Crisis Message Management – Every Word Counts

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Crisis Message Management


Every word counts

Guest Analysis by Grant Rampy

Mr. Rampy is director of public relations at Abilene Christian University. He was White House Correspondent for Tribune Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., from 1999 to 2009.

George W. Bush, Tony Hayward, and Cory Booker. What do they have in common? Well, they are each guilty of committing what’s known as the dreaded seven-second slip.

In the thick of the federal government’s disastrous handling of the post-Katrina hurricane response, President Bush famously complimented hapless FEMA director Mike Brown: “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie.” To many, the off-handed declaration came to symbolize how out-of-touch the Bush team was with the plight of those hardest hit by the storm.

At the height of BP’s response to the Deepwater Horizon well explosion three years ago, the company’s CEO tossed off a gem of a quote that immediately became the Story Of The Day: “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would love my life back.”

Reporters on scene no doubt took a moment to bow in thanks to the news gods; Hayward’s tenure as CEO, meanwhile, already jeopardized by a flurry of other such poorly conceived remarks, sputtered to an end shortly thereafter.

Of far less import than either of those gaffes, Newark’s democratic mayor appeared on NBC’s “Meet The Press” last Sunday and expressed himself a bit too freely. Booker, a surrogate for President Obama’s re-election campaign, proceeded to criticize his fellow Democrats.

Speaking about the Obama team’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, Mayor Booker said,

“This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides. It’s nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough…. It’s either going to be a small campaign about this crap or it’s going to be a big campaign, in my opinion, about the issues that the American public cares about.”

Not a big deal, you say? In the grand scheme of things, it probably isn’t. But it is yet another example of how a prominent spokesperson’s overall message can be utterly overwhelmed by a brief comment. Booker took part in a roughly 30-minute round table discussion on national television with host David Gregory and four other guests (video below) during which Booker made a number of interesting points. The quote above, however, is the only nugget that will be remembered from the broadcast.

Booker’s remarks have already been played over and over on cable news talk shows; they’ve been parsed in multiple magazine and newspaper columns. Booker himself has gone to great pains to say, in so many words, “I didn’t really mean what I said. My comments were taken out of context.”

Booker is now trying to focus blame on the media. “So here they are, plucking sound bites out of that interview to manipulate them in a cynical manner, to use them for their own purposes.”

He may blame whomever he wishes, but the words came from his mouth.

Might this serve as a valuable reminder to anyone who is asked to appear on camera or speak into a reporter’s voice recorder on the fly: Every word matters. One sentence – even a single phrase – uttered in a thoughtless moment can undo all the preparation, all the advance thought, and all the finely-tuned talking points you may have at your disposal prior to a media availability.

So prepare. Practice. And, whatever you do, stay on message.

If you would like Mr. Rampy to speak to your business, group or organization, contact Firestorm Here

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