PR pitfall: ‘The 7-second stray’—avoid it at all costs

A company spokesperson can stay on message for 59 minutes and 53 seconds, but if he or she wanders for a mere seven seconds the media will pounce. Here’s how to avoid the dreaded ‘7-second stray.’

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Because Late Edition aired after all of the other Sunday public affairs shows, one of my tasks each week was to watch the earlier programs to monitor what politicians were saying. If a politician said something interesting, I’d edit a video clip from the quote so Wolf could air it on the show.

I was always on the lookout for a politician saying something off message. Why? Because anything unscripted and off the cuff was inherently more interesting than the canned responses we always heard. In a newsroom, a less-scripted response will almost always be deemed more newsworthy.

Years later, I developed a name to describe that phenomenon: “The Seven-Second Stray.” I call it that because if a spokesperson is on message for 59 minutes and 53 seconds of an hourlong interview but says something off message for just seven seconds, I can almost guarantee that reporters will select that seven-second answer to play over and over again.

The seven-second stray is deadly.

Not only is it often damaging to your reputation, but it drowns out everything else you’ve said, becoming the only quote the audience will ever hear from your interview.

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