Will the Phillip Schofield story never end? As providers of crisis communications training, we advise clients in our crisis comms workshops on how to draw the line under a difficult incident for an organisation and to avoid it having the kind of “legs” that keeps a story running and running in the media.
Just when it seemed that the case of the disgraced daytime TV presenter had finally ended, his former colleague, Holly Willoughby, reignited it with a statement on the program on Monday. “Firstly,” she asked viewers, speaking directly to the camera, “are you okay? I hope so.” She then went on to say that she felt “shaken, troubled, let down, and worried” for “the well-being of people on all sides of what’s going on.”
In response to her comments, one Twitter user wrote: “I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as patronising as Holly Willoughby rocking up to tell us how we must be feeling.” Another commented: “Christ!! Who’s died!? The mourning here is absolutely ridiculous.”
SNP MP John Nicolson mocked Holly Willoughby’s opening statement from Monday’s episode of This Morning during a meeting of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which took place the following day.
Speech Language: What not to do
Choosing the right language for a crisis statement requires thought and reflection – as well as the advice of an experienced professional. Frequently organisations sound cold, corporate and inhuman. Cliches such as “our thoughts and prayers are with…” sound unconvincing. In this case, Holly Willoughby seems to have gone slightly over the top, and her comments sound excessively emotional. She’s right to think about the audience, and her opening comment (“Are you okay?”) is good in many ways. In some of the bad examples of crisis communications management that we show in our courses, company spokespeople are more concerned about their own welfare and the strain that they’re under in these difficult situations – with little thought for those more heavily impacted by the crisis.
The problem here, though, is that Willoughby’s comment is actually too emotional – as is clear from so much of the Twitter and other critical comment shows. Even if we are regular viewers, do we really feel “shaken, troubled, let down, worried”? Frankly, I doubt it. Sounding concerned and sympathetic without appearing to be patronising or showing emotion that is excessive and unconvincing requires careful consideration, well-chosen words, and some thought about how and by whom those words are delivered.
For some reason, Willoughby continues with a not-so-subtle dig at her former co-presenter with her comment about giving “our love and support to someone who is not telling the truth, who acted in the way that they themselves, felt they had to resign from ITV.” In our crisis communication workshops, we point out that assigning blame, appearing to score points or saying something that could be interpreted as an attack on somebody else involved in the situation is great for journalists, but it’s very unhelpful to those looking to control and shut down a negative story.
Other commentators have questioned Willoughby’s choice of wardrobe during the programme – was her white dress suggesting that, unlike Phillip Schofield, she is innocent and virtuous? Perhaps. The point here is that with crisis communications, as with any kind of communication, your appearance has a huge impact. Even before you’ve opened your mouth, the people that you’re talking to have made a judgement based on how you look.
NHS Communications Training
In a difficult situation such as this one, when you have to work hard to win over your audience, this focus on the optics is even more important. We delivered a crisis communications course for an NHS Trust during which one of the participants went through a role-play TV interview to offer reassurances about patient safety following a fictional incident in the crisis scenario.
Putting into practice our advice, she included the appropriate expressions of concern and regret following by information about the action that the Trust was taking to rectify the situation and to protect “the patients in our care.” Unfortunately, as we pointed out when we watched the video back with her, the fact that she was dressed like an undertaker in her sharp black suit didn’t help to make her sound convincing and caring. Luckily, in this safe learning environment, she saw the joke!
Company Crisis Training
The situation hasn’t been helped for ITV that when he was doorstepped by a Sky News reporter about allegations of a toxic work environment on the programme, This Morning’s editor Martin Frizell said: “I tell you what’s toxic, I’ve always found toxic is aubergine. Do you like aubergine?” We’re sometimes asked during our media training courses about the use of humour during media interviews. By and large, we advise people to avoid it. You might be hilarious among family and friends, but when talking to a journalist, it’s best to appear warm and human but also serious. With crisis communications, this is even more important.
Crises, especially those with a human element at their core, can evoke strong reactions, not just among the media. Employees of an organisation hit by a crisis can feel equally upset and keen to express their views. As we explain in our crisis communications training courses, managing these emotions and ensuring that you bring an end to the kind the negative, destructive news cycle that Holly Willoughby, Phillip Schofield and the team from This Morning are currently caught up in is essential.