Media Disaster: Just Walk Away Already!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 14, 2014 – 3:19 pm

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:

Sam Sotiropoulos 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:

Sam Satiropoulos Tweet Mr Media Training

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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May 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 29, 2014 – 2:35 pm

This was the worst media apology I’ve ever seen.

L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling—who was caught on tape telling his girlfriend not to be photographed or attend basketball games with black people—attempted to apologize during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. 

Sterling did apologize. But he also took the opportunity to attack Magic Johnson for getting “those AIDS” and made new racist remarks by claiming that wealthy African Americans “don’t want” to help their own communities like Jews do.

I already deconstructed Sterling’s pathetic interview earlier this month. But as I’ve continued to think about this case, one additional point is worth making.

It’s important to remember that the comments that originally got Sterling into trouble were covertly recorded during a private conversation. Many public figures spanning the full ideological spectrum—though disgusted by his comments—were deeply concerned about the privacy issues in this case.

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote:

“Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way? Although the impact is similar to Mitt Romney’s comments that were secretly taped, the difference is that Romney was giving a public speech. The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime.”

Conservative pundit Bernard Goldberg made a similar point:

“I’m wondering who else among us has said things in the privacy of our homes that would get us in trouble if somebody recorded them and made our remarks public.”

And liberal comedian Bill Maher agreed:

“Last week when President Obama was asked about the Sterling episode, he said, ‘When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, just let them talk.’ But Sterling didn’t advertise. He was bugged. And while he may not be worth defending, the 4th Amendment is.”

But with his interview, Sterling erased that entire argument.

Donald Sterling Anderson Cooper

Sterling could have argued that because his comments were made in private and (possibly) illegally taped, he shouldn’t have to sell his team or endure a lifetime ban. But since he willingly made additional racist remarks during his very public televised interview with Anderson Cooper, that line of argument evaporated.

Sterling’s decision to do this interview without the presence of legal or public relations counsel was stunningly reckless. That he chose to do it at all sealed his fate as a racist.

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January 2014: The Five Worst Video Media Disasters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 30, 2014 – 6:02 am

2014 is off to a booming start—at least as it applies to media disasters.

Among other uncomfortable moments, this month’s list features a violent politician, a tone-deaf CEO, and a journalist who had a very exciting “breaking news” story to cover.

Without further ado, here are the five worst video media disasters of January 2014!

Oops Sign

 

Number Five: Another Month, Another Drunk Rob Ford Video

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford needs help. His well-documented struggle with alcohol and some-time drug use has produced more than a few embarrassing moments, including one I named the worst media disaster of 2013. In this month’s entry, Mr. Ford was caught slurring his words in a Toronto restaurant, sounding something like a Jamaican version of Saturday Night Live’s Drunk Uncle.  

 

Number Four: I’ll Sip Some Water During Your Water Outage

Gary Southern, the president of West Virginia’s Freedom Industries (the company responsible for contaminating the local water supply for 300,000 residents), delivered a dreadful first press conference. Although much of it was a mess, most of the media coverage focused on his unfortunate habit of sipping bottled water throughout the press conference—a strange message to send considering that hundreds of thousands were without water.

That wasn’t the only problem with his press conference. Click here to read about an odd moment in which a reporter demanded that Southern return to the microphones.

 

Number Three: We Have an Important “Breaking News” Story

MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell was having an important conversation about the NSA with a former congresswoman when she abruptly cut off the conversation to report some “breaking news.” 

What was the breaking news? Well, this one you have to watch for yourself. Just try to do it without shaking your head.

 

Number Two: I’ll Break You In Half. Like a Boy.

When a reporter asked Staten Island Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY) about an ethics scandal moments after the State of the Union, Grimm ended the interview abruptly. But after the reporter wrapped the piece—and Grimm presumably thought they were no longer on camera—he approached the reporter and issued a violent threat. (The fact that Grimm is a former FBI agent added a particularly menacing quality to his threat.)

The audio is tough to hear—but Grimm tells him:

“Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again, I’ll throw you off this fucking balcony…You’re not a man. I could break you in half.” 

