Nathan Gonzales, an old friend and colleague who serves as the Deputy Editor of the well-regarded Rothenberg Political Report, recently sent me an interesting theory:
“Here is a working hypothesis for politicians: The more stupid things you say, the more leeway you are allowed. Basically, if you have a reputation for being a straight talker or saying politically incorrect things, then you are allowed to say politically incorrect things.”
He included two examples—Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), whose recent remarks to an Asian Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas generated some unflattering headlines—and Vice President Joe Biden, who Nathan calls “probably the best example of this.”
Although Nathan sent me his theory a few weeks ago, Biden helped validate it on Tuesday by committing yet another of his infamous gaffes.
According to Yahoo News:
“Vice President Joe Biden drew fire from a prominent Jewish group on Tuesday after he described unscrupulous bankers who prey on servicemen and servicewomen deployed overseas as ‘Shylocks’ — a term frequently condemned as an anti-Semitic caricature.
‘Shylock represents the medieval stereotype about Jews and remains an offensive characterization to this day. The Vice President should have been more careful,’ Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said.”
Biden compounded his error by also referring to Asia as “The Orient” earlier this week which, as ABC News noted, “is considered widely outdated and could be perceived as offensive, or insensitive, especially when used in reference to people.”
It’s not just Harry Reid and Joe Biden, of course—examples on the political right include flamethrowers like these two Texas congressmen: Rep. Louie Gohmert (sample quote: “[The Obama] administration has so many Muslim Brotherhood members that have influence that they just are making wrong decisions for America.”) and Rep. Steve Stockman (sample quote: “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted.”).
Nathan is onto something. These politicians—all of whom commit gaffes and/or say outrageous things with some regularity—seem to at least partially inoculate themselves from future criticism for subsequent gaffes since they’ve already created an expectation of committing such gaffes. (For example, many people are likely to greet a Biden gaffe at this point with a shoulder shrug and a half-hearted “Ah, that’s just Biden.”)
To stick with Biden-as-case-study, I suspect many people like his style (he’s a straight-shooter who doesn’t spin me) while others view him as thoroughly undisciplined. Most people have already chosen their side by this point, meaning Biden’s gaffes are already baked into his approval rating, as are those of the other politicians mentioned in this post, and many others who aren’t.
Would I recommend this “gaffe inoculation” as a purposeful strategy? No. Few people can make it work for themselves long term without their gaffes and outrageousness backfiring on them. But does it work for many public officials? The answer, for better or worse, appears to be yes.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Since starting my company in 2004, I’ve never been late to a training or speaking engagement. I take my obligation to clients seriously, and I do what I must to ensure that I’ll be in the front of the room, on time and well prepared, as I’ve been contracted to be.
A few years ago, I even drove through the night from New York to Columbus, Ohio (562 miles) when my flight was canceled due to inclement weather and the airline couldn’t guarantee an alternate flight that would get me to my training on time. (My wife wasn’t thrilled with my decision, and in hindsight, driving through a snowstorm might not have been the smartest call.)
Fast forward to last week, when I was slated to speak to a group of about 35 financial professionals in Boston. Here’s what happened.
I was due to begin my speech at 1:00 p.m. I booked an Acela (Amtrak’s fast train, which I take frequently and has a good track record of on-time arrivals) that would have had me in Boston (from New York) by 11:25 a.m. If everything ran on time, I would have arrived to the client site by 11:50 a.m.
Because I know things go wrong during travel, I gave myself an hour of buffer time. Clearly, that wasn’t enough. My train arrived almost two hours late. I missed my own presentation.
My client was more forgiving than they needed to be—I would have understood if they had expressed their disappointment in me—but I felt awful and have been beating myself up since. (They rescheduled the speech for two hours later, and fortunately, most of the attendees were able to make it at the later time.)
As I reflect on what went wrong and try to prevent it from happening again, it seems that I have three options:
1. I could count it as a fluke and change nothing
I could view this as a mere fluke—an anomaly that’s occurred only once in a decade of travel. (I’ve had many flight delays through the years, but always allowed sufficient time.) After all, what I owe clients is an honest effort to fulfill my obligations to them—and if there are unexpected travel delays that couldn’t reasonably be anticipated, I shouldn’t be held accountable.
2. I could take an earlier train
On the surface, this probably seems like the most obvious option. But I would have had to wake up by 5:00 a.m. to make an earlier train, and I calculated that I would be too exhausted to be at the top of my speaking game by the afternoon. My general preference is to balance a reasonable amount of buffer time with sufficient sleep—but perhaps I’m being a bit too precious about my sleep.
