New York Times Executive Editor Calls Critic An “Asshole”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 11, 2015 – 12:09 pm

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet decided last week not to run images of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons so many people found to be offensive.

Marc Cooper, a journalist and associate professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, disagreed with Baquet’s decision and took to Facebook to register his complaint.

Dean Baquet Facebook

I’m not going to pretend that the word “asshole” is so shocking to our delicate sensibilities as to require an entire blog post. But I would like to make a few other points about this exchange.

First, Mr. Baquet was right that Mr. Cooper looked self-righteous. I suspect that was abundantly clear to many people, so Baquet didn’t need to be so heavy handed in his response to win this exchange. That’s especially true because he made a solid case for his decision not to publish.

According to Dylan Byers of Politico:

“Reached via email, Baquet told POLITICO: ‘Lots of people have disagreed with my decision. Some of them are in The Times. I get that. Mr Cooper’s comment was nasty and arrogant. So I told him what I thought.’

Baquet’s decision to forego running the cartoons that provoked terrorists to raid the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing 12, have been heavily scrutinized. On Thursday, Baquet said he made his decision primarily because he did not want to insult the paper’s Muslim readers.

“’We have a standard that is pretty simple. We don’t run things that are designed to gratuitously offend,’ Baquet told POLITICO…[I] don’t expect all to agree. But let’s not forget the Muslim family in Brooklyn who read us and is offended by any depiction of what he sees as his prophet. I don’t give a damn about the head of ISIS but I do care about that family and it is arrogant to ignore them.’”

Why didn’t he simply say that in response to Mr. Cooper instead of lapsing into distracting name-calling? 

Whenever a word like “asshole” is used by an executive, it’s almost certain to draw attention. That can be a mixed blessing. If it’s an issue the executive wants to become a big headline but is struggling to find any other way to make newsworthy, name-calling like this can actually be part of a strategic communications plan. I don’t suspect that was the case here.

 

Dean Baquet, photo via Doug Mills, The New York Times

Dean Baquet, photo via Doug Mills, The New York Times

 

Mr. Baquet also seemed to forget another cardinal rule: He should have treated his response as an opportunity to speak directly to other readers who shared Cooper’s position instead of treating it like a personal communication with Mr. Cooper.

Finally, I wonder what message this sends to his newsroom. On one hand, it’s easy to imagine that journalists who work for him deeply appreciate a boss who stands up for their editorial decisions. But on the other hand, I wonder if this gives license to reporters to engage with their critics in a similar manner, something I can’t imagine would be productive.

Baquet should expect criticism for these types of decisions. In my view, he should react to them by making his strongest case — which in this case, he had — and leave the swearing for his critics.

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Should Working Journalists Also Be Media Trainers?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 9, 2015 – 5:02 am

According to The Toronto Star, a Toronto news anchor has been suspended due to concerns about a possible conflict of interest:

“Global Television news anchor Leslie Roberts has been suspended from the network after a Toronto Star investigation found he is secretly the part owner of a small public relations firm whose clients — lawyers, small businesses and others — appear on his show.

Roberts helps clients with pitches and media training and has tweeted positive comments about some of the clients to his 20,000 followers on Twitter. In one instance, during a morning show on which supermarket shopping was being discussed, he blurted out the name of one of his firm’s clients and suggested viewers “check it out.” At no time did he disclose to viewers his connection to the companies or his public relations firm: BuzzPR.”

“‘At Global News we take matters of journalistic integrity very seriously,’ Global spokesperson Rishma Govani told the Star. ‘Mr. Roberts has been suspended from his duties indefinitely as we conduct a full investigation into this matter.’”

The Star presented its findings to Roberts early this week. Roberts said he had done nothing wrong but would resign from BuzzPR, the public relations firm he owns with a partner.”

Leslie Roberts

This post isn’t specifically about Mr. Roberts. Instead, I want to use this incident as a launching pad to a broader question: Should working journalists simultaneously serve clients as media trainers?

That’s not a theoretical question. I’m aware of firms who boast that their media trainers are working journalists. (I’m not disparaging those firms—at least one I know of that employs working journalists has a terrific reputation.)

From a client perspective, I can see the advantage of working with someone who’s still in the game. But how about from a journalism ethics perspective?

I suppose there are some exceptions for journalists who don’t train clients who fall within their coverage area. A sports reporter who trains a lifestyle expert, for example, probably wouldn’t raise too many flags—although I wonder if even that comes at too great a risk to the public perception of their journalistic neutrality.

