5 Tips for Keeping Your Message Clear and On-Point

“If you have to backtrack, you need to ask yourself, why did you put it out there in the first place?” That’s what Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show, would like to know. She was speaking about being funny on Twitter at an event last month, but her question addresses a broader issue: more celebrities and brands have had to backtrack recently after making controversial comments on various media platforms.

We’re referring to statements or tweets that veer off message, not major blunders that require full-scale apology tours. These foot-in-mouth comments and retractions occur so frequently that the Plain English Campaign established a Foot in Mouth award to highlight “a baffling comment by a public figure”. Mitt Romney lost his presidential bid, but he won the award last year.

With so much material to choose from, we took a closer look to better understand the dynamics. The selected faux pas highlighted below serve as cautionary tales of how easy it is for messages to go awry and reminders to avoid that happening.

1. Being too authentic can cause real trouble. Former Boston Red Sox player Kevin Youkilis, acquired by the Yankees during the off-season, said “I’ll always be a Red Sock” during an early spring training interview. It’s clear that he meant what he said, since he has strong Boston ties. (New England Patriots QB Tom Brady is his brother-in-law). Youkilis’ problem was speaking his true feelings without first hitting the pause button to consider his new team’s reaction.

2. Pursue facts, not fiction. Mistakes happen, especially if you don’t take the time to check all your facts. Winstead’s comment wasn’t aimed at her boss Jon Stewart, but even he issued a lengthy mea culpa recently. He and his staff didn’t check the civil rights record of a Mississippi politician he mocked during a segment, and the pol turned out to be a staunch civil rights activist.

3. Sound bites can backfire. The quickest way to generate buzz is often a clever sound bite. Even President Obama used these during the debates (remember his reply to Romney about the Navy)–but he vetted them first. Unfortunately, former GE CEO Jack Welch didn’t vet his conspiracy theory tweet about the Labor Department’s October jobs report. It came back to haunt him when he tried to defend his critique to various media outlets.

4. Bland beats the “bad boy” approach. Some famous people build their public personas around being controversial, but they’re in the minority. Yes, the media craves outspoken figures like Chris Christie, Joan Rivers, Rosie O’Donnell and the late Ed Koch. They can handle pushback, but not many people or companies can get away with unfiltered comments like they can. The diplomatic approach of well-mannered New York Yankees stars Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera or Newark Mayor Cory Booker is smarter in the long run.

5. There’s no escape from the media’s microscope. With so many social media platforms, along with the surge of media outlets reporting on everyone’s activities, the odds of mis-speaking or mis-tweeting have increased exponentially. As Tom Brokaw said on a recent Meet the Press show, “In this media environment, everybody’s looking to stir things up”. Effectively managing multiple platforms is a high maintenance effort. Just ask former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who tweeted semi-coherent jibberish late one night then struggled to explain why.

As for fellow Boston fan Kevin Youkilis, there’s a surefire way to rebound from his ill-fated, though not fatal comment: stay healthy, perform flawlessly as a Yankee defender and hit multiple home runs. Actions still speak louder than words on the ball field.

(image from Keith Haring painting, Retrospect 1989)