There are just some things you shouldn’t say in public these days. Especially if you’re a public figure on a live television program or a celebrity with a Twitter account. But it seems this remains a tough lesson for many. Sure, we all make mistakes, but it’s incumbent on professional communicators in this culture to take the current social climate into consideration.
We offer the following example not to single out anyone, but to show just how quickly a person can go from trusted opinion maker to persona non grata on social media.
Our story begins during a live segment on the MSNBC “Morning Joe” program, where co-host Mika Brzezinski had been roasting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent remarks in reference to the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. It should be noted that context is important here: Brzezinski is on a morning opinion program on a network known to cater to left-leaning audiences. It stands to reason that her viewers would be sensitive to any comments that might be construed as discriminatory.
During the segment, which focused on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged role in Khashoggi’s murder, Brzezinski criticized Pompeo’s recent appearance on “Fox & Friends,” at which point she said: “Is that a patriot speaking, or a wannabe dictator’s butt boy? I’m dead serious, I’m asking. Are these the words of a patriot?”
She probably didn’t realize what she was saying, but now that the clip has been viewed and shared countless times, there’s no context, there's no “in the moment,” no slip of the tongue. There are only the impressions and the condemnation.
Brzezinski was immediately slammed on social media for making “homophobic” comments. Others decried the suggestion that homosexuality was on par with murderous despots. As you can imagine, the critiques only got worse from there.
Brzezinski, for her part, didn’t return fire. In fact, she agreed with the critics, tweeting this: “SUPER BAD choice of words … I should have said, ‘water boy’ ... like for football teams or something like that … SO SORRY!” Brzezinski later unequivocally apologized on-air for the “crass and offensive” remark, underscoring that no sentiment was implied, and that she had used a “terrible choice of words.”
And that may be just that. Brzezinski has a solid fan base on the liberal side of the political aisle who might be more predisposed to forgive this slip of the tongue. That fact highlights another important PR aspect of this situation: reputation matters.
People, especially in today’s media climate, can be tribal. They laud ideological kinship. However, the counterpoint is also true: if someone outside the group says something offensive, the response won’t be filtered by shared sympathy. These are just several factors to consider every time you enter the public sphere.