Disaster Speechwriting 101

Can the Gulf Coast of the US take any more disasters or speeches about disasters?

A disturbing trend has appeared in the successive US presidencies of George W Bush and Barack Obama: making speeches to show they are in charge of disasters in the Gulf region of the country.

On Tuesday night, with pressure coming from all sides and oil still gushing from a busted undersea well, Obama made his first televised speech from the Oval Office in the White House. During the weeks leading up to the speech, some pundits began calling the oil disaster "Obama's Katrina", referring to the 2005 hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast region and overwhelmed the New Orleans flood defences.

Check the score: the US has experienced two disasters in the same area in five years with two sets of sagging ratings of the government's response. Before Obama delivered his address, an Associated Press-GfK poll was released, showing that 52 per cent of respondents said they did not approve of Obama's handling of the spill.

In the US president's speech on Tuesday, two other similarities between the 2005 disaster and 2010 event popped up, one in the realm of "eerie".

On 15 September 2005, Bush made a speech from the dark, empty Jackson Square in New Orleans, Louisiana, to address the country about the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.

In his speech, made 17 days after Katrina flooded the city, Bush made this pledge to reassure the country that someone will get to the bottom of the issues that plagued the government response:

So I have ordered every cabinet secretary to participate in a comprehensive review of the government response to the hurricane. This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We are going to review every action and make necessary changes so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men that could threaten our people.

Sitting at his Oval Office desk 57 days after the 20 April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, Obama made a similar decree:

And so I've established a national commission to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place. Already I've issued a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling.

More uncanny is the similar co-opting of a local tradition by both presidents. The technique of creating a metaphor out of the disaster and recovery is, I suppose, an attempt to end with a poetic flourish and help the country and the region "carry on".

Wrapping up his speech, Bush made use of jazz as a cultural touchpoint:

In this place, there is a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful "second line" -- symbolising the triumph of the spirit over death.

Obama in 2010 made reference to the ritual carried out by local fishermen:

Each year, at the beginning of shrimping season, the region's fishermen take part in a tradition that was brought to America long ago by fishing immigrants from Europe. It's called "the Blessing of the Fleet", and today it's a celebration where clergy from different religions gather to say a prayer for the safety and success of the men and women who will soon head out to sea, some for weeks at a time.

Final words from Bush 2005:

Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line.

Final words from Obama 2010:

Tonight, we pray for that courage, we pray for the people of the Gulf, and we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day.

Is this what they teach in speechwriting class when they get to the "Disaster" chapter? Do a Google search for a local tradition to bring the speech on home and then end on a hopeful note? The people of the Gulf region can only hope that the next president won't have to continue this new trend. I don't think they can take much more.

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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