Monday, May 26, 2008

Making Sense of a Candidate's Gaffe

Maybe the presidential candidate with the fewest verbal misstatements will win the 2008 race. Senator Hillary Clinton's comment about assassination last week may be the final straw that keeps her from getting chosen as VP or cabinet member.

If you missed it, she was making a case for staying in the race. She said her husband didn't wrap up his nomination until June and referenced Robert Kennedy's assassination in June 1968. Some political commentators talked about the inaccuracy of her statement and many took great offense, claiming that Senator Clinton was hinting that she was hanging on in case Barack Obama got assassinated. Others defended her, saying she is a nice person and would wish no physical harm to the senator from Illinois.

As a soundbite coach, the tack I take on it is, "What in the world would I do if I were HER coach?" A couple of learning points from this ill-timed remark may help you in crisis:

1. Exhaustion cripples--As Vince Lombardi said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." I say, "Fatigue makes fools of us all." Don't go in front of the cameras if you've been running on little sleep. Hillary Clinton may be hanging on to her candidacy for many reasons, but hopefully, she wouldn't have made this social blunder on a good night's sleep... which she may not have had for months.

2. Words matter--Word like "assassinate" should seldom be used in political or corporate campaigns. Pastor John Hagee and Senator John McCain parted ways over the use of "Hitler." And Senator Barack Obama probably wishes his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, hadn't used several incendiary phrases. The point is some words (like "hope") inspire and others inflame. When you're practicing your soundbites, know what results you're aiming for and use words accordingly.

3. Good apologies help; bad apologies make it worse--Mrs. Clinton's apology about using the assassination reference left me wanting more. She said she hoped she didn't offend the Kennedy family--but what about the Obama family?

If I were her coach, I would've counseled her to apologize like this: "During this tough week for the Kennedy's, I hate that my remarks might have reminded them of an even sadder moment in their family's history. And I would never wish ill on my colleague in the Senate and presidential candidate, Barack Obama. I did not mean to insinuate that I was still in the race because something bad might happen to him. I am still in this race because people deserve a choice for their Democratic candidate."

If you find yourself needing to apologize, make sure you cover all the people who could be offended and end on a strong note.

This history-making campaign will continue to give us fodder for coaching moments. Let's hope future candidates and newsmakers will learn all they can.

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