When you’re a media spokesperson, being “almost” perfect isn’t good enough. One slip, and the media won’t hear anything else you’ve said.
I’ve written before about something I’ve dubbed the “seven-second stray
.” If a spokesperson is on message for 59 minutes and 53 seconds of an hour-long interview, but says something off message for just seven seconds, I can virtually guarantee that reporters will select that seven-second answer to play over and over again.
On Sunday’s “Meet The Press,” Newark’s Democratic mayor, Cory Booker, committed a now infamous—and politically harmful—seven-second stray.
Speaking about President Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, he said:
“This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides. It’s nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity….It’s either going to be a small campaign about this crap or it’s going to be a big campaign, in my opinion, about the issues that the American public cares about.”
Those were surprising remarks from an Obama supporter, and the press immediately picked up on them. So did Republican fundraisers, who quickly put out a “We Stand With Cory” ad.
Booker immediately backtracked, releasing a video and appearing on “The Rachel Maddow Show.” But he put the blame on the wrong place:
“So here they are, plucking sound bites out of that interview to manipulate them in a cynical manner, to use them for their own purposes.
First, I don’t buy his argument that he was “taken out of context.”
“I am upset, that’s why I’m on your show, that I’ve been taken out of context.”
As columnist Michael Kinsley once said, "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say." His meaning was clear, despite his subsequent backtracking.
Second, a seasoned politician should know
that “sound bites” will inevitably be “plucked” out of an interview by opponents for partisan gain—which is why he should have known better than to go so far off script.
Mayor Booker may be angry with Republicans for exaggerating their support for him (they are) or at the media for replaying an off-script sound bite (they are). But the fault rests squarely on the shoulders of the man who uttered those words.
Brad Phillips is the author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, where a version of this story first appeared. His firm, Phillips Media Relations, specializes in media and presentation training. He tweets at @MrMediaTraining.