3. I could travel the day before
This, too, may seem like an obvious choice. But if I travel the day before, it means I lose yet another night with my wife and toddler son. If it seems necessary to travel the day before to make it on time, I’ll happily do it—but for shorter-distance travel with an afternoon start time, I try to avoid doing so.
Reader Bob LeDrew recently made me aware of a media interview featuring a Toronto School Board trustee named Sam Sotiropoulos. (By the way, what is the deal with Toronto public officials lately?)
Mr. Sotiropoulos generated some controversy late last month when he sent out the following tweet:
Shortly thereafter, a reporter from Canada’s Global News interviewed Mr. Sotiropoulos about his incendiary comments. The interview was an utter disaster and is worth watching in its entirety.
As I watched this interview—which lasted almost nine excruciating minutes—I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t he walk away already? Does this man not have feet?”
It’s clear that Sotiropoulos thought his rapier wit was winning the interview, but he appeared blithely unaware that he was coming across as a smug dope who failed to score a single point.
Among the tactics he tried were:
- Repeating the same talking point almost verbatim numerous times
- Giving the reporter the silent treatment
- Denying that he had sent another controversial tweet that had appeared in his timeline
- Telling the reporter that while he could speak about his current tweet, he couldn’t discuss previous and related tweets he had sent
- Attacking the reporter for suggesting that there is a stigma attached to mental illness
- Claiming that his tweet was not expressing an opinion, but merely reserving the right to “form” an opinion
His last point was particularly disingenuous. He refused to acknowledge that his inference that transgenderism may be a form of mental illness could reasonably be read as a suggestion that it is. (For the record, the American Psychiatric Association ruled that “gender dysphoria” is not, by itself, a mental illness.) Using his logic, it would be completely fair of me to tweet the following:
But doing so would be a smear, and Satiropoulos would have a right to be upset at my inference. (I preceded and followed that tweet, sent yesterday, with an explanation that it was intended only as part of this story, not as a personal attack.)
Mr. Satiropoulos is entitled to his views, but he shouldn’t have sent his tweets if he was unprepared to defend them. For the same reason, he shouldn’t have agreed to an on-camera interview; a written statement would have served him far better.
Instead, he agreed to an on-camera interview without a time limit, during which he committed at least half a dozen interview errors. But of all his interview sins, the one that demonstrated his lack of judgment most is that he stood there like a punching bag instead of having the sense to end the interview and walk away.
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I’ve received hundreds of calls from potential new clients. Most of them come from executives, directors, or managers—but about once per month, the person who calls for an estimate tells me that he or she is an intern for their company. Their boss has instructed them to call a few media training firms for bids; after receiving them, the boss will presumably screen the proposals and follow up with the companies they’re most interested in.
At first glance, that may seem like an efficient and logical approach. But it’s often counterproductive.
To be clear, I have enormous respect for almost all of the interns I’ve ever worked with. I’ve invested hundreds of hours in providing interns with responsibilities that help them grow in their burgeoning careers.
But in my experience—and through no fault of their own—the intern (or other junior employee) calling me usually doesn’t know some critical details. Sometimes, they lack basic information, such as the number of trainees or the purpose of the training. Other times, they’re unable to answer useful diagnostic questions, such as “What are the communications challenges the people you’re interested in training face?” or “Does your company already have a crisis communications plan in place?”
If the person has only been a part-time intern for a couple of months—or if they’re a full-time employee who’s out of the loop—there’s really no way they could possibly possess the historical background to be able to answer such questions.
But without such basic information, it’s difficult for any firm to write a smart, targeted proposal that truly meets the needs of the client. It’s tough to know how much time we should recommend for a session—or what type of follow-up work we should advise—without knowing their main topics of concern. And it’s impossible to suggest a tailored training strategy without having the context that allows us to develop one.
If we’re asked to provide a proposal while receiving only cryptic information, we’ll usually write one anyway. There’s no reason to rule ourselves out of consideration when an interested company representative—be it an intern or a top executive—contacts us for details about our offerings.
But I’d recommend that executives and managers take the time to place the initial calls themselves. Their description of their training need will determine the quality of the proposals they receive. Many times, I learn something through that initial call that significantly changes the approach I recommend, which will help the potential client make a more informed choice. Sometimes, I’ve even found that the potential client doesn’t fully know what they’re looking for until we speak; our conversation helps to solidify their thinking.
