I've provided media and spokesperson training services to executives for more than 20 years, and I'm still astonished to see how many intelligent, high-performing leaders cause catastrophic damage to their brand by making foolish comments or public gaffes. These are often followed by compulsory apologies and, more often than not, tearful resignations. It's especially sad because these missteps are easily avoided.
Recent examples of these gaffes abound:
White House correspondent Helen Thomas retired abruptly (many are calling it a forced retirement) from Hearst Corp. in early June after a citizen journalist (who happens to be a rabbi) released a video of her saying Jews should "get the hell out" of Israel and "go home" to places like Poland and Germany.
BP CEO Tony Hayward, clearly suffering from oil spill spokesperson-fatigue, said he wanted his life back and that the oil spill was minor compared to the size of the Gulf of Mexico. Only exacerbating the company's problems, his boss, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, apologized to all the "small people" hurt by the spill.
Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) had to backpedal very quickly after apologizing to BP for what he termed the Obama administration's "shakedown" of BP. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) was so incensed he threatened to remove Barton from the Energy Committee, forcing Barton to issue an apology for his apology.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal was relieved of his command less than 40 hours after being quoted in Rolling Stone magazine referring to the vice president as a "nobody," the national security adviser as a "clown" and stating that our country's commander-in-chief had "failed."
Common-Sense Tips to Avoid Damaging Quotes
The causes and reasons for speaking out of line are varied. Sometimes the speakers are well-intended but choose their words, time or place poorly. In other instances, ill-conceived remarks occur because the spokesperson had an inexplicable brain freeze.
Regardless, foot-in-mouth disease is easily avoided if you follow some simple, common-sense guidelines:
- Seriously consider the offer and the interviewer. Closely examine each interview offer and do some quick research on the reporter, as well. Do you know if this person has a history of "gotcha" questions? Do you know where this story or video will appear? Is this really an offer worth accepting--i.e., will doing this help me grow my business? Keep in mind there is no such thing as "off the record," and everything you say can and will be used against you.
- Practice, test, then practice again. The cliché is true: If you fail to prepare, you are prepared to fail. Work out your key messages and answers to tough (and easy) questions ahead of time. It helps to role play with your PR person, a colleague or a friend before each interview. It's akin to stretching and warming up before a race. Watch yourself in the mirror to make sure you are physically delivering your messages in a credible manner (minimizing over-gesturing, not crossing your arms, etc.).
Additionally, those who've never done an interview before might want to invest in media training classes or a personal session with a media trainer.
Try to find someone who has experience being a spokesperson himself, and who can help you develop and refine your key messages. Media training services may seem pricey at first--upward of $8,000 to $10,000 for a full-day session, depending on your market. But the experience is worth it, and the skills are highly transferable to your other business dealings. (Full disclosure: I provide media training.)
- Dodge "drive-by interviews." Nothing good comes from taking an interview on the fly. The same holds true for impromptu questions. Avoid both at all costs. Schedule another time for the interview and respond to unexpected questions by shifting the discussion to what you want to talk about or by saying you will get back to the questioner.
- Work out sound bites ahead of time. Remember, shorter responses are always more memorable, and sound bites should never be worked out on the fly.
- Mind your "no-fly zone." Create a list of topics you won't comment on and construct transition phrases like "it's important to understand that ... ," which you can use to safely steer the conversation away from these hot-button topics toward what you want to say.
- Think before you speak. Pause briefly before you respond. Your first answer may not always be the best. Repeat your key messages in your head before opening your mouth and, when in doubt, leave that comment out.
- Don't attempt to be a "Spokes-hero" like Hayward . It backfired on Hayward for variety of reasons, not the least of which was that he was the only voice for BP during the early days of the spill. PR, in the best and worst of times, is a team effort best executed with a bench of trained, qualified, highly credentialed spokespeople.
In the hands of a talented spokesperson, quotes have the power to transform public perception for the better; but one misguided sound bite can cause substantial brand damage, cost you your job, or both. Keep these common-sense tips in mind to keep your neck off the chopping block and your feet away from your mouth.