A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (R) is the latest in a long line of political leaders who, through their mangling of the English language, have managed to get themselves in deep water. Stevens’ inept and incomprehensible remarks about the Internet join such other personal "Hall of Shame" favorites as W’s post 9/11 "We’ll smoke ’em out" threat, Howard Dean’s victory scream and Westchester County Executive Jeanine Pirro’s 28 seconds of deafening silence as she announced her Senate candidacy (but couldn’t find her prepared remarks).

In these particular instances, the pols in question either overstepped the boundaries of their knowledge (Stevens), said the wrong thing at the wrong time ("43" and Dean) or just froze like a deer in the headlights (Pirro).

Malaprops, mangled words and phrases and just plain bad mistakes are not limited to the political spectrum. The business world, for example, is full of them. And, much as I hate to admit it, I see and hear quite a few in the course of the average work week (both internally and externally).

The best way to avoid a public gaffe is, of course, to review what you’re going to say or write before the camera’s red light is on or one’s finger touches the "send" key.

Cases in point: If Stevens had had a media script to follow, he’d have been fine. If Pirro had rehearsed a few key messages, she’d have been prepared when her speech suddenly went missing. As for W, well, there’s not much any adviser or consultant can do to mitigate someone’s saying the absolute wrong thing at the wrong time.

All of which reminds me of one of the legendary tales from the annals of Peppercom media training.

My business partner, Ed, had done his usual crackerjack job of media training a top executive with a Fortune 15 company prior to his interview with a Midwestern business publication. All had gone well during the interview as the exec touted the firm’s expertise in a given area. The interview concluded, handshakes were exchanged and the reporter headed to the elevator banks. Along the way, he complimented the client exec on the handsome office space. The exec, not realizing that anything he said to the reporter could, and would, be used against him even after an interview ended, proceeded to volunteer that the company was about to move to much larger and more luxurious digs in the near future.

So, what happened? The reporter filed a story about the client’s real estate aspirations (never bothering to mention the key points we wanted conveyed) and the client exec was banished to the organization’s version of Siberia.

Careers can be made or unmade by what an individual says (a certain Vermont governor comes to mind here). So, it never ceases to amaze me when a smart, polished leader like Stevens makes a complete fool of himself. One thing’s for sure, though. I’ll bet Senator Stevens has taken a crash course on what the Internet is and does and will be ready the next time he’s asked to explain it. But, from an image and reputation standpoint, it’ll be too little too late.

Hat tip to Laura Mills for this idea.

2 thoughts on “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing

  1. I think the lesson here, Jimbo, is to think before you speak. Stevens must have felt he knew enough about the internet to “wing it.” Sadly, he clarly didn’t. And, as you state, the Internet itself anables “listeners” to respond and pounce instantaneously on any statement that causes a stir. As you’ve also mentioned, once something is posted on the Web, it’s there forever. In fact, I can guarantee that any future obit of Rep. Stevens references his Internet SNAFU in the coverage.

  2. I can’t decide if I agree or disagree with your here, Rep. Nonetheless, some ramblings follow:
    I understand what your saying and agree it is in a spokesperson’s best interests to be well prepared before being interviewed. Print articles will last and last online, as will video segments of newscasts…however, most of these come and go without the majority of people even knowing who said what to whom and where.
    Politicians should be media trained requently. I used to think that pols really got into politics to improve poilicy, better their county, city or state, etc. However, as I have grown up, I have come to realize that they are all bafoons and a crappy quote isn’t going to be forgotten because of their stellar past of great service to their voters. Capital Hill to me is like a gigantic sandbox. All they do is fight for the most sand and most toys. It’s a joke…media training or not. Number 42 was a great speaker, but what else did he do that was SO great for our country?
    Anyway, most purchasers of PR use it to leverage a good placement to a prospect. If I said something off color or was misquoted in a piece, well, I wouldn’t use that hit.