What’s your opinion? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
A couple of our clients recently faced a similar situation. They were both pitching an idea to an important audience (a board of directors and an influential community group) and didn’t know how the audience would react to their recommendations.
In an ideal world, they would have been able to get a sense of their audience’s sentiments prior to speaking, but that wasn’t a reliable option in these cases.
As they practiced their talks, it became clear to us that they’d need to create two versions of their closings—one if their audiences supported their pitch, and another if their audiences were more skeptical.
That “just in case” closing was an important tool for both speakers to have at the ready, and it prevented both speakers from being caught off guard or closing with a discordant ending.
As an example, here’s the “supportive” closing, which would be delivered after the Q&A period:
“For all of the reasons we’ve discussed today, I am confident that this proposal is the best option to help us achieve our core goals. Not only will this vendor’s software keep better track of our donors, but the software’s sophistication has led to increased fundraising—in some cases, dramatically so—for similar not-for-profit groups. As a next step, I will schedule a meeting with the vendor to get some hard numbers, after which I will report back to you with my recommended approach.”
Here’s an example of the “just in case” closing:
“After surveying the options available to our organization, I remain confident that this vendor is the best choice to help us accomplish our core goals. But your questions make clear that we need more information before making any commitments. As a next step, I will schedule a meeting with the vendor to get some of those answers, after which I will report back to you with their responses and my recommended next steps.”
Those two closings aren’t dramatically different—but if you delivered the first one to a group that challenged your recommendation, you would risk looking tone-deaf. Therefore, consider creating a “just in case” closing if you believe there’s a chance that your audience may not be ready to fully embrace your idea.
Want to learn more about public speaking? Check out our recommended reading list!
By now, you may have heard about the controversial tweets Cee Lo Green—the Grammy Award-winning singer and former host of NBC’s The Voice—sent after pleading no contest late last month to a disturbing charge leveled against him.
According to MTV, Green “entered a plea of no contest for the felony count of furnishing a controlled substance of MDMA/ecstasy to a woman without her awareness during a dinner in 2012.” MTV’s report continues:
“According to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, Green slipped the drug to a 33-year-old woman while the two were at a restaurant…the woman, who hasn’t been named, alleged that she woke up to find herself naked in bed with Green in her hotel room.”
Green would have had enough of a challenge restoring his reputation after pleading no contest to drugging a woman and being accused of rape.
But the tweets he sent last week—particularly the one below that Green quickly deleted but other Twitter users shared—turned a tough crisis management issue into a career-threatening one:
In this tweet captured by BuzzFeed, Green reinforced that view, appearing to suggest that a woman who is drugged cannot, by definition, be raped.
Green later apologized, but in a manner that tried to distance himself from his words (the comments weren’t “attributed” to him—he made them).
Green has paid a heavy price since this controversy erupted. His reality show on TBS, The Good Life, was canceled. He was also removed from the lineup at a Louisiana music festival and from another concert sponsored by the U.S. Navy.
All of that gets me back to the headline of this post, which asks this question: Should you “get approval” before tweeting or posting to social media when you’re immersed in a crisis?
By approval, I don’t mean that you have to obtain approval from some central authority, but rather that you form a voluntary agreement between yourself and someone else—a manager, an agent, a spouse, a trusted business partner—that you won’t post anything on social media until you receive and consider their feedback.
Had Green done that, any manager, agent, or partner should have had the sense to tell him to sign off and walk away for a while. Instead, he tweeted in the heat of emotion, when his rational brain didn’t prevent him from compounding his original acts of terrible judgment.
My suggestion for those who find themselves in crisis mode? Don’t post anything to social media without seeking the opinion of a trusted ally first.
Cee Lo doesn’t have to listen to me. It’s just too bad he didn’t listen to his own lyrics from his hit song “Crazy”: “Think twice, that’s my only advice.”
The Islamic militant group ISIS released a video on Tuesday showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff.
At about the same moment, a PR team representing the Fox television show Sleepy Hollow sent out a media pitch promoting the impending release of the program’s first season on DVD.
The media pitch, as captured by the excellent media website JimRomenesko.com, is below.
From: JJ Mariani (email@example.com)
Date: Tue, Sep 2, 2014 at 12:49 PM
Subject: Sleepyheads Celebrate Headless Day – eCards Available
Heads will roll as sleepyheads celebrate Headless Day today, September 2. On this National Beheading Day, viewers everywhere can share in the fun as fans prepare for the release of Sleepy Hollow: Season One on Digital HD now and arriving on Blu-ray and DVD September 16.
