Open Mouth, Insert Foot!

It seems to happen every week: someone is caught saying something that they immediately wish they could take back. Even seasoned professionals like Don Imus say things they wish they hadn’t.

While Imus said that he used those infamous three words “as a joke,” most people certainly didn’t think it was a laughing matter. In our view, the situation was made worse because virtually every time the media reported on the incident, they repeated those three words. It was truly a story that took on a life of its own, for several reasons. First, the apologies didn’t really seem sincere. Pointing out that it was intended as a joke in essence placed the blame on those who “misunderstood” his innocent comments rather than on Imus.

Second, Imus’ employer was very delayed in its response to the situation. And, while they said that their decision to suspend, then terminate, his employment was based on his inappropriate comments, it was also clear to many that the decision to fire Imus was made only after many companies cancelled their advertising. Thus, people were left with the impression that if the ad dollars were still there, Imus would be, too.

How does this pertain to corporate America? On a smaller scale, we’ve all seen things like this happen to CEO’s and other executives and managers. Typically, it happens at company meetings or in some form of communication with employees, clients and/or the public. It also happens during interviews. To put it simply, something is said that shouldn’t have been said. Maybe it was a joke that went bad; maybe it was a private comment overheard on a “live” microphone; maybe it was a draft of a memo that was distributed rather than a final – or a host of other incidents. The point is, how does someone recover and remove their foot from their mouth?

Everyone makes mistakes and we all realize that. What often makes the situation deteriorate is either trying to ignore the problem or worse, trying to cover it up or blame someone/something else. Apologize – and make it sincere or don’t bother. Issuing a disingenuous statement can often make the situation worse. In its initial statement regarding the Imus remarks, MSNBC said that “Imus in the Morning” is produced by another radio station and they were simply simulcasting it. Their statement went on to say that Imus makes it clear every day that his views are his own and may not be the views of MSNBC. While they did say the comments were inappropriate, they did it in a way to say “Gee, it really wasn’t our fault so you can’t blame us.” The problem was, however, that many people did blame them for the comments.

Imus did apologize – but not until the next day when there was already an uproar. If you say something inappropriate, you probably know it right away, even if it’s based on the reaction of others. Don’t delay as time is of the essence. If you’re making a speech at the all-employee meeting and you tell a bad joke, immediately say, “Wow, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” Then, go on with the rest of your speech. Don’t belabor the point.

While you can explain your comments, don’t make excuses. Recently, a political candidate blamed one inappropriate remark on: 1) the batteries going out on his hearing aid and being deaf in the other ear, 2) needing to use the bathroom, 3) having both the flu and bronchitis, and 4) misinterpreting the question. Wow. The fourth reason was the only reason he should have given. And, if the question was indeed misinterpreted, a clarification of his original answer should have been provided.

If you’re giving an interview, always make sure you understand the question. While some reporters love getting a “sensational” comment, the majority are far more interested in receiving accurate information. The same goes for your employees and customers.

One important thing to keep in mind is the context of your remarks. What Imus said directly referred to Rutger University’s women basketball players. However, those same three words are often totally overlooked when they are in a rap song. Your joke may be appropriate in a management team meeting, but could be misinterpreted in an interview with the local business reporter.

Of course, the best way to avoid “open mouth, insert foot” disease is to prepare before you make your comments. Very few people are good at true extemporaneous speaking. Here are a few tips:

– Know your subject matter inside and out.

– Anticipate both positive and negative questions and plan your answers in advance.

– Know when to tell a joke…and when not to. More importantly, recognize if you can tell a joke well! What sounded funny on Letterman may be very different when you bungle it.

– Practice, practice, practice! Whether it’s an all-company meeting, an interview or a shareholder meeting, don’t try to speak unprepared.

Finally, recognize that you may not think your remarks were inappropriate but others may. Examine each situation to determine if you do need to clarify your remarks or issue an apology. Sometimes, silence truly is golden.

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Deborah Krier, president and founder of Wise Women Communications, is a marketing and public relations professional with experience in media and public relations, internal and external communication, crisis management, integrated marketing campaigns, brand management, event coordination, Web site design and development, and community relations. She managed corporate communications programs for the Denver site of ING Group, served as a media and communications coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Region of the American Cancer Society, served as the director of public relations and account manager for Linnell & Soreide Marketing Partners, a full-service marketing and advertising firm.

In addition, she provided lobbying support at a state and local level for Corporate Advocates, a Denver-based firm. Deborah holds an MBA degree with an emphasis in marketing from the University of Colorado and an MS degree in communications management from Colorado State University. She can be reached at 303-594-8930 or

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