But a general interest reporter who might be called upon to report on one of the people or businesses he or she has trained? How is that even remotely appropriate?

UPDATE: JANUARY 17, 2015

Mr. Roberts has resigned from Global Television. In a resignation letter, he wrote:

“I am resigning my position as News Anchor and Executive Editor of Global Toronto effective immediately. I regret the circumstances, specifically a failure to disclose information, which led to this outcome.

Over the past 15 years, I have worked within a news organization and among colleagues who are the best in the business. For that privilege, I will always be grateful.

Sincerely,

Leslie Roberts”

 



Fighting Back Against False Media Stories: Two Examples

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 8, 2015 – 5:02 am

In The Media Training Bible, I included a lesson called “Three Things To Do When You’re Falsely Accused.” One of my recommendations was to consider offering your own proof to rebut a reporter’s incorrect claims:

In some cases, there is a place for harder-edged tactics…That means you might hire a private investigator to look into the background of any accusers or conduct a “parallel” investigation to uncover facts that your critics aren’t finding—or are purposely ignoring.

I’ve seen two memorable examples of this recently—one conventional, the other more inventive.

Example One: North Carolina Governor Attacks The Press

Last month, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory accused The Associated Press of “malice” for its reporting about a stock payout he received from a company on whose board he once sat. (The AP stands by its reporting.)

That type of rhetoric isn’t particularly unusual—many politicians attack the press as often as they brush their teeth. But as WRAL.com reported, what made this attack stand out was “an eight-point refutation of the story and a 34-page critique of the reporter’s prior work.”

Pat McCrory

Among other points in his eight-point critique were these:

AP CLAIM: “However, more than a dozen securities lawyers and ethics experts told The Associated Press that such stock payouts are uncommon for elected officials, and raise significant concerns. These experts gave differing opinions about whether laws were broken.”

WHAT THE AP LEFT OUT: What “securities lawyers” and what “ethics experts?” Name them. Not one “expert” was named.

AP CLAIM: “AP reported that McCrory, a Duke retiree, held stock in the company as his administration made key regulatory decisions involving his former employer. Those decisions are now the subject of a federal criminal investigation.”

WHAT THE AP LEFT OUT: This is an outrageous accusation and this is absolutely incorrect – it is a false statement and was printed and published with malice. The AP is saying that the governor is under federal investigation and that is 100% false. Neither the governor nor anyone he hired has been subpoenaed as part of this investigation.

I don’t know the facts of this case well enough to form an educated opinion about who’s right—and I suspect the same is true for most readers. But this gets to another of the three recommendations I made in my book about defending against (what you believe to be) false charges: “Be ‘super’ open: The media tend to perceive those who talk as innocent and those who don’t as guilty.”

Sure, being this aggressive can be perceived by some as a form of defensiveness. But when compared to other potential responses—such as a “no comment” and a refusal to engage with the press—this is a far superior approach. 

 

Example Two: Walmart Responds to The New York Times

Walmart used a cheekier response last summer to rebut a New York Times column with which it disagreed. The response itself—an annotated version of the original column—was admired by some and loathed by others. Personally, I thought its originality put a more creative and attention-grabbing spin on rebutting false narratives.

Walmart Response

These aggressive responses can be a high-wire act, so they’re to be used judiciously and by PR professionals who can determine and manage the risks associated with them. But they can also be incredibly effective at muddying the waters by neutralizing a news article and leaving readers with the impression that there’s more to the story.

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Elected Official: I’ll Sue You If You Publish My Name

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 6, 2015 – 8:38 am

If you’re a reporter and want to write about an elected official, do you need to obtain permission from the politician in advance to include their name in your news story? 

Of course not. You could imagine the chilling effect on journalism if people elected to positions of power could shut down media inquiries they didn’t like by denying the reporter permission to write about them.

Kirby Delauter, a county council member in Frederick County, Maryland, doesn’t appear to agree. He took to his Facebook page yesterday to denounce a local reporter, Bethany Rodgers of The Frederick News-Post, because he “did not authorize any use of my name.” He also included this rather menacing line: “You need to know who you’re dealing with.”

To cap off his post, Mr. Delauter threatened to sue her: “Use my name again unauthorized and you’ll be paying for an attorney.”

