For close to five decades, David Rockefeller, who died last month at the age of 101, was my employer and friend. First as public affairs director of Chase Manhattan, the $100 billion bank he chaired, and then as a consultant, I helped advise Mr. Rockefeller on all manner of communications.
One of my primary duties was to serve as a drafter of Mr. Rockefeller’s speeches. I say “speech drafter” and not “speech writer” because the speeches were his; they were ultimately always “written” by him, not me. I merely helped and would never presume to take credit for the great man’s words. (Are you listening Pulitzer Prize Peggy “Thousand Points of Light” Noonan?!?)
Being a “Rockefeller,” David rarely showed annoyance, except for once. And the subject of that annoyance was me, because of a speech I’d “drafted.” And the takeaway from that one awful speech-drafting experience is a lesson that all speechwriters should take to heart.
Here’s what happened.
Chairman Rockefeller was to address an international economic forum on the topical subject of bank loans to lesser developed countries. In those days of sky-high oil prices, bank loans to lesser developed countries — or LDCs — were particularly worrisome. Countries like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina desperately needed money to finance their oil-dependent economies, but their ability to repay bank lenders was becoming increasingly dubious. As bank LDC debt rose, the stability of the banking system, itself, appeared imperiled.
So, Mr. Rockefeller’s speech on this topic had to be meticulously crafted, to reassure bank shareholders — not to mention the world — that banks could weather the LDC debt storm.
The chairman’s speech went through 13 drafts before all concerned were satisfied that the tone was right. Earlier drafts — on hard analysis by the bankers — were too bold, offering promises to support the LDCs beyond levels many felt prudent. So, these earlier passages were stripped out and replaced by more benign assurances.
On the day of the speech, I accompanied the chairman, and a colleague passed out advance copies of the speech to the assembled members of the press. I read a version at my seat as Mr. Rockefeller delivered the speech, which he did without a flaw.
After the talk, I commended him on a job well done, and we returned triumphantly to the bank. Our satisfaction was short-lived.
The next morning, a headline in The Wall Street Journal read, “Passages Rockefeller’s Speech Leaves Out Tell More than Those Included.”
The story recounted how an earlier draft of Mr. Rockefeller’s speech, containing subsequently-excised explosive passages, had mistakenly been handed to reporters. Prior to the speech, I had carefully made sure that Mr. Rockefeller had the right copy in hand but failed to double check the copies we had distributed to the press. My bad.
And Mr. Rockefeller, correctly, was not pleased. Did he belittle or scream or rant or demand (understandably) his speech drafter’s head? Of course not. He was David Rockefeller, not Donald Trump!
But he was properly piqued.
Rockefeller’s arched eyebrow was reminder enough to one chagrined speech drafter always to review, personally, every final draft before exposing the speech to public scrutiny.
Forty years later, the lesson remains learned.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He is the author of the Prentice- Hall text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its eleventh edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at email@example.com.