These days, one misstatement can wreak havoc for your brand, especially in a close political race or tight commercial competition. Even if that statement is pulled completely out of context. Just ask Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith.
In what was, by all accounts, a bit of a strange back-and-forth with a supporter, Hyde-Smith agreed she would be “on the front row” if she was invited to a public hanging. Given the context and the strange political climate in which we live, the comment, pulled out of context, immediately went viral, forcing Hyde-Smith to jump on the statement, even as her political opponent, Mike Espy, tried to make some hay out of the issue.
Hyde-Smith did quickly apologize, making it clear she was in no way invoking Mississippi’s history of racism and lynching.
“You know, for anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements… I have worked with all Mississippians. It didn’t matter their skin color type, their age or their income. That’s my record.”
By standing on her record, Hyde-Smith gives supporters a clean message with which to combat any detractors, and she also gives opponents something to fact check. Still, though, it was a clear and concise message, both apology and explanation. For her opponent, Hyde-Smith had stronger words, saying Espy “twisted” her comments to “turn them into a weapon to be used against me for personal and political gain by my opponent…”
Espy was quick to fire back: “Well, no one twisted your comments because your comments were live — you know, they came out of your mouth… I don’t know what’s in your heart, but we all know what came out of your mouth.”
While this kind of back and forth is increasingly common in modern American politics, what’s interesting here, from a Public Relations perspective, are the lessons we can take from it.
The first thing to consider is that any statement, no matter how it was intended, can be edited, turned into a meme or a video clip, and used in an attempt to put you on the defensive.
The best response is not to rise to the bait. Offer, instead, a strong positive statement. If necessary, apologize to those who may have been hurt or offended, and take a moment to focus on what was actually meant by the statement. That may not win over those who are determined not to like what you have to say, but you need to get that positive counter-narrative out there ASAP.
Next, don’t back down.
Stake a claim on your position and defend it honestly and with vigor. While there may be a time to ignore accusations meant to besmirch your brand, once you have chosen to engage and counter those messages, commit to being positive, clear, and connective.
Ronn Torossian is one of America’s foremost Public Relations executives as founder/CEO of 5WPR, a leading independent public relations Agency. The firm was honored as PR Firm of the Year by The American Business Awards, and has been named to the Inc. 500 List. Torossian is author of the best-selling "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations." For more of Ronn Torossian's reports, Go Here Now.
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