1 May 2011

Survival guide for spokespeople I. – famous gaffes

The daily routine of people facing the press and publicity can be rather grueling and unspectacular – but what everyone remembers are the gaffes. This is unfair, but that is how communication works.

Politicians make gaffes (think of Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman”), businessmen make gaffes (Tony Hayward of BP made a few) and even media professionals make gaffes (CNN editor Octavia Nasr’s tweet and Helen Thomas’s comments on Jews come to our mind).

For spokespeople, such mishaps are the more painful as the ‘raison d’être’ for us is to avoid erroneous communication and protect our employer. (Think of the correct reaction of the Czech President’s spokesperson following the affair with the pen in Chile.)

Still, even professional spokespeople make mistakes. Here are three examples from people far more experienced than Kovács & Kováts.

A classic example is the spokesman of the Czech Prime Minister, Jiří Potužník, who started the Czech Presidency in 2009 by stating that Israel’s action in Gaza was defensive, not offensive. (The exact quote according to our research was: "At the moment, from the perspective of the last days, we understand this step as a defensive, not offensive, action") A “flying pig’s moment” for some commentators, outrageous for others. The spokesman quickly corrected and offered his resignation, but it has inspired euroblogger Jon Worth to adapt the Joe Biden Gaffe-o-Meter into a Czech Presidency Gaffe-o-Meter and later the Praise-o-Meter. (Just like many of his readers, we disagree with Jon on this issue, as we remember the Czech Presidency as one of the best ones. But this is not the point here.)

In March 2011, the US State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley resigned following his comments on treatment of Bradley Manning.

Also in March this year, a less reported, but from our perspective remarkable case has happened, involving a member from HR Ashton’s press team. Today it is water under the bridge but at the March 11th extraordinary European Council the question of a no-fly-zone in Libya has been highly debated. It was in this heated atmosphere that the press corps were busy playing the waiting game, when, according to reports, a “rogue briefing” by a member of Catherine Ashton’s staff took place. The event is described in detail in the Guardian’s blog. And Laura Shields has an interesting opinion on the issue.

We do not want to judge fellow spokespeople, rather to defend them by highlighting in our next post on this issue some of the dilemmas we are facing and the lessons we have learned in EU communications.

In a sign of how much ahead of the curve we are, after having posted this yesterday (Sunday) on famous gaffes, the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces has brought an avalanche of Obama-Osama gaffes today (which already has quite a history, see below.)

1. Wishful thinking? Fox News anchor announcing "President Obama is in fact dead, it was a US led strategic..."

Btw, this was not the first time Fox News mixed up knocking off Osama and Obama http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjYpkvcmog0

2. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesperson tweeting today "@RegSprecher #Kanzlerin: Obama verantwortlich für Tod tausender Unschuldiger, hat Grundwerte des Islam und aller Religionen verhöhnt." (Obama responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people, derided the basic values of Islam and other religions. Incidentally, another possible translation instead of deride, according to the dictionary, would be "barracked".) This was of course quickly corrected, and then both the original tweet and the correction deleted.

This complements the long line of Obama-Osama blunders. Here are a few:

3. Mitt Romney back in 2007, going off on the wrong track after getting it almost right at the start “Actually, just look at what Osam — uh — Barack Obama, said just yesterday. Barack Obama calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. That is the battlefield. That is the central place, he said. Come join us under one banner.”

Talking about spokespeople, we especally like the explanation given by his spokesman afterwards.

4. AP's Dean Singleton standing right next to Obama, asking him about troop deployments given that "Obama bin Laden is still at large". Obama (the real one) handles it quite well... http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=4651743

5. NBC running a story on Obama's campaign with a picture of bin Laden briefly flashed on the screen and CNN reporting that "Barack Obama's campaign has been dogged by false rumors, among them that Osama is a Muslim, Obama rather." http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/politics/5553902.html

These were of course all innocent gaffes (we woudl like to belive) but they go to show how hard it can be to speak in public about important issues under pressure...


  1. Little Outsider4 May 2011 at 18:18

    Very good post, I really enjoyed reading it and immediately lost my faintest wish to become a spokesperson. But there is still one thing I cannot comprehend: why did you select a placard of the Brabanconne as an illustration for this post?

  2. Little Outsider,
    Good question :) It was a hidden reference to the famous gaffe by Yves Leterme: