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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Deja Vu: The Answer Miss Utah Should Have Given

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on June 17, 2013 – 11:10 am

To quote Yogi Berra, It’s like déjà vu all over again.

Another beauty pageant contestant is a YouTube sensation for colossally fumbling a competition question. This time, the awkward moment comes from Miss Utah USA, Marissa Powell. When asked about equal pay for women issues in the Miss America pageant last night, Miss Powell offered an incomprehensible answer that showed she clearly didn’t understand the issue.

While I sympathize with Miss Powell’s tough situation, she obviously could have handled the question better.

Most spokespeople get into trouble when they try to answer questions for which they don’t know the answer. They tend to give factually incorrect answers, or, as in Miss Powell’s case, answers that make no sense.  She could have said something to the effect of: “You know, the causes of pay inequality in the United States are very complicated and too much for me to take on in just a few seconds. But like so many things, this comes back to education for me…” It’s certainly far from a perfect answer, but it would have prevented her aimless answer and helped her transition to a safer topic.


Miss Utah USA Marissa Powell


Miss Powell is not the first pageant contestant to suffer such a fate. Miss Teen South Carolina, Lauren Caitlin Upton, had a similar gaffe in 2007’s Miss Teen USA competition when she froze up after being asked about why so many Americans can’t point to the USA on a map.

What do you think? How could she have delivered a better answer? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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The Worst Video Media Disaster Of March 2013

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

First, a disclosure: I wrote this story in mid-March before going on a two-week paternity leave.

So it’s possible that another public figure committed an even more memorable video media disaster during my absence. Either way, this month’s disaster deserves special recognition as one of the most bizarre moments in international diplomacy—ever.

It all started when former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman was invited on a “basketball diplomacy” trip to North Korea. It turns out that he and North Korea’s totalitarian leader, Kim Jong Un, became fast friends.

The two of them palled around together for days, attending a sporting event, visiting an aquarium, and sharing drinks. The two of them became the biggest odd couple since Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. Or Milton Berle and RuPaul. Or Monica and Chandler.

Here’s Rodman’s spectacularly bizarre appearance on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos following his return:

Ignore, if you can, Rodman’s “dollar bills” jacket, his multiple facial piercings, and his dark sunglasses. Focus instead on what he said about Kim Jong Un:

“I love him. The guy’s awesome…he was so honest.”

“I saw that people respect him and his family.”

“He’s a good guy to me. He’s my friend.”

All that praise, for a man who claims he wants to destroy the United States and is keeping an estimated 200,000 of his citizens in political prison camps. According to Amnesty International, those prisoners are “…forced to work in conditions approaching slavery and are frequently subjected to torture and other cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.”

When confronted with that information by a clearly annoyed George Stephanopoulos, Rodman compared Kim Jong Un’s shortcomings as a leader to Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Dennis Rodman This Week

Normally, I’d dismiss Rodman’s antics as a circus sideshow. But when Rodman is granted more access to a North Korean leader than any other American diplomat in years, his actions matter. And, as Stephanopoulos pointed out, Rodman handed Mr. Un an easy propaganda victory.

So I can only wonder what’s next. Charlie Sheen befriending Khaled Sheikh Mohammed? Lindsey Lohan joining Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cabinet? O.J. Simpson hosting a memorial dinner in honor of Pol Pot?

Mr. Rodman has always known how to grab the media’s attention. But dating Madonna and dyeing his hair is a whole lot different than dating a tyrant whose citizens die at his command.

Are you as disgusted by Rodman’s antics as I am, or do you think this is a sideshow without many consequences? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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The Worst Video Media Disaster Of February 2013

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 28, 2013 – 1:00 pm

When Florida Senator Marco Rubio offered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, his delivery was hampered by one of the worst cases of dry mouth ever televised.

The Senator’s entire performance was a bit of a mess. He removed sweat from his forehead numerous times, repeatedly licked and wiped his dehydrated lips, and even muffled a few words because his tongue was stuck in place.

But it was his awkward lunge for a miniature-sized bottle of water that turned his performance into a late night joke.

The fact that Sen. Rubio received this much mocking press for needing a drink of water is, well, unfair. But the media’s commentary about the “sip slip” was also predictable. When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (like Rubio, also a potential 2016 presidential contender) gave the rebuttal to the State of the Union in 2009, he was compared unfavorably to 30 Rock’s “Kenneth the Page” character due to the odd optics that diminished his appearance.

The big problem is that those moments distracted from the messages both politicians were hoping to convey.

I’m not interested in piling on Sen. Rubio, but I am interested in offering a couple of tips to prevent a similar “dry mouth moment” if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.

Marco Rubio Water

First, and most obviously, keep a bottle of water within easy reach. Hydrate yourself before your presentation, and avoid salty or hot foods that leave you parched before you speak.

But it’s this second point that’s the key. When something goes wrong during a presentation—and inevitably, it will—it’s critical that you avoid getting a look of panic.

Version One: How Rubio Handled It: He waited until he was desperate for a drink of water, awkwardly lunged to the side, and took a sip of water with the panicked expression of a man who had been caught doing something wrong.

Version Two: How Rubio Should Have Handled It: When Rubio realized he was getting parched earlier in his speech, he should have waited until a natural pause, calmly and deliberately reached for his water, taken a few sips, calmly put it back, turned back to the camera, and calmly resumed. It’s true that some commentators may have still remarked on the awkwardness of the moment—but the coverage wouldn’t have been as all-pervasive because the video clip wouldn’t have been as bad.

If you have a few minutes, it’s worth watching how the comedians portrayed the moment.

