General Stanley McCrystal, Virginia Senator George Allen and Carly Fiorina, among others, have learned the hard way that in today’s 24/7 news, blog, twitter and YouTube world, nothing is “off-the-record” and everything, even the most petty remarks, are up for endless debate. Those “off-the-cuff” remarks, whether told to a reporter allegedly under an “off-the-record” ground rule or caught on video or audio can so quickly shift focus from the person’s real message to a debate over inconsequential subtext that can derail careers, candidacies and reputations.
Even actions matter. Take the pictures of Tony Hayward, BP’s battered and buffeted CEO, who had complained that he wanted his “life back” after the oil spill, and moved back to Britain at the orders of the Chairman. The very first days after his arrival he was photographed on a yacht in crystal clear waters, which did not go unnoticed at the White House, with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel commenting, “Well, to quote Tony Hayward, he’s got his life back, as he would say.”
Does this mean you should never engage with the media? No. With or without the mainstream media, there are more and more blogs, citizen journalists and just plain “watchers” out there. In fact, the Democratic National Committee is working on replicating that “Macaca Moment” of Senator Allen’s by organizing “The Accountable Project,” by encouraging people to go to Republican events and upload videos to show candidates engaged in gaffes, double-speak and hypocrisy.
Unfortunately, this kind of “gotcha” citizen journalism means no one is ever truly “off” the record. Which is why a company should warn key managers, the public face of the company, to guard against those embarrassing photos, quotes, and quips that can be caught on a camera-phone and uploaded instantly to Facebook, Twitter or a consumer website. Facebook and Linkedin are nice, but having lived and worked in Russia for the last 20-odd years, after the spy scandal broke last week, I immediately checked my friends and “LinkedIn” list for any of the suspects. You never know.