Everyone makes mistakes. No matter how well-prepared or experienced they are, even the best spokespeople and experts get tripped up in front of the media now and then. These blunders, although unfortunate, can serve as learning experiences. Here we’ll talk about a few of the worst media gaffes we’ve witnessed and how to avoid similar experiences in the future.
The following are actual accounts of media blunders. Names have been withheld to protect the identity – and dignity — of those involved.
Key messages? What key messages?
It’s not unreasonable to expect c-suite marketing executives to handle routine media Q&As with professionalism and stick to the script with a set of polished key messages. That’s what we thought, anyway. One unforgettable, forehead-smacking moment came when a marketing executive told an editor, “Our job is to say our products are better.” This one still haunts us.
Solution: It’s likely that your company’s c-suite has undergone media training, but if not, a beginner’s course on how to properly convey key messages should be at the top of your “To-Do” list. For those who have had media training and may just be a bit rusty, offering a refresher is a good way to get them re-acclimated. If all else fails, consider using a different spokesperson entirely.
Another thing to keep in mind is: editors aren’t going into interviews looking to write a glowing advertisement of your product, initiative or announcement, so spokespeople should stick to facts and proof points rather than stupendous superlatives and rave reviews. Save those for your family and friends at Thanksgiving dinner.
A sensitive subject
Pending business deals, contract terms and dollar amounts are generally regarded as confidential. Clients know this better than anyone – most of the time. In one particular interview, our client disclosed how much money they saved a very important and prominent customer on a recent project. He believed he had permission to do so, so this sensitive information was shared during multiple interviews.
The customer was not happy, demanding that all references to the savings number be retracted, which set off a flurry of emails as we reached out to the publications explaining the situation.
Solution: Slip-ups like this one have the potential to ruin business relationships, so it’s important to talk with management before the interview about potentially sensitive topics and whether they are fair game. Keeping your PR firm in the loop is also critical so that everyone is on the same page in the event these questions arise. And when in doubt, double check the facts and figures that are approved to share publicly.
Plagiarizing Wikipedia: Two wrongs don’t make a right
Most people know better than to plagiarize and/or cite Wikipedia, two of the writing world’s Cardinal Sins. Ultimately, they’re both shortcuts that erode credibility, and in extreme cases, can cost someone their job. But one client decided to take two bites of the forbidden fruit by plagiarizing Wikipedia.
Fortunately, this copy-and-paste job was caught during reviews, so the plagiarized information didn’t make it to print. Still, it’s a blunder that immediately causes one to question whether the guilty party has done this before.
Solution: People who engage in these activities typically know better, so telling them it goes against best practices may just go in one ear and out the other. However, laying out the consequences of plagiarizing and/or citing questionable sources should get their attention. The embarrassment that comes from being caught might ensure they never do it again.
It can be difficult to catch a plagiarist – Jayson Blair ring a bell? – but if something seems fishy, go with your gut and check it out. You may just save a reputation or two.