From Saturday Night Live:

From The Colbert Report:

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The Worst Video Media Disaster Of January 2013

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 31, 2013 – 6:02 am

There’s only one reason Lance Armstrong spoke to Oprah Winfrey this month: To begin the process of rehabilitating his image. Doing so, he hoped, would help pave his way back into competitive sports.

After all, if his goal had been merely to confess to doping, he could have just released a written statement, as he had so many times before.

Therefore, the effectiveness of his Oprah tell-all has to be judged in that context, of whether or not it helped to rehabilitate his image. It didn’t. Worse, it did more damage than good, making his decision to appear with Oprah a disastrous one.

The Anderson Cooper clip below features video of one of Armstrong’s most shockingly awful moments.

A poll from my blog (admittedly unscientific) found that readers thought he did more harm than good in the interview:

Lance Armstrong Poll

A more scientific poll, conducted by Survey USA, mirrored this blog’s results, finding that only 17 percent of respondents thought he was being completely honest.

Among other reasons, Armstrong failed because:

1. He Didn’t Come Across As Contrite: In my original review, I noted that Armstrong seemed genuinely moved by the pain he had caused his family, but not terribly concerned with the pain he caused the many people he had bullied for many years. His attitude made many people, including me, wonder whether he is a sociopath.

2. He Still Looked Like a Bully: He laughed when asked about the wife of one former teammate, telling Oprah that although he had called her “crazy” and “a bitch,” he didn’t call her “fat.” In another stunning moment, he admitted that he couldn’t remember everyone he had sued because he had sued so many people.

Lance Armstrong Credit de Benutzer Hase

3. He May Not Have Come Clean: Although Armstrong denied doping after 2005, there’s strong evidence that he’s still lying. He also denied offering hush money to the anti-doping agency USADA, although officials claim he did

4. He Wasn’t Willing to Sacrifice Anything: As any parent knows, a bad act is usually followed by a commensurate punishment. Armstrong doesn’t seem to get that. He actually uttered this jaw-dropper to Oprah about whether he should be allowed to compete again: “I think I deserve it.”

Editor’s Note: After two-and-a-half years of featuring the five worst video disasters of every month, I’ve decided to make a change and focus on only the worst one of each month. That will allow me to analyze each month’s worst video disaster in greater detail.

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, de:Benutzer:Hase

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Review: The Lance Armstrong / Oprah Winfrey Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 17, 2013 – 11:12 pm

A sociopath is defined as a pathological liar who lacks remorse, is manipulative and superficially charming, and who fails to take responsibility for his actions.

Watching Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey tonight, you wouldn’t have to work hard to make the case that he fits that classic profile.

Armstrong offered a self-interested and rather obvious admission of guilt, but didn’t look like he really meant it. On some intellectual level, he seemed to understand that he had to make a perfunctory admission—but that’s all he gave, failing to deliver his words with the emotion that would give the public a hint that he “got it.”

A person in crisis who “gets it” doesn’t say that he looked up the definition of the word “cheat” and then reveal that he didn’t think he met that definition. Nor should a person in crisis play games when asked whether it was true that he never failed a drug test (in fact, he said, he didn’t, evading the real point of Oprah’s question).

But one of his lowest moments came when discussing a recent 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 describing himself, he told Oprah that he was “a guy who expected to get what he wanted and control every outcome.” Although he used the past tense, the same could be said for his demeanor during the interview tonight. Armstrong was stiff, with clenched hands and crossed arms—but he also couldn’t stop himself from jumping in and talking over Oprah several times.

Armstrong also used distancing third person language, calling himself “Lance Armstrong,” and linguistically trying to separate “that part of my life” from “this part” of my life—as if he wasn’t still denying the juicing charges just a few months ago.

The medium Armstrong chose for his interview was telling—by choosing an interview with Oprah Winfrey instead of, say, Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes, Armstrong made clear that this “confession” was more about image rehabilitation than a sincere attempt to come completely clean (he didn’t; he refused to offer many specifics). To Winfrey’s credit, she came prepared, asking short, to-the-point questions before getting out of Armstrong’s way.

In the end, Armstrong managed to diminish his brand even further tonight. Given his reputation, I would have expected him to train for this interview with the same seriousness he once used to prepare for his cycling events (without the doping, of course). Perhaps he did work in advance with a media trainer. But at some point, even the best media trainer can’t prevent a remorseless bully from getting out of his own way. 

UPDATE: FRIDAY, JANUARY 18, 2013, 10:00pm

The clip above was one of Armstrong’s lowest moments of the entire interview. His comment about whether he should be allowed to compete again, “I think I deserve it,” was one of his most tone-deaf of the two nights.

That moment aside, Armstrong exhibited more emotion tonight than he did in the first part.

What struck me is that the only time during both nights that he seemed truly emotionally connected was when he discussed his family. On the other hand, he showed little of that same emotional connectedness when talking about doping, the people he bullied, or his years of dishonestly.

That contrast showed me something: Armstrong has the capacity to feel and care about other people – so perhaps he’s not a sociopath after all (even though he said he was one during tonight’s interview). But it also shows that he’s not nearly as personally connected to the torment he caused so many people outside of his family.

All in all, tonight was a slightly better night for him. But he still doesn’t seem to fully “get it”; nor has he fully disclosed his infractions or expressed a willingness to give something up (such as his aspirations to be allowed to compete again).  Until he does, he’s going to have a long path to public redemption.

What do you think? Please take our poll and leave your thoughts in the comments section below. And if anything interesting happens during Friday night’s interview, I’ll update this post.

What Do You Think of Tonight's Interview?

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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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