12 October 2015

Gaffes and the Golden Rue (and other rules)

Photo source: Wikipedia

The Golden (olden) Rule runs something like this: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” In the world of communications professionals, replete with PR firms on retainer, Chief Marketing Officers’s (CMO) on antidepressants because their average tenure is 2.5 years, and communications directors on-call, ready to take over for the stressed-out CMO, the Golden Rue (that’s no misspelling) goes like this: Sooner or later, we all regret our very own gaffe-riddled words — and may have to eat them — so let’s not enjoy the Schadenfreude sandwich when our competitors screw-up their own maladroit syntax. Or, something to that effect (I’m still working on it).

This week the polymath CEO Elon Musk (Space-X, Tesla, etc.) is having to make amends for speaking his mind, as is his natural wont, during an interview with a German business publication last month where he revealed his plain spoken thoughts on Apple’s getting into the electric car business:

“They have hired people we’ve fired. We always jokingly call Apple the “Telsa Graveyard.” If you don’t make it at Tesla, you go work at Apple. I’m not kidding.”

Elon Musk is oft-great for a quote, whether talking with Stephen Colbert about terraforming Mars with thermonuclear devices, or discussing “what-keeps-him-up-at-night” puzzlers like those pesky, inchoate A.I. robotic armies potentially threatening mankind with an extinction level event (this is not an exaggeration; Google has the patent on this). But, when talking about competitor Apple, the sui generis Musk showed himself human and proved up the adage that it’s best to keep the competitive hyperbole to a minimum. Salty language is great when company-facing, motivating the troops and whatnot; but when client-facing, speaking to the public (and by definition to the other side because any CMO worth their salt has a skunkworks competitive intelligence team running 24/7), the preferred ratio for the perfect bravado cocktail is 2 jiggers more graciousness, 1 jigger less hyperbole.

Being gaffe-prone doesn’t necessarily speak ill of CxO’s; just acknowledges the amount of face-time/prime-time a dynamic company will have by definition, especially in the age of Bloomberg West, all manners of Dreamforce’s, SouthBy’s, DLDnyc’s, and other cool venues where your hipster CxO can malaprop with the best of them.

If you’re in the C-Suite and actively engaged with the public, investors, the media, and creating content (both video and print), chances are you’ll come to rue and regret your (their) own gaffe at some point, so live by the Golden Rue which basically advocates not piling on, to be gracious to the other guy, and to “measure twice, cut once” as any good carpenter knows, especially when giving interviews, speaking publicly, or writing a piece, response (or remonstrance) on Pulse, Medium, or microblasting on social media du jour.

Having to walk back public comments can be a tricky task (trisky?). Herculean even. Some gaffes can end a career, viz., Amy Pascal, whose private gaffes were leaked vis-à-vis the Sony hack. Some gaffes are par for the course, especially if that course is public policy, e.g., Veep Joe Biden, George W., et. al., whose every word is public, parsed, and a potential whoopsie daisy. And, some gaffes are ill-advised word choices just because they sound gawdawful, as we were reminded by Christopher Hitchens about the D.C. politico who should have used the word miserly instead of the word which sounded an awful like the N-word. Whether you’re advising business executives or policy wonks, sometimes “just because” is good enough, Dear Reader, and occasionally career-saving great advice for your client.

Usually, though, a quick apology, and occasionally a mea maxima culpa, along with a heartfelt and concomitant corrective, and you’re well along your way helping navigate the communication waters for your organization. Nonetheless, both the rule and the rue (golden-hued didactic directives) suggest the giving and receiving of a full measure of grace and understanding when it comes to the ubiquitous gaffe. Especially, if we learn from the Golden Rue.


Mandy said...

Fantastic article! And yes, you can hear someone in your company saying the same competitive things over and over (two months at my company, I know our MD left a lifelong career at a major competitor for us) but keep that stuff to yourself in public!

Jg. for FatScribe said...

Mandy -- thx for the compliment! yes, competitive puffery is all well and good (I actually enjoy it immensely), but there can always be blowback. love that your managing director saw the light finally (ha!) and joined the right side! see you on your side of the pond soon ...

Barbara said...

Good morning, JG! Loved hearing from you.
Re gaffes: one of life's lessons I have finally mastered (now that I'm nearly 80...ye Gods) is keeping my mouth shut. And in these PC days, it's a lucky thing I have. (Can't even talk politics with my daughter...we have agreed to disagree and keep both our mouths shut) Seems as though you can't say a damn thing anymore without offending someone. Everybody's walking something back.
I kind of liked things back in the 50's. We were so innocent. Am relieved I raised my children back then. I'd hate to be a parent now.
Hope things are going well for you, I don't check in with you nearly enough!
Happy Holiday season, my dear blog buddy.

Jg. for FatScribe said...

Barb -- great to have you stop by for the visit, pal. ALWAYS appreciate your perspective with your amazing wisdom, plus I think we agree politically more than not! Yeah, 50's was a different era, but I love that you and your daughter agree to a ceasefire when it comes to politics. Way smarter than I am (i'm a mix-it-up kinda guy!) on such matters. I'll be visiting you again soon over at MoveableFeasts soon.