Mitt Romney yesterday uttered the unbelievably quotable words: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” He quickly moved to assert that those words were taken out of context, and that immediately after those words (which we will hear from his opponents repeatedly over the course of the presidential campaign) he said: “We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I’ll fix it.” Does it matter what he said in-context and what he said out-of-context? Maybe it used to matter, but not in 2012 and beyond – not in the age of the Communications Revolution. This new fact of life needs to be integrated into every component of an organization’s communications strategy and execution.
Way back in 1980 or so, one of my clients for investor relations was a Washington, DC-area based company that recently had gone public. I had a great deal of respect for the chairman of the company, who had a couple PhD degrees, spoke a number of languages and was generally considered to be truly brilliant. We worked together to craft the company’s earnings releases and analyst presentations. After we completed a version with which we felt comfortable, he had an assistant do something I never had heard of before, but it was a great move. He had the assistant print the release and then use a scissors so that, when done, each sentence of the release was on a separate slip of paper. Then he shook the mix of these slips of paper together and started pulling them out randomly, one-by-one, and reading each one out-of-context. Today, a computer can probably do that.
Everyone who knew of this practice realized how strange it was, but also appreciated how smart it was. The company chairman knew the power of statements taken out-of-context, so he took all precautions to defend against providing the kernel of a statement that could make an embarrassing quote.
Today, the problem of being quoted out-of-context is even worse. With the 24-hour news cycle, instant communications, and the tools for a friend or foe to make a statement go viral, the risk of being quoted out-of-context is dramatically high.
How do you mitigate those risks? I think the answer can be found in basic rules of public relations and communications strategy. Start with a value proposition and a clear vision of how you want yourself and/or your organization to be viewed by your audiences. Then develop a very few key messages that will combine over time, when repeated in appropriate language for the particular audience, into the image (the position) you want your audiences to have. Then: stay-on-point! That is, repeat and repeat and repeat your key messages. Don’t stray. If that means you provide only a limited number of statements that can be quoted by the news media, so-be-it. At least those statements will always be consistent with the goals of your communications strategy … and if one of those statements is quoted outside the context of everything else you said, it is still a message that advances your image consistent with your goals rather than becoming a quote that can come back to haunt you. And if others say you are too scripted or rehearsed, ask yourself this question:
Would you rather be criticized for being too rehearsed or be crucified for a statement you made that was quoted out-of-context and became viral?