Kirby Delauter

I’d like to give Mr. Delauter the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible that he doesn’t have a lot of media experience and truly believes that he has the right to prevent a journalist from using his name without his authorization. Therefore, I want to use this post to write something productive.

Sir, you have no legal standing on which to sue a journalist for using your name without authorization. In order for a public figure to prove libel, you would need to show that Ms. Rodgers knew her statements to be false or had a reckless disregard for the truth. That’s a legal standard that’s extremely difficult to meet.

As you’ve seen from the reaction to your Facebook post (which appears to have been deleted), you only helped to attract more attention to Ms. Rodgers’ original article; among others, The Washington Post has now helped to make this a national story. 

Kirby Delauter Photo

But you’re not without rights.

First, if Ms. Rodgers (or any other journalist) is going to write a story about you with or without your participation in it, you might consider granting her an interview—or at least providing her with a short written statement. Although it might seem paradoxical to exert control by speaking to a reporter you view as unfair, it may not be. The reason for that is something I call “The Rule of Thirds.” I made a video about that here.

If Ms. Rodgers is being unfair, as you assert, this post offers you seven things you can do to respond to a negative news story. To protect yourself, you can insist on only communicating in writing (so you can maintain a paper trail) or recording your interviews (some states require two-party notification before recording, so just tell her you’re recording). You can even call into question her fairness as a reporter by offering evidence that proves she has “lied,” as you stated she did. What you can’t do—at least not credibly—is threaten to sue her for mentioning your name.

There’s one other thing I’d ask you to consider. Whether you like it or not, The Frederick News-Post is going to continue to cover you. Therefore, think about what’s going to serve your interests over the months and years to come. It might be that reducing the antagonism between you and the newspaper serves you best; if so, you might consider requesting a meeting with Ms. Rodgers and her editor to discuss your complaints with the paper’s coverage, point out any inaccuracies, and establish a more productive future working relationship.

The point is that you do have some control here—but it needs to be exercised the right way to be effective. Good luck.

Facebook screenshot via Kai Hagen; photo from Kirby Delauter’s public campaign page.

UPDATE: JANUARY 7, 2015, 10PM

Mr. Delauter issued the following apology today to The Frederick News-Post. It strikes the right tone, appears authentic, and reflects an appropriate amount of self-awareness. It should help put this issue behind him.

“The first amendment is alive and well in Frederick County. As a public figure working to maintain and improve the county, it can be very frustrating to feel misrepresented or misinterpreted by a local media outlet.

Over my career I have fired off my fair share of angry e-mails, which in hindsight I wish I hadn’t.  I can’t think of one that had a positive effect.  Usually, they only served to escalate the conflict.  I thought I had long ago learned the lesson of waiting 24 hours before I hit the send key, but apparently I didn’t learn that lesson as well as I should have. 

Of course, as I am an elected official, the Frederick News-Post has the right to use my name in any article related to the running of the county — that comes with the job.  So yes, my statement to the Frederick News-Post regarding the use of my name was wrong and inappropriate. I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. 

I got elected to serve all the citizens of northern Frederick County, Democrats as well as Republicans.  I look forward to the local papers covering my effort in that regard.”

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Good PR: Nashville Police Chief’s Brilliant Response

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 5, 2015 – 6:01 am

In my home state of New York, tensions between many local residents and the New York City Police Department are running higher than they have in a long time. We’re far from alone: similar antagonisms exist in cities as far-flung as Ferguson, Oakland, and Boston.

Given that backdrop, the timing was particularly right for a tone-perfect communication between a police chief and the community he serves.

Nashville Chief of Police Steve Anderson had no way of knowing that a letter he wrote in reply to an upset resident would go viral (he included the letter in a Christmas message to his department). The resident, upset about local protestors who had shut down the Interstate, challenged the police department’s response. Chief Anderson responded to him directly in a letter that was direct, challenging, and occasionally confrontational—but also thoughtful, substantive, and polite. 

His letter serves as a good reminder that everything you write has the potential to spread. That can work against you, as we’ve seen in so many “social media fails,” but as the image below demonstrates, it can also represent you beautifully. If you missed this story during the holiday break, you’ll find the full message below.

