If you’d stopped 100 people anywhere beyond Whitehall yesterday and asked them, “Who is Sir Martin Donnelly?” I bet you’d have seen 100 blank faces.
If you’d asked the same people if they’d heard anything in the news about crisp packets and Brexit, I’m sure many would have referred to a story that dominated the media for hours.
It was a story made by a soundbite:
“You’re giving up a three-course meal..for the promise of a packet of crisps in the future.”
The person who came out with that analogy in a media interview?
Well, a certain Sir Martin Donnelly, former Department of International Trade permanent secretary.
Actually, perhaps in true Civil Service style, what he said was a bit more wordy – “You’re giving up a three-course meal, the depth and intensity of our trade relationship across the European Union and partners now, for the promise of a packet of crisps in the future,” but journalists edited it down into something more bite-sized and digestible.
The point here for anyone doing media interviews is that if you really want people to note what you’re saying (and if not, why are you bothering?), a great soundbite can achieve this.
Indeed, when it works really well – as it did yesterday – it can even help you garner more headlines than your story might otherwise deserve.
Of course Sir Martin’s comments, coming just ahead of a pro-Brexit speech by Dr Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, were always going to cause a stir.
But the simplicity of the analogy, the fact it was something we could all relate to and understand, gave it added impact.
It was also perfect for pun-filled headlines: e.g. The Telegraph’s, “Fox doesn’t quaver in crisp customs row”.
The story was widely picked up by different news outlets early in the day and even gained “fresh legs” when pro-EU campaigners handed out packets of ready-salted nibbles as guests arrived to hear Dr Fox make his big speech.
Then, at the end of his talk, someone apparently asked Fox about the snack attack and he replied, “I think Brexit is a bit more complicated than a packet of Walkers.”
It might have been a rebuttal, but he still referred to potato chips.
So, regardless of whatever else he said in his speech, it will be remembered for the deep-fried frites. The menu – or rather the news agenda – had been set by someone else.
I’d happily bet that crisp comment didn’t just pop into Sir Martin’s head during the interview; like the finest three-course meal, it had surely been prepared.
But like the spiciest chilli-flavoured crisp, it hit the spot instantly and its power lingered long on the tongue…