By Gerard Braud
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has done it. So has Lululemon founder Chip Wilson. So have presidential candidates like Herman Cain and Sarah Palin. Each is guilty of saying dumb things in media interviews.
Why do powerful people say dumb things in media interviews?
Here are 3 reasons…
First, powerful people fail to dedicate the appropriate amount of time to preparing for and training for their interviews. Most people who run for office or lead corporations are usually sent to a media training coach so they can learn to effectively communicate with the media. The media trainer should never be a spin doctor who teaches people to avoid answering questions, but rather a thoughtful coach who teaches the spokesperson to craft thoughtful, well worded answers that provide the appropriate amount of context, quotes, and supporting facts. The essence of the best answers requires having a good writer who can write articulate, quotable phrases in the voice of the spokesperson. The spokesperson is then responsible for internalizing these phrases for use in the interview.
One media training class is never enough. Media interviews require practice before each interview, just as an athlete would practice before each game.
Training, practicing and internalizing key phrases requires dedicated time, and many powerful people fail to allocate time, thinking they can do fine without additional practice.
That leads us to reason number two, which is arrogance and overconfidence by the powerful person.
Powerful people have often had some success in the past with spontaneously saying the right thing in the right moment. Politicians have often been told early in their careers that they were good public speakers. However, the stakes get higher each day as a person’s public profile rises. Often, reporters begin to dig a little deeper and question the congruency between what a person has said in the past and their actions in the present.
The increased scrutiny generates harder questions, which requires even more practice and more time spent internalizing powerful, quotable phrases. Yet the arrogant and over confident spokesperson fails to recognize that what got them to this level will not get them to the next level. In other words, a good public speaker needs to become a great professional speaker. Many are never motivated to become as great as they should be.
This brings us to reason number three, which is the spokesperson’s failure to correlate the monetary and reputational impact of what they say and the massive damage that happens when they say dumb things. One of the worst examples I’ve ever seen is a spokesperson who said the wrong thing and derailed a $700-million industrial project.
Just look at the spokespeople we sited above. Rob Ford’s dumb statements have lead his city council to begin stripping him of his power. It is unknown whether his reputational damage will cause him to lose his job come election time. Chip Wilson has seen an outcry on social media as former customers abandon Lululemon yoga wear, all because of a careless adlib on Bloomberg TV. Herman Cain tried to run for president, knowing sexual harassment allegations were part of his past, yet failed to be prepared with a well-written response. Instead, when he was asked if he had ever been accused of sexual harassment, he responded, “Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?” His campaign contributions dried up and his bid for President ended. Sarah Palin may be able to bring a crowd to their feet in a public rally of supporters, but in media interviews my opinion is she is consistently one of the worst spokespeople I have ever seen. Her failed interview with Katie Couric during her bid for Vice President derailed the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain. Many would say her verbal blunders have kept her from advancing her political career. Her statements may be acceptable to a certain loyal audience, but constant blunders erode her loyal support and empower her detractors.
Powerful people become powerful because they have certain skills or characteristics that propel them forward. The most powerful people are those who can recognize their own weaknesses and either hire people to do those jobs for them, or they hire coaches who will honestly critique their weakness and develop a process to improve in those areas.
Talking to the media is hard. It requires you to think like a reporter and organize your thoughts like a journalist is taught to write a news report. It requires you to know how to punch home a headline, how to begin and end with a great synopsis sentence, how to pepper the interview with well planned quotes, and how to give a few supporting facts without over loading the interview with irrelevant details. A journalist spends four years in college learning this system and practices it daily with each report they write.
No spokesperson should be foolish, arrogant or over confident enough to try to match their amateur status with that of a professional, anymore than they should think that one trip to the putt-putt course makes them ready to play golf in the PGA.