 

Nashvilles Police Chief Great

 

Email Received

Chief Anderson,

I wanted to send you this email to express my frustration and outrage at how the situation of these protesters is being handled in Nashville. The first night protesters marched here after the incidents in Ferguson they never should have been allowed to shut down the interstate. Instead of at least threatening to arrest them, they were served coffee and hot chocolate. I don’t feel that is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. It sends a message that they can do whatever they want and will be rewarded. Then, this past week, more protesters march around downtown for 3 or more hours and once again, no arrests, and it took THP to keep them from getting on the interstate again. Saturday night, marching and “die ins” at Opry Mills mall. How long are we going to allow these people to disrupt our city?

I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks “Why are the police allowing this?” I wouldn’t have a good answer. If any other group of people wanted to march around the streets they would have to get a permit weeks or months in advance, and I know it’s not possible to get a permit to obstruct traffic and walk on the interstate.

Please understand I am not trying to disrespect you or your department, I just want myself and my family to feel that our city is safe, and right now we don’t feel that way. Is this going to be allowed to continue until someone gets hurt? Protection of the city should be coming from MNPD, not THP. I also understand that you get direction from the mayor’s office, but these actions are putting the department at disharmony from the majority of the citizens. At some point you are going to have to answer this question to yourself – “Am I following or giving orders that help or hurt the community?” In closing, if these recent actions have been due to pressure from the mayor’s office, please reach out to the people of Nashville, there are many who will gladly contact the mayor’s office as well.

Sincerely, ________   __________

 

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson

 

Reply to Email

Mr. _____________

While I certainly appreciate your offer to intercede on my behalf with our Mayor, you should know that the Mayor has not issued any order, directive or instruction on the matter with which you take issue.  All decisions concerning the police department’s reaction to the recent demonstrations have been made within the police department and approved by me.  Therefore, any reasons or rationale supporting your proposal as what would be the best approach for all of Nashville, and not just a method of utilizing the police department to enforce a personal agenda, should be directed to me.

In that your thoughts deserve consideration, I will attempt to address some of the issues you have raised:

• “Has consideration been given as to whether the response of the police department “help or hurt the community.”

It is our view that every decision made within the police department should be made with the community in mind.  Obviously, there are some matters in which we have no discretion.  On matters in which we do have discretion, careful consideration is given as to the best course of action, always with the welfare of the general public in mind.

That has been the consideration on this issue.  Certainly, in comparing the outcome here in Nashville with what has occurred in some other cities, the results speak for themselves.  I stand on the decisions that have been made.

• “These actions are putting the department at disharmony from the majority of the citizens.”

While I don’t doubt that you sincerely believe that your thoughts represent the majority of citizens, I would ask you to consider the following before you chisel those thoughts in stone.

As imperfect humans, we have a tendency to limit our association with other persons to those persons who are most like us.  Unfortunately, there is even more of a human tendency to stay within our comfort zone by further narrowing those associations to those persons who share our thoughts and opinions.  By doing this we can avoid giving consideration to thoughts and ideas different than our own.  This would make us uncomfortable.  By considering only the thoughts and ideas we are in agreement with, we stay in our comfort zone.  Our own biases get reinforced and reflected back at us leaving no room for any opinion but our own.  By doing this, we often convince ourselves that the majority of the world shares opinion and that anyone with another opinion is, obviously, wrong. 

It is only when we go outside that comfort zone, and subject ourselves to the discomfort of considering thoughts we don’t agree with, that we can make an informed judgment on any matter.  We can still disagree and maintain our opinions, but we can now do so knowing that the issue has been given consideration from all four sides.  Or, if we truly give fair consideration to all points of view, we may need to swallow our pride and amend our original thoughts.

And, it is only by giving consideration to the thoughts of all persons, even those that disagree with us, that we can have an understanding as to what constitutes a majority.

• “I just want myself and my family to feel that our city is safe, and right now we don’t feel that way.”

I have to admit, I am somewhat puzzled by this announcement.  None of the demonstrators in this city have in any way exhibited any propensity for violence or indicated, even verbally, that they would harm anyone.  I can understand how you may feel that your ideologies have been questioned but I am not aware of any occurrence that would give reason for someone to feel physically threatened.

• “I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks “Why are the police allowing this?” I wouldn’t have a good answer.”

It is somewhat perplexing when children are injected into the conversation as an attempt to bolster a position or as an attempt to thwart the position of another.  While this is not the type of conversation I ordinarily engage in, here are some thoughts you may find useful as you talk with your son.

First, it is laudable that you are teaching your son respect for the police and other authority figures.  However, a better lesson might be that it is the government the police serve that should be respected.  The police are merely a representative of a government formed by the people for the people—for all people.  Being respectful of the government would mean being respectful of all persons, no matter what their views.

