Culture war, what is it good for?

Happy Pogues day everyone!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, that annual event when people, usually spurred on by click-bait media organisations, lose their minds over whether Fairytale of New York should be censored. Previously it may have been known as the day when radio stations started playing Christmas songs (a month & a bit prior to the date) and we’d all ruminate over whether it was ‘too early’, but now we have a real argument to get our teeth into.

In some senses it’s a more orderly and less divisive re-run of the Christmas vs Winter Festival or ‘war on Christmas’ debate favoured by the ‘red tops’ and right-wing shock jocks which blighted the start of festivities for many years. At least we can sing-a-long to this one.

The decision over whether to clip or obscure some lyrics which can be construed as homophobic and misogynistic is one of changing and challenging cultural norms. What may have been acceptable once upon a time is not always going to be the case and all media outlets have to be sensitive to the times and opinions of their audience.

fairytale of new york censorshipCulture wars demand that we pick a side and defend it but there are instances, and this may be one, where it is possible to see both sides. When this argument bubbled up again last year, I was minded to reflect that you must always consider the context, particularly in a work of art. The questionable lyrics are exchanged in the setting of an argument, one conducted by characters in a different time and place. This being the case, a fixed mindset benefits no-one and there are rarely any good reasons to willingly cause offence. I might defend your right to express an opinion but choose not to share it with others, and certainly not broadcast it.

This time around the BBC are executing their right to straddle both sides of the fence as befitting an impartial broadcaster.  The decision - playing different versions dependent on the choice of station - seems rational in many senses, in that it changes the use relevant to the market the station is serving and their respective attitudes. It also allows the debate to fester, which in turn promotes the fact that the Christmas songs have started up again. It’s a win-win in a situation that rarely produces a positive outcome.

That Christmas is often known as a time for consternation and celebration, of tradition and turbulence possibly reward the song’s legendary status: it reflects the mood of the times, it is universal, and it is loved. If we remember nothing else each year it should be that The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl created the definitive Christmas anthem and caused almost everyone else to give up trying. Happy Christmas your arse.

How to communicate in a crisis

It’s no great secret that effective communication is important whether faced by crisis or otherwise, however a crisis does heighten the need to convey important messages and ensure that they’re understood.

The UK Government’s apparent inability to take hold of the Covid-19 catastrophe is a lesson in communication, with both good and bad examples. Without heaping further criticism on them it is possible to see what we can learn.

Rule of three

It is obvious that the Govt. comms team are obsessed with the rule of three. Most will be familiar with the rationale behind this, it's a triptych which apparently dates back to Aristotle.  For those who are not, it is an effective means of communicating in both written and verbal forms. A pattern of three units combines both brevity and rhythm and is the smallest grouping to allow this. In the early days of Covid the simple message of ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS and Save Lives’ was effective mostly because it led with a clear instruction. Frequent repetition of the message was invaluable to drive it home, following the holy grail of presenting information: Tell them what you going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.

It is suggested that the first message was so successful that it became difficult to modify it in later stages. Indeed, the mistake at that point may have been in trying to repeat the process with slightly different messaging, thereby prompting confusion. Latterly, particularly when backed up with simple graphics, they got back on track with ‘Hands, Face, Space’ although they had undermined their own efforts by this point, enabling sufficient doubt and suspicion to creep in during the process. Distrust from your target audience will naturally scupper most of your efforts.

For our purposes, the rule of three to apply to your comms efforts can be clarified, with a bit of alliteration to help it stick. Always communicate clearly, calmly and confidently.


Communicating with a wide audience is impossible without clarity. Ideally you would know your target market and your model customer and aim the messaging at them, in a language they speak – terms and phrasing they’d use. To communicate more widely and take in a broader audience you need simplicity, common words and clear ideas. It is broadly accepted that the most popular newspapers in the country are written for a reading age of 9-12. To be easily understood you may have to mimic the masters.


A crisis often induces panic, and this clouds the mind as it races around trying to find a safe-ground of reason or explanation. In order to cut through this you will have to deliver the message calmly, to provide the solution and pacify the crowd. Choice of words is all important here, think of positive terms instead of negative ones, you want to establish control.


If you want to be believed you will have to appear confident. To be sure of the facts enables you to transmit them to a receptive audience. Clarity, calmness and confidence are the three tiers to any communication, crisis or no crisis. If you’d like to add a fourth, then consistency is also valuable. People distrust back-tracking and u-turns – if you’re following the science one day then ignoring it on another will badly undermine your credibility.

communication in a crisis
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

In the situations and circumstances surrounding Covid-19 it can be argued that there was too much complexity, too many differentials and changing circumstances over too wide an audience and geographical area. It should still have been simplified and having a 3-tier system using both numbers and explainers could seldom hit the intended goal of being readily comprehensible, particularly when the lowest or starting tier is ‘medium’. It’s never a great idea to try and bend widely understood words to a new meaning.

If you want to cut-through a crisis, think and communicate clearly, calmly and confidently with consistency and credibility. Check your thinking and wording with external advisors or consultants if you have any doubts, and always be sure of the points you’re trying to make.

Chris Hadfield 2018

For the third year running we are delighted to be assisting Unique Lives & Entertainment in the promotion of Chris Hadfield's UK tour. The ever-popular astronaut will be appearing in Southampton, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast next February. Full info is here.

Chris Hadfield at Symphony Hall
Howard Szigeti, Unique Lives; Paul Flower, Profound Media; Chris Hadfield; Chris Proctor, Symphony Hall