News reflection: the power of quips

In public life, a witty riposte or throw-away remark sometimes cuts right through the media theatre that is so carefully constructed for us. This last week we have seen two examples: firstly, Ed Miliband’s surprising remark that his PMQ debates with the Prime Minister have not “added to the sum of human knowledge,” and, secondly, President Obama’s razor-sharp retort to hecklers during his State of the Union Address. Both episodes are highly revealing of what the public really wants from political communication and public relations.

Nowadays many people find that the speeches, interviews and other set pieces of political, business and media life are so highly scripted, prejudged and artificial that they are practically meaningless. Citizens wonder what has happened to the humanity of the political process, and are bored with it. That is why it is such a delight when those on the public stage improvise or go off piste, and show something of their true thoughts.

Pundits have argued for years that Prime Minister’s Questions, which is supposed to be the weekly highlight of British democracy, has become pointless. The Prime Minister and leader of the opposition are like ships in the night: they never make real contact with one another’s arguments. They have over-perfected the art of evading awkward questions. And they make sure to throw in prepared statistics, barbs and insults whether or not they fit the line of questioning. As media trainers ourselves we recognise the tactics, but because it is all so contrived, we cringe as we watch.

Ed Miliband famously refused to answer an interview question 13 times to avoid giving away the wrong soundbite. But this week it was refreshing to hear him say this:

Now watching me and David Cameron shout at each other once a week on Prime Minister’s Questions isn’t very enlightening for anybody, let’s be frank about it. Someone in my office was telling me I’ve done like 120-something Prime Minister’s Questions in the last four years. That’s sort of 120 times a long time that I’m not going to get back in terms of my life. I’m not sure it’s made much difference to the sum of human knowledge.”

Most people would agree. Perhaps these remarks – if broadcast more widely – would do more for his image than most of his PMQs performances put together. Frankly, you or I probably wouldn’t enjoy being part of PMQs’ grim procession each week. Sadly the parameters of these sorts of engagement are unlikely to change any time soon. So what can be done to encourage a more compelling public life?

President Obama is widely recognised as one of the great orators of our age, and a master of classical rhetoric. That alone is reason for communications consultants to study him. Yet the very fact that he uses set piece speeches so effectively makes some people suspicious. The obvious effort and preparation that goes into them suggests, to some, a devious desire to manipulate. He is often accused of being a showman who offers little substance.

This gives some clue to why his recent riposte to hecklers during his State of the Union Address this week was exhilarating. When he said “I have no more campaigns to run,” opponents in the House applauded sarcastically. With perfect timing, he quipped further: “I know because I won both of ‘em.” This is the kind of schoolboy wit and pluckiness that everyone identifies with (although John Boehner tried not to smile). It shows a command of his surroundings, and cuts through the formality of the situation. Ultimately, this morsel is what we will remember SOTU 2015 for, not the carefully crafted speech – skilful though it was. [For more on SOTU 2015 read our recent P/RSpectives blog]

So what lessons can be learned from these two episodes? Clearly, nobody identifies with leaders who are obviously media trained to within an inch of their lives. A balance must be struck between holding firm under hostile questioning and ensuring that your side of the story is heard, and basic humanity and conveying respect for the truth.

Wit is a wonderful tool for disarming adversaries, and in bringing people around to you. Boris Johnson is, of course, fully alive to this. Although tips on joke telling do not form a major part of our media training curriculum – and we wouldn’t advise clients to emulate Boris during their first outing on the Today Programme – it’s safe to say that in today’s confected public life, there’s no telling how powerful well-judged spontaneity can be.