In the late 1990s, I was a producer for CNN’s Sunday public-affairs program, Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. Because Late Edition aired after all of the other Sunday public-affairs shows, one of my tasks each week was to watch the earlier programs to monitor what politicians were saying. If a politician said something interesting, I’d edit a video clip out of the quote so that Wolf could air it on the show.
I was always on the lookout for a politician saying something off message. Why? Because anything unscripted and off-the-cuff was inherently more interesting than the canned responses we always heard. And in a newsroom, a less scripted response will almost always be deemed more newsworthy.
Years later, I developed a name to describe that phenomenon: “the seven-second stray.” I call it that because if a spokesperson is on message for 59 minutes 53 seconds of an hour-long interview but says something off message for just seven seconds, I can virtually guarantee that the reporter will select that seven-second answer to play over and over again.
The seven-second stray can be deadly. Not only is it often damaging to your reputation, but it drowns out everything else you’ve said, becoming the only quote the audience will remember from your interview.
My choice of the word drown in the previous sentence is intentional. To help our clients avoid committing a seven-second stray, I often use the analogy of a lifeboat. If you’re facing tough questioning, I tell them, your message is your lifeboat. If you keep returning to your message and message supports—stories, statistics, and sound bites—it’s as if you’re swimming to the safety of the closest lifeboat. But if you stray off message, you’re treading water at best—if not drifting farther and farther away from the lifeboat until that inevitable (and entirely predictable) moment when you drown.
Case Study: BP CEO’s Infamous Seven-Second Stray
In April 2010, an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and injuring 17 others. For 87 days, oil gushed from the seafloor, washing up on ecologically sensitive shorelines from Texas to Florida. The spill wrecked local economies, leaving tens of thousands of people out of work. Fishermen were left without seafood to sell, hotels were left without guests, and restaurants were left without diners.
British Petroleum, the massive oil conglomerate responsible for the rig, took a daily beating in the press. The bad press had a devastating impact on the company: the oil giant quickly shed half of its worth, a loss of more than $100 billion.
As bad as the crisis was, the spill itself wasn’t responsible for the greatest harm to BP’s reputation. Rather, the company’s inept response, headed by CEO Tony Hayward, significantly deepened the damage. In a televised interview, Mr. Hayward famously quipped:
“There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.”
That stunningly tone-deaf seven-second stray, which slighted the deceased oil workers and newly unemployed workers, became a symbol of BP’s self-interested focus. Those five telling words, “I’d like my life back,” reinforced an irreversible narrative of a clueless company that just didn’t get it – and just didn’t care.
Mr. Hayward was forced out shortly after the spill ended, but it didn’t matter. The damage to BP had already been done.