Headline news (or “If you’re explaining, you’re losing”)


In a recent client meeting we were discussing potential speakers for a forthcoming event.

Client respect and confidentiality prevents me from describing the details here. Let’s just say, for illustration, the suggestion was to use Jeremy Clarkson as a keynote speaker at an event about emotional intelligence in the workplace.

No doubt Clarkson would have something interesting to say on the  subject, and it would be easy to explain the reasoning behind the counter-intuitive and provocative selection.

I repeated to my client a mantra I used when leading the press and marketing team in Slough Council*:

Think about the headline not the story.  

Councils across the UK get a bad press, sometimes rightly, but often because the negative angle of a story can be summarised in seven words or fewer. The truth is a little more nuanced.

So, if local residents see the headline “Council closes care centre for the elderly” in the local paper, how many of them will go on to read the full article that explains it’s because of central government cuts but the council has opened a smaller number of bigger, better-equipped facilities and laid on transport too?

Certainly not all of them.

My boss at the time called this: “Complex truths and simple lies”.

Or as Ronald Reagan once said: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

So when you’re planning a potentially provocative decision think about the headline – not just in the media but in clients’ minds.

If you need further proof, try asking Gerald Ratner.

But what about long copy?

As a advocate of long copy am I being hypocritical to suggest many people won’t get past a headline?

I don’t think so. People will read well-written, relevant copy. At length.

Headlines and subheads attract the right kind of reader (and filter out the time wasters), guide the reader through the copy and, if read alone, give an overview of the content.

Yes, an intriguing headline can be used to arouse reader curiosity and draw them into reading more. But if when it is read read as a standalone statement it becomes damaging to your brand, I’d suggest you think again.



*An odd career move? Maybe – but I learned more about how papers really work than any marketer who has only ever used the comfort of a PR agency buffer.