When no news is news
Twice in recent weeks has the announcement of an announcement sent the media into a frenzy, with anticipation of the announcement more exciting than the announcement itself.
The first (and more significant I hasten to add) was Theresa May’s calling of a general election on 18th April. It was a decision which caught all of us by surprise, including members of the Cabinet who, to keep it contained, were reportedly only told in a meeting immediately beforehand. Indeed, it’s a testament to how loyal and tight-lipped May’s inner circle is that a story of this magnitude did not leak at all.
Downing Street had put out a media call that morning advising that the Prime Minister would be making a statement in front of her official residence – an event usually reserved for matters of national importance.
Speculation was rife. Whilst an election was mooted as a possibility, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and May’s continued insistence since she became Prime Minister that she wouldn’t go the country before 2020 therefore brought other possibilities into play.
Would she be announcing that, actually, Brexit won’t mean Brexit? Had the Queen passed away? Was May’s health an issue that was going to force her to step down, as had been rumoured in a Sunday paper just days before? Were we going to war? Had something terrible happened to Larry the cat?
Some of these were non starters. A military deployment would require a House of Commons address and the death of a royal is a matter for Buckingham Palace.
Others were ruled out over the course of the morning. After speculating on the Prime Minister’s possible illness, Sky News’ Adam Boulton received a curt text from Fiona Hill, the Downing Street joint chief of staff, telling him to watch what he says about her boss’ health. And Larry was seen padding around Westminster shortly after.
The tenterhooks were loosened when a lectern was placed without the Downing Street seal – a clear sign that this would be a party political announcement. Of course, the news was confirmed minutes later and, after what feels like two years rather than two weeks, we are where we are.
Buckingham Palace inflicted the same treatment upon us yesterday. It was reported on the morning bulletins that the Queen’s entire private staff, including those at Sandringham and Balmoral, had been called to Buckingham Palace for a meeting.
It was dubbed “highly unusual” by one former royal staffer and, again, led to widespread speculation. Had the Duke of Edinburgh died? Was the Queen abdicating? Were budget cuts forcing her to rent out spare rooms on AirBnb?
The Buckingham Palace press office was forced to clarify that there was no cause for concern and that it was not to do with the health of either the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh.
Of course we now know what it was all about, and there is no doubt that the decision to announce Prince Philip’s deserved retirement from public duties yesterday at the age of 95 was a sensible but calculated move. The dissolution of parliament meant that the news schedule was clear for outlets not only to run the story, but dedicate pages and airtime to the more than six decades of his service as consort.
Good media management means that, if you have an announcement to make, you have to give journalists enough advance warning to allow them to prepare and set up, as well as assuring them that their attendance will be worthwhile. Word inevitably spreads that an announcement is coming, which heightens expectation.
Another advantage is more airtime. Both of these stories were big enough that they would have topped the agenda after the announcement regardless.
In these cases, the substance of the stories easily justified the media hype build up before the announcements were announced.
Adam Shaw is a Senior Associate at Charlotte Street Partners. After graduating from the University of Aberdeen in 2013 with a degree in International Relations and Hispanic Studies, Adam moved to London and spent three years with a City-based public relations consultancy where he advised a range of clients in the financial services industry. He joined the team in September 2016. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org