasdair had little or no back up for his assertions and was so clearly unprepared. It is also true that political correctness clouds the argument so effectively in the modern world, that sometimes the truth is not allowed to be mentioned.

    However, I do disagree with you that the media are never the problem. They do not think twice about whipping up an argument where really there is none, simply to “make” the news and sell papers etc. Mihingarangi was not particularly professional, bringing her own grievances into the equation, harking back to questions Alasdair had already answered and focusing almost exclusively on a minute part of Alasdair’s discourse on pay inequality which he repeated several times was almost an irrelevance anyway. It would have been more insightful to ask Alasdair what he thought were the major factors in pay inequality, rather than what both “sides” agreed to be a tiny factor if indeed it was correct at all.

  18. Oh, I can’t resist:

    Phil – see point 9.

    (Also, re: his intent, the comments were in the context of arguing that the gender pay gap is justified – so he what he was supporting was the status quo. I also can’t see that some individuals having period pain would have any noticeable net effect on the entire workforce. [In his checkpoint IV he actually mentioned things he thought worked the other way, but he didn’t draw the obvious conclusion.] The way he felt the urge to mention it and then defend the mention tars his approach to the entire question.)

  19. I too doubt there’s a massive economic impact through menstruation. But there ARE some employers who seem stuck to use the widesweep of “the weaker sex” stereotype to cap women’s wages and career prospects.
    AT really SHOULD have had facts to-hand to support his claims, but I wonder if he actually just stumbled into this minefield without realising it until it was too late! (the tv footage gave me that impression).

  20. However, I do disagree with you that the media are never the problem. They do not think twice about whipping up an argument where really there is none, simply to “make” the news and sell papers etc.

    Which is precisely the point. You can’t blame the media if you’re on the field. Shouting at a bad or biased referee doesn’t make him or her any happier. Once you accept that, the rules of the game are set in place, and they’ll blow the whistle whenever they get excited.

    Now, none of this is to suggest that criticism of the media is illegitimate, only to suggest that criticism of the media has no place in a communications strategy. Obviously, if you’ve got no strategy, or don’t understand this, then go ahead. But the results will be entirely predictable.

  21. Great post Lew. One question on this: If Thompson’s argument had been vetted beforehand he would never have had leave to say what he said in the way he said it, and the whole problem would have been obviated.

    Let’s face it, we’re very small in NZ, even the EMA, and there is usually not enough money available to thoroughly vet every response. So I think this was perhaps unavoidable.

    Could you expand a bit more on the apology or bunkerdown phase after you realise you made a strategic mistake and you really shouldn’t fight this particular battle?

  22. This entire debacle leaves the EMA’s (female) public relations manager in rather an uncomfortable position! I wonder how much input she had in yesterday’s events.

  23. Ha! Probably NONE – she was home with…er… um…ah…well, ah, she was just “home”.

  24. George D – I’m not sure your referee analogy is a good one. Referees set out to be neutral, the media often don’t. I have experienced them deliberately misrepresent you, or mislead their viewers/readers simply to sell copy. Sometimes the only solution is suing for libel, but that is usually a poor outcome all round. Of course, none of this should be part of one’s comms strategy as you put it, but to regard the media as not being potentially part of the problem is, in my opinion, naive.

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  26. @Jim

    I think the point there is that although they may not be right, the medium is the media is the message. If you’re not onside with who controls the message, then you shouldn’t be talking to the public.

  27. Or it just shows how confident the right have become about their control over the public discussion in this country.

    Status defeats quality.

  28. Jim, the referee analogy isn’t a bad one — refs make errors, suffer from biases, hold grudges and have their own hobby-horses, and are largely unaccountable for their decisions. But there they are; you take the good with the bad, and a team who wants to win learns to play to the ref.

    Berend, you make a fair point, but the EMA’s mandate is narrow enough that getting together a songsheet isn’t that taxing. I think the bigger issue is that Thompson is so experienced and (for the most part, justifiably) well-regarded within his organisation and field that he’s confident to go it alone. More than 99% of the time he’ll get away with it. This is the exception.

    As for the ‘bunker’ phase, there’s not all that much to say. The errors to avoid at that point Thompson has also committed: the half-arsed disingenuous apology; the self-righteous I’m-the-real-victim-here hijack; and the follow-up only-slightly-more-genuine apology which carefully omits key offences caused (specifically, in this case, to the two journalists and the EMA staff discussed above).


  29. From The Herald:

    EMA president Graham Mountfort said Thompson would be asked to explain himself to the board and was no longer allowed to speak with the media.

    “He won’t be an advocate for us in the future.”

    They seem to have understood the media fail, not so much the actual issue.

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  31. Brilliant post Lew. Thanks. I thought Thompson looked out of his depth, fearful and wobbly much of the time – which probably explains the out-of-control hand-flapping, bullying, mantrol piece of drama at the end.

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