Media Relations 101: Don’t Call Anyone ‘Racist’

Tomorrow marks the party primaries in New York City’s mayoral race. You can be forgiven for not caring if you don’t live in the Big Apple (and even if you do!), because Anthony Weiner‘s epic, face-first fall from grace seems to be the only thing anyone’s talking about.

Until now, that is.

Over the weekend current Mayor Michael Bloomberg—lover of bikes and hater of soda—made a classic media relations error by letting his outspoken character get the best of him. In an otherwise  solid interview with Chris Smith of New York magazine, Mike accused his least favorite mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio of running a “class-warfare and racist” campaign.

The word would be inflammatory enough on its own, but de Blasio is a white man married to a black woman with two bi-racial children who have been very visible throughout his campaign.

This story illustrates a very simple media relations no-no for figures who rely on the public’s approval: never call anyone a racist.

If you’re an inflammatory talk show host or professional “commentator” known for making outlandish statements then you can unleash the R-word without suffering too much damage to your reputation and credibility. But a politician looking to insert himself into the current race to choose his successor? Bad idea.

This is all very unfortunate for de Blasio’s closest competitor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. She ran the organization under Bloomberg for more than seven years and he repeatedly touted her ability to get things done—in other words, he became her de facto spokesman whether she liked it or not. The issue threatening to swallow Quinn before this week was term limits: she strongly supported them (as did Bloomberg) until the mayor decided he wanted to run for a third and went about changing the voter-approved law via a 12-8 vote in the City Council.

It was a complicated story, but now it has been completely overshadowed by Bloomberg’s “racist” quote.

Sure, we get what the mayor was going for: he wants to claim that de Blasio’s campaign relies on the power of pitting the city’s poor and minority communities against the super-wealthy business class that Bloomberg supposedly preferred. The implication is that a vote for Quinn, portrayed as a Bloomberg ally and confidant, is a vote for “eight more years” of policies designed to benefit that demographic. But that’s not racism, it’s populist politics.

Bloomberg’s description was not totally inaccurate, and he had a valid point to make—but he destroyed it with one word.

Come on, Mike. You’re smarter than that.

*Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images