Grimm’s on-camera threat inspired other reporters to resurrect Grimm’s ethical charges. His threat—not the reporter’s fair question—put his scandal back into the headlines.

 

Number One: A Famous Film Director Flees The Stage

Michael Bay—the director and producer whose films include Armageddon, Transformers, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—had a real-life horror moment during the opening seconds of a speech he was set to deliver at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month.

When he hit the stage, 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.”

Bay has created a lot of cringe-worthy scenes in his career. But none have been this difficult to watch.

Learn from his mistake by clicking here to see five things Bay could have done to rescue that moment.

 

Bonus: Actress Jacqueline Bisset Accepts an Award

Actress Jacqueline Bisset waited 47 years to win her first Golden Globe, so it’s easy to understand why she became overwhelmed when finally awarded the coveted prize. But there’s a fine line between “excited” and “bizarre”—and her acceptance speech was so loopy that the anchors of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” took notice.

The real version:

 

Saturday Night Live’s version:

 

 

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The Three Worst Video Media Disasters of 2013

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 2, 2014 – 5:22 am

It’s not easy to be named the worst video media disaster of the year. Someone has to do something spectacularly dumb to receive the honor.

In 2010, the award went to BP 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.”

Who will join their ranks this year? Read on…

Disaster Strikes

Number Three: Lance Armstrong Rides Into Infamy

After years of denying doping allegations, suing former teammates, and bullying everyone who got in his way, cycling champion Lance Armstrong finally admitted what many people already knew: that he was a dishonest cheat.

Armstrong selected Oprah Winfrey for his on-air confessional, a lengthy interview aired on two consecutive nights. But Armstrong’s carefully parsed and evasive responses did more harm than good, leaving an indelible impression that he was still being untruthful (Oprah even asked whether he was a sociopath). 

For example, Armstrong denied doping after 2005. But evidence presented by the USADA suggests he doped through 2009; if true, he lied during his admission. 

CYCLING-ARMSTRONG/

One of his lowest moments came when discussing a phone call with Betsy Andreu, wife of cyclist Frankie Andreu. When recounting the phone call, Armstrong seemed to find it funny that although he admitted calling her “crazy” and “a bitch,” he didn’t call her “fat.” He grinned at his apparent wit, as if he was a mischievous kid who thought his cruelty was somehow funny.

In another stunning moment, he admitted that he couldn’t remember everyone he had sued because he had sued so many people.

A Survey USA poll taken shortly after the interview found that only 17 percent of respondents thought he was being completely honest. Those are probably the same people who tell pollsters the U.S. Congress is doing a good job.

In the clip below, Armstrong tells Oprah that he “deserves” to be allowed to compete again.

 

Number Two: Paula Deen Cooks Up Trouble

Paula Deen, the Food Network’s southern-cooking celebrity chef, found herself in hot water (or, more appropriate to her style of cooking, a vat of butter and lard) in June after The National Enquirer released details of racist remarks she’s made in the past.

During a legal deposition in a workplace discrimination suit, Deen admitted using the N-word in the past and making racist jokes.

Paula Deen

But the most shocking moment may have come when she admitted that she wanted to emulate a wedding she had recently attended in which the wait staff was made up of  “middle-aged black men.” That wedding, she said, evoked fond feelings for her of a Civil War-era “really southern plantation wedding.”

Deen made the mistake of waiting two days to apologize personally—and when she did, her apology (her first of several) was a mess—one of the worst I’ve ever seen.

A few days later, Ms. Deen sobbed through a bizarre, out-of-control, and uncomfortable interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show.

With better crisis management, Deen could have come through this crisis less scarred. Yes, she would have paid a price—but I’m convinced that her poor crisis response contributed mightily to the magnitude of her disaster, which included the loss of her Food Network contract and several lucrative endorsement deals.

She may eventually redeem herself enough to make a good living again, but it’s unlikely she’ll ever reclaim her one-time success.

 

Number One: Rob Ford Cracks Up

It’s hard to imagine too many people keeping their jobs after the year Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has had.

In May, the U.S. website Gawker published a report claiming they had seen a video of Ford smoking crack. Ford denied those allegations for months, until finally admitting that he had, in fact, smoked crack.

