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.