Later, it might be good to point out that the government needs to be, and is, somewhat flexible, especially in situations where there are minor violations of law.  A government that had zero tolerance for even minor infractions would prove unworkable in short order.

Although this is unlikely, given your zero tolerance stance, suppose that, by accident or perhaps inattention, you found yourself going 40 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour zone and that you were stopped by a police officer.  Then, after making assurances that licenses were in order and that there were no outstanding warrants, the officer asked you not to speed again and did not issue a citation, but merely sent you on your way.

As you have suggested, a question may come to you from the back seat, “How can I respect the police if they will not enforce the law?”  In the event this does occur, here are some facts that might help you answer that question.

In the year 2013, our officers made over four hundred thousand vehicle stops, mostly for traffic violations.  A citation was issued in only about one in six of those stops.  Five of the six received warnings.  This is the police exercising discretion for minor violations of the law.  Few, if any, persons would argue that the police should have no discretion.

This is an explanation you might give your son.  Take into account, however, that the innocence of children can produce the most profound and probing questions.  They often see the world in a very clear and precise manner, their eyes unclouded by the biases life gives us.  This could produce the next question.  “If you believe that the police should enforce the law at all times, why didn’t you insist that the officer write you a ticket?”

I don’t have a suggestion as to how that should be answered.

I do know, however, that this is a very diverse city.  Nashville, and all of America, will be even more diverse when your son becomes an adult.  Certainly, tolerance, respect and consideration for the views of all persons would be valuable attributes for him to take into adulthood.

Mr. ______, thank you for taking the time to express your position on this matter.  I assure that your thoughts will be given all due consideration.  We will continue, however, to make decisions, on this and all matters, that take into account what is best for all of Nashville.

Steve Anderson
Chief of Police

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ESPN Anchor Stuart Scott’s Moving Speech

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 4, 2015 – 11:35 am

Stuart Scott, the ESPN anchor who died of cancer today at age 49, delivered a speech in July of last year that moved me to tears.

The speech was raw and honest—it was clear that he knew death was upon him—but he used the moment to uplift others and acknowledge those who carried his fight when he couldn’t.

I particularly appreciated his words about “beating” cancer. Language matters, and I always bristle a little when I hear well-intentioned people using lines like, “She lost her battle with cancer” or “He beat cancer.” Those phrases have always implied to me that people with enough character and will can beat the disease while those lacking those traits will inevitably die. That, of course, is not the case.

Stuart Scott

Two decades ago, basketball coach Jim Valvano offered seven unforgettable words as he, too, was dying: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” In this speech, Scott added a few important lines that I hope are similarly remembered decades from now: “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by why you live, how you live, and the manner in which you live.”

You’ll find his complete speech from July 2014 below.

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The Three Worst Video Media Disasters Of 2014

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 31, 2014 – 4:02 am

It’s hard to believe, but this is the fifth consecutive year I’m naming the worst video media disaster of the year. 

In 2010, the award went to British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward, who told cameras “I’d like my life back” after his company’s massive oil spill killed 11 workers.

In 2011, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) nabbed the award, for obvious reasons.

In 2012, Senate candidate Todd Akin (R-MO) became notorious for his claim that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

In 2013, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford nabbed the prize for making a vulgar comment about oral sex.

Who will join their ranks this year? Read on…

 

Disaster Strikes

 

 

3. Bill Cosby’s Crisis Management Backfires

If Bill Cosby is innocent of the 20 or so accusations of rape and sexual assault being leveled against him, he is engaged in one of the worst reputation management strategies in recent memory.

Bill Cosby AP Screenshot

Cosby’s media interviewing downfall began when he agreed to speak with NPR about his art collection. But when the interviewer asked him about the accusations, Cosby refused to speak, forcing the host to repeatedly inform listeners that his guest was simply shaking his head back and forth.

Shortly thereafter, The Associated Press released video of Cosby refusing to answer questions about the accusations on camera—and trying to intimidate the reporter by invoking his “integrity” and insisting that they “scuttle” that part of the interview. In so doing, the once-beloved television icon demonstrated how he exercises power behind the scenes.

It’s impossible to see how the 77-year-old reclaims his career and restores his reputation. His scheduled NBC program has been canceled, Netflix pulled a comeback special, and concert venues pulled out of scheduled stand-up dates. At this point, the accused serial rapist might consider himself lucky to be living life outside a prison cell.

