One of our tasks as counselors to our PR clients is to continually reinforce the precept that when speaking with the media, there is no off-the-record. Anything said to a reporter can be used against you. So, as your mother may have warned you, if you can’t say anything nice, it’s better to say nothing at all.
Not too long ago it was a lot easier to control interactions with the press. If a client had something to say, we sent out a press release, or set up a media tour to go and visit journalists. For a really big announcement we might stage a press conference.
But today with constant news updates and a proliferation of “citizen journalists,” the media is always with us. Everyone with a smartphone (which is virtually everyone) has a video camera ready to hit, “record” and instantaneously your embarrassing moments with the world.
Nothing is Confidential
The same advances in technology that allow us to remain in constant touch with friends and family have also taken away any expectations of privacy. That’s true even at events where “everything said in this room is confidential.” The digital record is forever and anything you say or do in public may turn up in a Google search long after you’re gone.
That’s a lesson that Ken Fisher is learning the hard way. The billionaire founder of Fisher Investments was invited to take part in a “fireside chat” at the recent Tiburon CEO Summit, a meeting of that is notoriously “off the record” so that the participants can speak freely. Like the cliché about Vegas, what happens at Tiburon is supposed to stay at Tiburon.
But in his comments, Fisher went too far over the line for some in the audience. No recording of the actual session has surfaced, but enough attendees have confirmed what Alex Chalekian, founder and CEO of Lake Avenue Financial said in a video he posted on social media afterward to make the story credible. In addition to the financial trade press, Fisher’s comments made the mainstream media and were covered in The Washington Post, The New York Times and other major outlets.
The Difference Between Authentic and Crude
Fisher probably thought he was being “authentic” with blunt and crude terminology and bolstering his reputation as a guy who tells it like it is. Instead, most in the audience seem to have been left wondering what would drive a person in the age of “Me Too” to compare a financial advisor winning a client’s trust to “getting in a girl’s pants”? The fact that he then corrected himself to say “woman” instead of girl, and made a reference to Jeffrey Epstein was a “joke” that fell rather flat.
Apparently, many of the entities that have money with Fisher Investments didn’t get the joke either. In the days after Fisher’s comments went public, institutional investors pulled almost $2 billion from his firm’s management.
Own What You Say
It’s almost inevitable that at some point you will say something unintentional, embarrassing or just plain wrong. It’s only human. But when it happens to you, don’t try and pretend you didn’t say what everyone heard and saw. There have been plenty of recent instances where we’ve seen politicians trying to “put the toothpaste back in the tube” by walking back the things they didn’t mean to say, so I won’t point any fingers. Suffice it to say, it never works and only serves to make the speaker look even more foolish.
It’s also a bad idea to say that your comments were misconstrued by the media or taken out of context. Just take responsibility and admit you misspoke or made an error. Apologize, promise never to do it again and move on.
Mistakes happen but it’s best to avoid them. The best way is to think before you speak. If you always try to say what you mean and mean what you say, you’re less likely to get yourself in trouble. And remember the camera is always rolling. While there’s no guarantee you won’t have an accidental slip or lapse in judgment, creating a messaging platform can help lower the risk of going off message and off brand.
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