We hope you like them and are able to share them with your readers! If you share via your social media platforms, please tag them with #HeadlessDay!
Just 90 minutes later—after realizing their bad timing—the PR team sent an apology:
We apologize for the unfortunate timing of our Sleepy Hollow Headless Day announcement. The tragic news of Steven Sotloff’s death hit the web as the email was being sent.
Our deepest sympathies are with him and his family, and we don’t take the news lightly.
Had we have known this information prior, we would have never released the alert and realize it’s in poor taste.
Please accept our sincerest apologies.
Sleepy Hollow Team
Read that apology again. The Sleepy Hollow PR team is blaming the incident on bad timing—how could we have known an American journalist would be slain at about the same moment we clicked the “send” button?
But claiming to be a victim of bad timing is laughably false. Days before Mr. Sotloff’s execution, his mother released a highly publicized anguished plea to spare her son from being beheaded, as ISIS had warned he would be. And just two weeks ago, American journalist James Foley was also beheaded by ISIS, cause enough for this ad campaign to have been jettisoned.
It’s possible that the PR team wasn’t up on the news and wasn’t aware of these beheadings. But even if that’s the case—and I suspect I’m giving them and the executives who approved these ads far too much credit—anyone dealing with such gruesome material should, at the very least, have done a quick Google search before hitting send.
The PR team apologized for the wrong thing. They weren’t victims of bad timing but of their own terrible judgment. And until they acknowledge that, their apology accomplishes nothing.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Last week, an audio technician for the television program Cops was killed by friendly fire while filming a robbery at a Wendy’s in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Omaha police chief, Todd Schmaderer, delivered an almost perfect press conference—one that stands in marked contrast to the shameful media interactions in Ferguson, Missouri—that should be studied by PR professionals as a terrific example of how to communicate in crisis.
PR pro Dave Statter, who writes the excellent STATter911 blog (and wrote about this story first), called this “one of the most effective and timely presentations following a police involved shooting I’ve witnessed.” He’s right.
Chief Schmaderer did many things right in this press conference. Below, you’ll find the five things that stood out to me most.
1. He Struck The Perfect Emotional Tone
Chief Schmaderer spoke in human terms throughout the press conference, saying, “It’s as if we lost one of our own…the tears and the hugs that I got when I got to the hospital, I could feel the pain of the officers.”
When asked whether he regretted his decision to allow Cops to film in Omaha, he gave a genuinely reflective answer, one that indicated that he had spent some time agonizing about that question: “Personally, I’ll have to live with this forever.”
In a particularly classy move, he expressed condolences not only to the Cops production member who was killed, but to the family of the suspect, who was also killed during this incident.
2. He Treated The Media As An Ally
Chief Schmaderer treated the media with complete respect—and in return, the press treated him with complete respect. He also set the rules up front, asking reporters to identify themselves, instructing them to speak loudly enough for the microphones to pick up their questions, and letting them know he intended to begin with local reporters.
When he inadvertently skipped a reporter, he expressed remorse: “I want to make sure the Omaha World-Herald gets a question, I can’t believe I forgot you Maggie, I’m so sorry.”
3. He Was Completely Open
Early in the press conference, the Chief said that, “We are striving for unprecedented transparency in this incident.” He lived up that pledge, giving an extended opening statement filled with specific detail and answering every question directly.
When he was unable to answer a question due to the legal process, he used a technique I call commenting without commenting: “While I can’t show the video—it’s evidence and it’s needed for the Grand Jury—we did provide still photos to show what the officers had encountered to the best of our ability.”
4. He Got In Front Of a Potential Controversy
The suspect who was killed by the officer’s bullet(s) was carrying an Airsoft Gun which, according to Wikipedia, is a replica “designed to be non-lethal.” Chief Schmaderer appeared to be aware that headlines could read something like, “Suspect With Fake Gun Killed By Police,” so he showed photos of that replica gun to make clear that responding officers had no way of knowing whether or not it was real.
5. He Conveyed a Sense of Complete Competence
Chief Schmaderer’s tone-perfect performance gave me—and likely many other people—confidence that he’s the right person to lead this investigation professionally.
That leads to an important point about crisis press conferences: Press conferences often serve as a proxy for how competent a spokesperson is not only as a communicator, but behind the scenes as a leader. Leaders who are great at the behind the scenes portion of their jobs—but who are not great public communicators—may be perceived as lousy leaders. Chief Schmaderer, on the other hand, earned the benefit of the doubt and, as Dave Statter wrote, will “ultimately have a positive impact on the reputation of the Omaha Police Department.”
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