By Carmie McCook, President, Carmie McCook & Associates
In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, former Speaker of the House and potential presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, was asked about the uncomfortable subject of his marital affair that made headlines in the 1990s. In the interview he said, “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”
He went on to say he believes in a forgiving God, and that he had asked for God’s forgiveness.
Gingrich’s Response to a Sticky Question: Grade D
There is a topic in everyone’s life we would prefer to not discuss in a media interview. But, controversy makes interesting news. If there is a Darth Vader issue in your past, it is imperative that you take the time to plan a response that will honestly address the issue and minimize the possibility of additional damage to your public image. The response Mr. Gingrich gave did nothing to endear him to those who have strong, negative feelings about anyone having an extramarital affair, much less someone seeking the highest office in the US.
I gave Mr. Gingrich’s response a D because he sounds like he’s justifying his past affair as an unfortunate result of his super-human devotion to the country. His response implies he sees himself as a defenseless victim of working too hard for America and, therefore, he was unintentionally led astray. Huh? When did patriotism make infidelity okay? Excuses for bad behavior, especially pathetic ones, only weaken one’s credibility and increase the public’s disdain for the conduct.
Media Coaching Advice:
Never place the blame for your bad behavior on others or on outlandish circumstances. If you have done something wrong, take responsibility, admit it, apologize, and do not try to sugarcoat or justify it.
Planning a Response:
When planning a response to a difficult question you must appeal to the concerns of the audience most important to win over. In this case, the strong right-wing Christian voters are the primary viewers of the Christian Broadcast Network. Many could view his infidelity as a reason to eliminate him immediately from their presidential radar. Saying he sacrificed his marriage vows because he was just too dedicated to America is about as plausible as saying the dog ate my homework.
A Better Response:
“There’s no question that many years ago events happened in my personal life that were not appropriate, for which I am deeply sorry. But I believe in a forgiving God and I asked for His forgiveness. I know with His help, we can learn how to become better people. I know He has helped me become a much wiser and stronger person.”
The Lesson to Be Learned:
Bad responses in a media interview stick like glue in the minds of the public. That is why it is extremely important to anticipate tough questions that might come up and plan concise and credible answers. I am certain Mr. Gingrich has heard negative feedback about his reply. I am certain he has now added fuel to a fire he wishes would go away.
And, knowing he is surrounded by media advisors, I’m certain we will hear a different response in the future.
Carmie McCook is a nationally known executive communications trainer and coach, (www.carmie.com) specializing in preparing high-profile clients for media interviews, crisis communications, keynote speeches, and presentations. A former TV reporter and former Director of Communications for a Fortune 100 company, Carmie now uses her powers for good rather than evil. She is based in Washington, DC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.