Rob Ford Pussy Apology Wife

But Ford didn’t simply admit smoking crack. He blamed reporters for his earlier lack of candor by claiming their questions months earlier had been asked using the wrong tense (“Do you smoke crack cocaine?” as opposed to “Have you ever smoked crack cocaine?”)

He also added a new page to the crisis communications playbook by casually blaming his drug use on being in a “drunken stupor.”

But Ford’s lowest moment—and the one I’m naming the worst video media disaster of the year—has to do with his casual mention of the amount of oral sex he receives at home.

During a press scrum, Ford denied charges that he had sexually harassed a former special assistant named Olivia Gondek. But the manner in which he did it was shockingly crass and unnecessarily graphic.

 

Ford capped off that ignominious day with yet another spousal indignity. He called a press conference to apologize for using such graphic language to describe his sex life. As he stood before reporters, his humiliated wife stood on the side of the stage, her eyes cast downward.

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November 2013: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 1, 2013 – 6:02 am

I’ve been writing the “worst video media disaster” series since August 2010. This is the first one I’m embarrassed to publish.

The graphic nature of this post makes me uneasy—but personal discomfort aside, this month’s worst video media disaster wasn’t even a close call.

Toronto’s Rob Ford—the crack-smoking, drunk-driving, alcohol-abusing mayor of Canada’s largest city—used vulgar language to deny charges that he had sexually harassed a former special assistant named Olivia Gondek.

“Oh, and the last thing was Olivia Gondek. It says that I wanted to eat her pussy. Olivia Gondek. I’ve never said that in my life to her. I would never do that. I’m happily married, I’ve got more than enough to eat at home.”

It’s important to remember that no one asked the sue-happy mayor that specific question during the media scrum (he was asked about “allegations” in general). He brought the topic up himself and could have chosen to respond in any manner he wanted. The casual nature with which Ford made those stunningly disrespectful remarks show that he probably speaks with similar vulgarity on a regular basis. 

 

Rob Ford apologizes as his wife stands at his side

 

A primary rule of crisis management is to never use the negative language of your accusers in your defense, since doing so only reminds the audience of the charge. In this case, he could have simply said: “The charges made regarding Olivia Gondek are false.”

Or, if he had even a single gentlemanly instinct and opted to respect his former aide’s privacy, he could have left her name out entirely: “There are reports out today about something I allegedly said to a former assistant. They are false.”

Ford capped off his ignominious day with yet another spousal indignity. He called a press conference to apologize for using such graphic language to describe his sex life. As he stood before reporters, his humiliated wife stood on the side of the stage, her eyes cast downward.

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Harry Reid: Why Should I Help Children With Cancer?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 2, 2013 – 4:09 pm

National polling makes clear that the Republican Party—and House Republicans, in particular—are getting the majority of blame for the government shutdown.

More pundits than not agree that Republicans are in a precarious political position. The consensus of the mainstream media and much of the public is that Democrats are far likelier to “win” the political stare down between the two parties.

Assuming, for a moment, that all of that is true, Democrats have to be careful not to overplay their hand or commit the types of tone-deaf gaffes that can begin to turn the political narrative.

Enter Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who was asked a straightforward question earlier this afternoon about Republican efforts to restore specific programs one at a time. One such proposal would restore funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has halted new clinical trials.

CNN’s Dana Bash: “If you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn’t you do it?”

Harry Reid: “Why would we want to do that? I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force Base that are sitting home. They have a few problems of their own.”

Let’s give Mr. Reid the benefit of the doubt here, that the “that” in his response referred to accepting a piecemeal approach to reopening government, not children with cancer.

Whether you accept that explanation or not, the bottom line remains the same. Reid’s answer should have been a slam dunk—and it would have been, had he remembered a critical communications maxim: always align your response with the victims. He should have said something such as:

“Hearing these stories about children with cancer going untreated is infuriating—and that’s exactly why we keep saying we need to end this shutdown now. And it’s not just kids with cancer who are suffering: there are many single mothers who don’t know how to feed their kids without the WIC program, there are adults who are being denied critical medical care, and there are many families who are fearing what life means for them without a paycheck. The moment the House speaker puts a clean continuing resolution on the floor without gimmicks, we will pass it.”

