Does a new kettle save energy?
5th September, 2022
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And what PR questions does this raise?
Last week the UK’s former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, went viral when he suggested that people in Britain should invest in a new kettle to save money on their electricity bills. Or did he?
By Richard Stone
Johnson was speaking at the Sizewell Nuclear plant in Suffolk, where he used a kettle as a metaphor for investment in nuclear energy. He wanted to demonstrate that building Hinkley Point C would cost a lot in short term capital investment but yield long term savings and help build a robust and independent power supply in the United Kingdom.
I think this raises questions about the reporting of technical and scientific subjects in the media. Questions that should be, and are, answerable with a strong media relations strategy.
As it is, Johnson ended up being roundly misreported across the board. Very few reporters mentioning nuclear power and nearly everyone reporting that his intention was to provide tips on energy saving.
Using Meltwater’s Boolean search function, I established that there were 92 mentions of the following search string last week:
"Boris Johnson" AND "Kettle" NOT "Truss"
However, there were only four mentions of this search string:
"Boris Johnson" AND "Kettle" AND "Sizewell Nuclear" NOT "Truss"
This suggests that, of the initial reporting of the story that wasn’t contextualised as part of a feature on the future of the Conservative party (i.e., “NOT Truss”) only four outlets mentioned that Johnson was at the Sizewell Nuclear facility. This indicates only those four mentioned his overall argument in favour of nuclear energy.
Simply put, this story, which is a technical one, albeit a bit botched, was misreported across the board. So, as a PR person, how does one avoid this?
Using analogy and metaphor in technical PR argument
There are times when a metaphor is the perfect way to illustrate a point in argument with the media. There are also times when the metaphor can become the story, and this instance is certainly an example of the latter.
If you need to add colour to your argument, metaphor can be the ideal way of doing so. If you don’t need to, if you are, for instance, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, you had better make sure your metaphor is on point. You are bigger than the story, and much bigger than your rhetoric, so the words should make your point for you, not attract attention of themselves.
Don't dumb down too much
When you do use a metaphor, make sure it illustrates rather than dumbs down the technical argument. This requires understanding of the technical structure of a metaphor; where the topic is its subject, the vehicle is the term used metaphorically, and the ground is the relationship between the topic and the vehicle.
It’s crucial that there is alignment between the vehicle and the topic. In Johnson’s case, there isn’t – because buying a new kettle is a modest capital expenditure which doesn’t save operating cost.
This is because the electric heating element in a kettle is one hundred percent effective and they are rarely insulated. So, provided your kettle has a switch on it to shut it off when it has boiled, you have a modern and energy efficient kettle.
The same is not true of a nuclear power station.
All of this makes Johnson’s metaphor intrinsically funny and thus much more newsworthy than the point he is attempting to make. I’m not suggesting that most of us immediately went to the technicalities of how the resistor in a kettle works when Johnson spoke out. Rather the people who matter — the journalists and influencers who shared the content — inherently understood that his argument was flawed and ridiculous as a result.
Hold on though, isn’t this a simile?
You would think it should be, wouldn’t you? In terms of clear communication and managing the risk of a misquote, adding the sentence, “Nuclear power is very much like having an old kettle…” onto the segment of the speech that went viral would make it a much safer bet. As would improving the timing, and not delivering a hilariously mis-quotable metaphor for nuclear power during an energy crisis.
Instead, Johnson juxtaposed his musings with others on the relative effectiveness of nuclear fission and hydrocarbon-based energy. He left it entirely to the viewer to link the two, which, because we are human beings, we chose not to. This left no question as to whether Johnson’s soundbite would ultimately go viral for entirely the wrong reasons and with entirely the wrong message.