Communications winners and losers #2

Every month GKP identifies who in the world of education has scored in the PR stakes and who has had a communications malfunction. 


Communications #fail of the month

Some people don’t have to wait for April to experience their cruellest month. March turned out to be pretty torrid for the secretary of state for education, largely because of continued negative reaction to her white paper. Not only was she put through the mill on Mumsnet by unconvinced parents, she also had to suffer the drip, drip of dissent from less than enthusiastic fellow Tories.

Her worst moment undoubtedly came at teaching union NASUWT’s conference over Easter. It was brave of her to go. Many of her predecessors, tired of relentless abuse and in one case being shoved in a cupboard, usually decided that Easter was best spent in garden centres than union conferences.

Ms Morgan would have known that she would get a frosty reception regardless of what she said. As she intended to deliver an uncompromising message, basically “Opposition to our reforms is futile, we’re right, sod you”, she would have also known frostiness would quickly be replaced by fury. And so it proved. Why then did she do it?

Ms Morgan was never going to win over the audience in the hall. As a message “You’re dinosaurs and a disgrace” isn’t exactly persuasive. The real audience of course was the wider public – she wanted to convey that she was set on reform and wouldn’t be dissuaded by unreconstructed unions. Unfortunately for her, the headlines next day led on the “heckling and laughter” her speech provoked rather than her determination to proceed with reform. 

Contrast that with the press reaction to a similarly uncompromising message delivered by home secretary Theresa May to the Police Federation last year. She too pointed out they had a history of greeting reform with outlandish claims and scaremongering. The delegates responded with silent anger rather than furious guffaws but next day the press led on her defiance rather than their reaction.

The question is why did Nicky fail where Theresa succeeded? I think it all comes down to delivery. Take a look. Ms May delivered a well-crafted, fact-laden speech in the steely manner of a disappointed governess.  Ms Morgan stumbled through a string of platitudes and smiled, inviting the audience to conclude that she wasn’t serious and didn’t really believe what she was saying.
Ms Morgan is our communications fail of the month not because she went to speak to a hostile audience but because she didn’t know how to say what she wanted to say when she got there.
Communications #win of the month

This has to be the National Environment Research Council for its splendid campaign to name its soon-to-be-launched £200 million polar research ship. It was ‘brave’ of its PR agency to suggest that the NERC ask the public for suggestions. And suggest they did. Some level-headed souls suggested David Attenborough or Henry Worsley, in honour of the recently deceased polar explorer. But large numbers opted for Ice Ice Baby, It’s Bloody Cold Here and Usain Boat. The runaway favourite was of course the uttlerly bonkers Boaty McBoatface. 

One can only imagine the horror of serious scientists at the prospect of sailing the oceans on board the RRS Boaty McBoatface. It would be bad enough on the hull. But on correspondence or name badges – oh the shame!

Fortunately, the NERC took all the joshing in its stride and reacted with indulgent good humour. “No need to be sorry, James”, they tweeted to the shocked guy who first suggested Boaty, “we are loving it”. As well they might. Few people outside academia would have heard of the NERC let alone its work. And now they do.

So well done NERC – you are our Communications Hit of the month, not because you intended all this hilarity but because you responded to it intelligently and with a distinct lack of pomposity. And in any case, as the campaign’s fine print points out, the NERC retains the right to have the final choice of name so the chances of RRS Boaty McBoatface sailing into port anytime soon are rather slim.

Gerard Kelly is the former editor of the Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Education.  He is the founding partner of Gerard Kelly & Partners (GKP), a communications consultancy specialising in education PR.