Instead, Reid’s answer evoked memories of Michael Dukakis’s heartlessness when he was asked during a 1988 presidential debate whether he would support the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered. (“No I don’t, Bernard,” he responded without a hint of emotion.)

Reid’s sound bite is unlikely to turn the political tide, even if it generates a lot of chatter on cable news and social media. But during such a high-stakes moment, politicians on both sides should take particular care to avoid committing these types of dreaded seven-second strays.

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September 2013: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 29, 2013 – 6:02 am

Clothing designer Kenneth Cole has a nasty little habit of newsjacking world events for his own benefit.

You may remember that he tried to get publicity for his new clothing line in 2011 by using the Egyptian Revolution that killed more than 800 people as a marketing hook:

At the time, Cole issued an apology:

“I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I’ve dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate.”

It turns out he didn’t mean his apology. Earlier this month, Cole repeated the stunt as the threat of war in Syria loomed:

Kenneth Cole Syria

I can’t even imagine how families with children serving in the armed forces must have reacted to Cole’s callous tweet. When faced with the inevitable social media backlash this time, however, Cole turned defiant.

 

Let’s be clear here: His insistence that he was trying to “provoke a dialogue about important issues” is either knowingly false or downright delusional. His tweets had nothing to do with substance. It appears that they were both intended to promote his products.

Even the phoned-in quality of the video reinforces his flip attitude. This controversy is worth addressing, but barely, the overly casual aesthetic seems to say.

But at least he kind of apologized, right?

Nope. According to an upcoming interview in the October issue of Details Magazine (as reported by The Huffington Post), Cole said:

“If you look at lists of the biggest Twitter gaffes ever, we’re always one through five. But our stock went up that day, our e-commerce business was better, the business at every one of our stores improved, and I picked up 3,000 new followers on Twitter. So on what criteria is this a gaffe?”

“Within hours, I tweeted an explanation, which had to be vetted by lawyers,” he added. “I’m not even sure I used the words I’m sorry — because I wasn’t sorry.”

Got that? Cole apologized after the 2011 incident, but he didn’t mean it. And now he’s claiming he was just trying to “provoke a conversation” when it seems clear that profit was his motive.

All of this makes Cole the most insidious kind of marketer—one that uses tragedy and war to sell products. And based on his shifting explanations, it appears to make him a dishonest one, too.

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August 2013: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 30, 2013 – 12:50 am

It’s not uncommon for politicians to mangle a fact or two.

But during an interview earlier this month, Stephanie Banister, a 27-year-old Australian running for a seat in parliament on the fringe One Nation ticket, took fact-mangling to a new extreme.

Under normal circumstances, a candidate who was unable to name her opponents would be subject to ridicule. But that moment was almost entirely obscured by other, much larger gaffes and misstatements, which included these:

“I don’t oppose Islam as a country.” (Islam isn’t a country.)

“Less than two percent of Australians follow Haram.” (She likely means the Koran.)

“Jews…have their own religion, which follows Jesus Christ.” (I must have missed that week in Hebrew School.)

“I believe the national disability scheme is working at the moment.” (The reporter notes it doesn’t begin until 2016.)

After the interview went viral and subjected Ms. Banister to international ridicule, she complained about the manner in which her interview was edited. According to The Age:

“Ms Banister told Fairfax Media she felt she had been misrepresented and had corrected herself many times but it had been cut from the interview.

‘Unfortunately, they’ve completely twisted all my words and made me out to be a stand-up criminal and a stupid moron,’ she said.

She said she knew Islam was not a country and meant to say ‘Islamic countries’”.

Assuming that’s true, it still doesn’t explain her other gaffes. No one made her say that Jews followed Jesus Christ or mislabel Islam’s central religious text. Based on her seemingly evident lack of knowledge in multiple places, I’m skeptical that she corrected each of the errors during her interview.

Even if she did, her stunning number of inaccurate statements were revelatory and arguably worthy of being aired.

How big of a problem did this interview become for Ms. Banister? Shortly after this interview aired, she dropped out of the race.

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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.

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    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.

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    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.

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