Thursday, August 23, 2012

All Gaffes are Not Created Equal

I've been thinking a lot about gaffes lately and the fear people have about making them. Luckily, Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin's comment about "legitimate rape" gave me what I needed to make the point I've wanted to make. All gaffes aren't equal and most aren't even memorable.

"Was it something I said?"
Gaffes are memorable for the humanity (or lack of it) revealed.
Akin's claim that a woman has a built-in kill switch to stop pregnancy during rape resulted in nearly universal condemnation. Besides being wrong about the physiological facts, his comments trivialized rape and blamed women for either lying about their assault or secretly wanting to get pregnant.

For the majority of people Akin's comments revealed all they needed to know to make a judgement. His double-digit lead in the polls evaporated overnight. Technically, Akin's comments aren't even a gaffe because he meant to say what he said. When you heard it you had the sense that he really believed it. In doing that, he rendered a useful service rare among politicians: he let the good people of Missouri know what he really thought.

Let's move away from politics. Not everything is a Freudian slip. Sometimes people just misspeak. I media train people every week and the fear making a mistake looms large in nearly every training room where I work. People beat themselves up for making the smallest mistakes and they believe they've failed if they weren't perfect.

No interview is ever perfect
I've done around 3,000 live newscasts, both television and radio, in my life. None of them were perfect. Some were awesome. I mispronounced my own name in one of them. Most were not memorable.

Thousands of people are interviewed every day and, in reality, there are very few truly epic gaffes. News is disposable by its nature. So is your interview. Fear of making a mistake shouldn't keep you from doing an interview, it should motivate you to get trained and to practice before agreeing to it.

Since you're likely to make a mistake, focus on techniques to correct them when you make them.

Three tips to fix your "gaffe"
The first thing you can do when you realize you've misspoken is to stop talking. If you stop talking, the reporter has no news. Stop. Tell the reporter you've lost your train of thought and then re-start.

The second thing you can do is ask the reporter to ask you the question again so you can give a better answer. In most cases, a reporter will give you the chance to clarify your answer if you are honest about the fact that you weren't happy with your first go at it. They get a good story with good information from you.

The third tip to keep you from being gaffe-tastic is to use a pause. So many people think they have to begin speaking the microsecond a reporter's question ends that they stop thinking. Let the reporter ask the question. Listen to the whole thing. Take a breath and begin your answer.

Those tips can help keep your routine interview from becoming a viral video.

The other thing that can help is not citing as "fact" information that can be refuted by reading a middle school health textbook.

Bill Salvin


  1. The pause is key. You're absolutely correct. Even in a live setting, it's not terribly awkward to have a pause. In fact, it's probably a good idea to have a one second pause before every response in an interview, live or taped. If you train yourself to do that, you're less likely to commit gaffes.

  2. "Gaffe-tastic" may be my new favorite word.

  3. Ron, thanks for reading and commenting. It is really tough to train people to pause. In a live interview, a one-second pause can feel like a week. But you are correct that you can insert a pause even in a live interview. Plus, live interviews are unedited and thus impossible to be taken out of context as people hear the questions and the answers in sequence.

  4. Thanks, Kari. I enjoyed that one, too.

  5. Deon Binneman (via LinkedIn)August 27, 2012 at 1:48 PM

    Media inquiries, whether crisis-related or routine, are an outstanding opportunity for companies to manage the most important asset they have -- their corporate reputation. However media relations need to be seen in a context. That context involves understanding the rules of the game and of engagement.

    I always like start with the end purpose in mind (ala Covey). What is the end purpose in Media Relations? It is to convey messages to targeted audiences, for example – voters – messages, whose purpose is to advance your organisation’s goals, raise its profile, and uphold its reputation. This means that Journalists becomes a means to an end and are only conduits or tools. This means that the focus of Media relations is about creating an ongoing dialogue between a news outlet and your spokespeople in an effort to have you or your company discussed in a positive light, in public, through a publication or broadcast.

    In order to this you need to focus on creating relationships with media people. But before you can create a relationship you need to understand the rules of the game. You need to know the rules of the game, because if you do not you may be caught out by not understanding the law, customs, conventions and standard operating procedures relating to the media. It means that you need to know how they operate and approach their job.

    That knowledge in turn will shape your attitude towards journalists and editors. For instance if you distrust and dislike journalists, it will generally show and affect your dealings with the media.

    I think that the media in general sees themselves as a 'watchdog' against big business and institutions. For example many major institutions have systems for communicating information. The entire advertising industry exists for the sole purpose of communicating good news and propaganda about products, services, companies, organisations and even organisations. You never see a press advertisement or a TV commercial telling the public what is wrong with a product or what a company failed to do. Why?

    In an environment where the public is bombarded with information from advertising, public relations sources, organisation information units, 'spin doctors' in industry and professional associations, lobbyists and so on, journalists and editors believe that they must provide a balance by consciously and aggressively searching for the bad news. They see themselves as devil advocates, standing guard for right and truth. If you understand that you will understand how they view their jobs, and you can then find ways to make their job easy.

    For example – by becoming a trusted resource you put money in the reputation bank for the future.

    Too often I see people focusing on how wrong the media is, etc… Perhaps by focusing on the end purpose, there will be better clarity. In one organisation the management team was of the opinion that it was not their job to make it easy for the Media to report on them. Through work shopping and working with them I was able to get them to realise that the principles of negotiation also applies to media relations. That the focus should be on win-win, and not win-lose!

    Once they had the knowledge and understanding it was easier to persuade them to see the use of the media as an opportunity and not a bind.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Deon. I appreciate such a thoughtful response. Putting money in the reputation bank is critical if you are to do a decent job of communicating in a crisis. If people don't know you, it becomes very hard to trust you when everything is going poorly. If they do know you, they may give you the benefit of the doubt that allows you to tell them the actions you're taking to solve the problem.

  7. Lisa Shaughnessy (via LinkedIn)August 31, 2012 at 5:13 AM

    Good article. Interviewers can also earn from these points. I would recommend this article to those who want to make interviewing people a part of their business model.

    I started interviewing people for my business and posting the interviews on my website. As the interviewer I've had to learn to pause after the interviewees speaks so I can respond intelligently (I hope!) to what they've said. The article is right, a one second pause does seem like forever, but it's worth taking that breath before speaking.

  8. Thanks for reading and for commenting, Lisa. You are right on.