Be authentic! Or, what can company spokespeople learn from the Pfizer boss and Nigel Farage?

The Pfizer bid for AstraZeneca has failed – at least for the moment. The markets, MPs and the pharmaceutical industry in general were not convinced that the company would keep its promises to retain the UK pharma research base, given what had happened in previous takeovers. Part of Pfizer’s problem is that it was unable to set up a convincing alternative narrative. At the crucial Commons business select committee hearing, Pfizer boss Ian Read was criticised by the media for being unspecific and talking in ‘global business lingo’, instead of summing up his case in a single, memorable phrase. Mr Read seemed evasive on key issues such as cuts to research jobs, instead falling back on repetitive phrases when he couldn’t or didn’t want to answer a question. The whole tone, because it was so guarded, did not feel authentic. By contrast, committee chairman Adrian Bailey appeared to be telling it straight when he went for the jugular, and said Pfizer was like a ‘praying mantis’ and a ‘shark that needs feeding’. These quotes made it to the top of every TV news bulletin, with viewers much more likely to be persuaded by such powerful imagery. It is tricky to come up with a memorable positive phrase to counterbalance emotive language like this; Mr Read and his advisers tried with ‘this will create a ‘UK-based scientific powerhouse’ but this lacked traction because it appeared to be unsubstantiated.

The problem seemed to be similar for leaders of the main political parties at the local and European elections, who often appeared mealy-mouthed and too on-message compared with UKIP leader Nigel Farage who many voters clearly felt was ‘telling it straight’. Ed Miliband in particular seemed to be too obviously trying to use interview questions as a platform for pre-cooked messages that felt unnatural. The conclusion for spokespeople or commentators? Being too on-message can be counter-productive. Try as far as possible to be authentic, be yourself. Deal with the issues, don’t avoid them – and use clear language that anyone can understand and relate to.