Not since the days of Richard Nixon uttering “I am not a crook…” George H.W. Bush proclaiming, “Read my lips: no new taxes” and Bill Clinton pronouncing, “I didn’t have sex with that woman…Monica Lewinsky…” have we seen such a memorable public gaffe as Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), stating last week, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable right?…But we put together a Benghazi special committee…what are her numbers today?”
Sure, there were other reasons that led McCarthy’s on Thursday to abruptly take himself out of the race to succeed House Speaker John Boehner. And Rep. McCarthy did publically apologize for the statement.
But that one set of remarks—whether it was said in a moment of pride, hubris or desperation—quickly led to the demise of his candidacy.
He committed two cardinal sins for a politician: providing ammo to the opposition and sowing doubts among his supporters as to whether he would be an effective leader. But the McCarthy debacle could apply to the public and private sectors alike.
Here are three other lessons for PR pros who counsel clients on how to present themselves to the media
• Think before you speak. I’m all for spontaneity, but when you are a public figure, celebrity or senior leader in a company or non-profit, there is no such thing as an off-hand remark. Just ask Mitt Romney about the statement he made at a “closed door” Republican event that was recorded by a waiter and shortly thereafter went viral.
• Work with your team on the best way to frame your message. There is truth in what McCarthy said. The Benghazi hearings did put pressure on Mrs. Clinton. But there are ways to craft the message that make the point without causing damage to your brand and credibility.
• Get (and protect) a seat the table. PR counselors need to get a trusted seat at the table early in the game so that candidates and leaders consult with and vet remarks before they head off into a public setting.
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