Sound Bites 2010: Not So Tasty—from Christine O'Donnell to Lebron James, PR Gaffes Abound

Robert Geline

By Robert Geline, President, 144 Media

Whatever else 2010 will be remembered for, sound bites that helped the lives and careers of those who uttered them will not be at the top of the list. For anyone interested in succeeding with the media, there are some important lessons to be gleaned from the mistakes of others in recent months. Take Christine O’Donnell, the soundly trounced Tea Party Republican Candidate for the U.S. Senate from Delaware, for instance.

“I am not a witch.”

In an ill-fated attempt to lay to rest the issue of whether she had dabbled in witchcraft as a younger person, the “Sarah Palin of the Lower ‘48” aired a campaign commercial that featured her looking straight into the camera to declare: “I am not a witch.”

Unclear in the O’Donnell media strategy was why anyone trying to bury the witch issue would choose instead to make it the centerpiece of a paid media campaign. Predictably, the ad kicked up a new dust storm of interest in O’Donnell’s history, or lack of it, with the black arts.

The campaign quickly pulled the spot off the air, but not before it had served to reinforce identification of O’Donnell with the word “witch.”

“I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”

Basketball superstar LeBron James doesn’t need a broom to fly above the competition on the basketball court. Unfortunately for his reputation and marketability, James’ performance in the court of public opinion lately has not been so impressive. With a single stroke of the tongue last summer, LeBron James threw a large rock through the picture window of an otherwise pristine reputation.

How many PR pros and James posse people did it take to come up with: “I’m taking my talents to South beach.”

Showcased in a one-hour special televised to the world on ESPN, the King James decision might have played better had he at least mentioned the team he had chosen to play for (the Miami Heat) as opposed to a section of Miami with the richly deserved reputation as one of the world’s most notorious adult playgrounds (South Beach).

No matter how James characterized his decision to change teams, it was going to be tough to swallow in gritty Cleveland. But to package the decision in language that highlighted sensual South Beach was too much for almost anyone who doesn’t live in a neighborhood of year around sunshine, sand and surf—which is to say almost everyone in America.

As soon as Clevelanders began to burn LeBron’s Cavaliers jerseys in angered reaction to his jilt of the town he said he loved, James’ celebrity approval rating began to plummet. Arrogant. Offensive. Insensitive. These were some of the kinder adjectives used to describe the phrasing James chose to reveal his choice. And not just in Cleveland.

How many NBA championships will it take to restore LeBron James to the marketing throne he fell off with his ill-advised sound bite? Tough to quantify, except to say that it’s a good thing LeBron James is still a relatively young player.

“I’d like my life back.”

There will be no restoration for Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP. That’s because at the height of fear, frustration and anger over BP’s inability to cap, contain or clean up the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the man in charge for BP told a reporter: “I’d like my life back.”

It was a momentary lapse of focus for the multimillionaire executive and the beginning of the end of his stewardship of BP. That’s because the timing of Hayward’s remark came when hundreds of thousands of non-millionaires around the Gulf of Mexico were seeing their lives destroyed by the unending gush of toxic goo from BP’s uncapped well.

It outraged millions around the U.S. and the world, who saw the statement as archetypal of corporate insensitivity and the real story of BP’s attitude toward the spill, despite the company’s $50 million image builder ad campaign.

Hayward quickly apologized, but media reports showing Hayward at the helm of his yacht off the Isle of Wight the next week seemed to show what he really cared about.

Tony Hayward got his life back, but not his job. Whether BP will ever get its reputation back in the wake of the Gulf Oil spill and Hayward’s PR gaffes remains an open question.

Robert Geline is President of 144 Media LLC (www.144media.com), a consulting organization
that specializes in media coaching, message strategy and presentation performance enhancement.
He counsels clients from his perspective as an Emmy-winning network journalist and
former national newsmagazine correspondent and editor.

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5 Comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Callie Crum, meewing. meewing said: Only a few words, but major PR Gaffes in 2010.http://tiny.cc/uxywz […]



  2. KMO on December 2, 2010 at 3:14 am

    well said Mr. Geline



  3. Walter Flamenbaum on December 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Interesting and lucid – good!



  4. David Rosen on December 2, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    Very much enjoyed the column and think that the issue’s importance only grows with every new citation of damaging sound bites online. Typically after a few years — sometimes decades — people forget that very dumb thing you said. But with Google reminding them with every search, the reputational stain will never quite fade.



  5. John Elmore on December 3, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    It didn’t work for President Nixon (looking at the TV camera and insisting “I am not a crook”). What is the saying? “hose who ignore history are destined to repeat it?” As David just indicated, once posted online, things do last forever in cyberspace. Focusing on the positive in public, and not complaints or denials, seems to be the lesson here.