 

2. Michael Bay Flees The Stage

This entry is less consequential than the other two on this list. But when Michael Bay—the director and producer whose films include Armageddon, Transformers, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—had a technical failure during a January speech at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, he lived the public speaking nightmare that keeps so many people up at night.

Bay fumbled when he realized his teleprompter wasn’t in the right place. And without a scriptwriter nearby, Bay was at a complete loss. So he stopped. And restarted. And stopped again. And then, when all else failed, he walked off the stage, accompanied only by a mumbled “I’m sorry.”

This one is painful to watch. (And credit goes to his interviewer, who tried to bail him out and treated the moment with respect.)

 

 

1. Donald Sterling’s Racist Tirade

When Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape making racist comments about black basketball players, many people—including me—were conflicted about the violation of his privacy (the recordings were made without his knowledge). His comments were loathsome, but few of us would want our private comments to be leaked to the world.

All of those concerns flew out the window, however, when Sterling voluntarily agreed to an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. His feckless apology led quickly to another burst of racist comments, such as this one:

“Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people. And some of the African Americans, maybe I’ll get in trouble again, they don’t want to help anybody.”

He also took the opportunity to attack NBA legend Magic Johnson (who announced he was HIV positive in 1991) by insisting Johnson was a bad role model:

“Here is a man who…acts so holy. I mean he made love to every girl in every city in America. And he had AIDS, and when he had those AIDS, I went to my synagogue and I prayed for him…Is he an example for children?”

Shortly after this interview, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he would force Sterling to sell the team. By the summer, Mr. Sterling was no longer the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

 

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#1: Best Of The Mr. Media Training Blog 2014

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 29, 2014 – 6:02 am

This post, “Why You Should Avoid Othello’s Error,” was published on April 3, 2014.

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello is tricked into believing that his wife, Desdemona, cheated on him with his Lieutenant. When he confronts Desdemona, she weeps—a sign, Othello concludes, of her guilt. In a rage, Othello murders her, only to learn shortly thereafter that she hadn’t committed adultery after all.

Othello made the mistake of assuming that he understood the source of Desdemona’s anguish. He assumed that his wife’s sobs when confronted were a sign of her guilt; he didn’t understand that her grief was rooted not in guilt, but in her knowledge that there was no way to convince her husband of her innocence.

That tragic mistake—what psychologist Paul Ekman dubbed “Othello’s Error”—teaches us that just because someone exhibits an emotion doesn’t mean we understand the root cause. “Emotional signals don’t tell us what brought them forth,” Ekman writes in Emotions Revealed.

 

The Death of Desdemona by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix

The Death of Desdemona by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix

 

As an example, let’s say you’re about to deliver a talk and you’re feeling nervous about the proposal you have to present. You believe that a few people in the room actively oppose your idea, so you’ve prepared rebuttal arguments just to be safe.

During your presentation, you notice a man in the front row—a key decision-maker—who’s furrowing his brow and crossing his arms. He looks unhappy with your proposal, confirming your worst fears.

At the end of your talk, he approaches you to thank you for your talk and ask you a question about how he can follow up with you. “I’m surprised you’re interested,” you say. “I was convinced that you didn’t like my proposal because you looked skeptical.” “Nah,” he says. “My wife tells me I look that way when I’m thinking. I thought your proposal made sense all along.”

That type of scenario happens all the time. And it happens, in part, because we’re conditioned to see that which we expect. According to Dr. Ekman:

“Our emotional state, our attitudes, our expectations, what we want to believe, even what we don’t want to believe can all bias how we interpret an expression or more specifically what we think caused the emotion shown by the expression.”

Emotions Revealed Paul Ekman Book Cover

In other words, if we’re nervous about an audience when presenting, we’re more likely to interpret a man’s “thinking” face as his “disgusted” face. We’re more likely to assume that his seemingly disinterested expression means that we’ve failed to persuade him. We’ve committed Othello’s Error.

Othello’s Error doesn’t mean you should stop trying to read your audiences. You can often glean important clues about their moods and attitudes by remaining attentive to nonverbal cues. But it does suggest that before solidifying any assumption that they’re against you, you should ask a clarifying question instead (“It looks like a lot of people are thinking hard about this proposal. May I ask what you’re thinking about or what questions you might have?”).

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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