If I had a nickel for every stupid thing I ever said, I’d wouldn’t need to work anymore and I could probably eradicate world hunger. This is one of the many reasons I have a lot of respect for good public relations practitioners: They manage to keep on message, make key points clear and connect with an audience in some of the more difficult situations out there.
In discussing public relations with my buddy Pritch (a member of the College of Fellows and a decades-long PR professional and instructor) a number of years ago, he told me that one of the more underrated elements of PR is honest empathy. It’s hard to get across a message while still realizing that there are other forces at play, many of which can be painful for others. I translated this into “be humane” in one of the books and several lectures, and I think it sticks well.
I thought about this when this story broke about a White House staffer’s reaction to Sen. John McCain’s stand against confirming CIA nominee Gina Haspel:
“It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” press aide Kelly Sadler said about McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel at a meeting of White House communications staffers, according to an unnamed source cited by The Hill’s Jordan Fabian.
McCain is battling brain cancer and is unlikely to win that fight, according to all available information. As we noted in the book, the accuracy of a statement like “He’s dying anyway” isn’t the issue, but rather the fact it makes Sadler sound cold and calloused. Even worse from a PR perspective, she has now become the news and that news is clearly negative.
Consider the following thoughts as a short primer on the idea of keeping yourself out of trouble:
You are like plumbing: We talk in most of my classes about good media professionals being conduits of information, moving content from valuable sources to interested audiences. I often equate this to being like plumbing: The water exists at Point A and you want to drink it at Point B. You don’t really know how every single thing works, but you just want it to work.
Perhaps more to the point, the only time people notice plumbing any more is when something goes wrong. If the water in your tap comes out in a lovely shade of beige, like mine did in my first college apartment, you notice it. When a pipe breaks under the house and starts spraying water all over the crawl space, like it did when we lived in Indiana, you notice it. When it’s running fine? I don’t think, “Man, that toilet can FLUSH! So awesome!”
Get the information that matters from Point A to Point B in its best possible form and you’re doing the job well.
You aren’t the news: The 1980s show “The Fall Guy” follows the adventures of a TV and movie stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter, thus getting into all sorts of danger and wacky mishaps.
Perhaps the only enduring thing about this program was the theme song, in which the show’s star, Lee Majors, sings about life as an “Unknown Stuntman” with lyrics like:
I might fall from a tall building,
I might roll a brand new car.
‘Cause I’m the unknown stuntman that made Redford such a star.
If you do your job well, people behind the scenes will know your name, appreciate your professionalism and use the information you provide to them. However, you will never BE the news. Your clients may bask in the spotlight thanks to your hard work. Your organization might succeed because you did the dirty work. Your company may have a sterling image that you built, brick by brick. However, you are the unknown stuntperson who needs to make them look so fine.
Stop. Think. Then Speak: One of the hardest things in the 24/7 news cycle and the constant demand for information is the ability to pause before communicating without looking like a weasel. It often feels like if we don’t have an answer RIGHT NOW, we are clearly scrambling for some well-worn cliche or a bit of BS. However, once you open your mouth or send a release or do anything else, you can’t get it back, so it pays to be on top of your game.
Collect yourself before you speak on something. Think about who might hear what you have to say or share what you publish. Some PR professionals have told me when they have something they have to say, they imagine their grandmother was in the audience. I often tell students that there is no crime in not knowing something, so instead of going rogue, tell the people, “I don’t know the answer, but I will find it out for you.” As long as you live up to that promise (and it isn’t the answer to every question), you should be OK.
Stupid is eternal: Mardela Springs, Maryland is town of about 350 people in the western part of the state and the only reason I remember it is because of Norman Christopher, who was a town official in the early 1990s. Christopher famously brought attention to this tiny hamlet with his explanation as to why he couldn’t reach county officials on Martin Luther King Day:
He reportedly was explaining to other commission members why he could not reach county workers by telephone Jan. 20, the King holiday. “I forgot no one was working. Everyone had Buckwheat’s birthday off,” he was quoted as saying in the Daily Times in Salisbury. Buckwheat was the stage name of a black child who starred in the “Our Gang” comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s.
It’s been more than a quarter century since he made that comment and I still remember it as a “What the hell was THAT?” moment when it became news. In a similar way, I will never forget Justine Sacco and her “hope I don’t get AIDS” tweet, that we feature in the book.
Sacco has managed to find work recently, as IAC brought her back on board for a separate venture. In looking back at all of this, she had a pretty decent observation for anyone involved in any form of media:
“Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform,” she wrote. “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life.”
Kelly Sadler worked on a number of projects before and will likely have many more years of professional work in the future, but this might hang around her neck like an albatross for a while. If you think about anything stupid you have ever said, imagine that being the one thing people remember about you and then act accordingly.