"Sob Stories" About The Poor: A Classic Media Gaffe

Eric Hovde is running for the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin.

The businessman—who has no political experience—faces a bruising Republican primary against the state’s former governor and two other candidates with political experience.

Late last week, Mr. Hovde was answering the very last question following a speech to the Greater Brookfield Chamber of Commerce, when he ad libbed something that earned him national headlines:

“I see a reporter here. I just pray that you start writing about these issues. I just pray. Stop always writing about, ‘Oh, the person couldn’t get, you know, their food stamps or this or that.’ You know, I saw something the other day — it’s like, another sob story, and I’m like, but what about what’s happening to the country and the country as a whole?’ That’s going to devastate everybody.”

Mr. Hovde’s comment was portrayed by several media outlets as being dismissive about the poor, if not revelatory about his lack of concern about people in poverty. The left-leaning Huffington Post ran the story, but so too did nonpartisan political outlets such as Politico (for which I am a contributor) and The National Journal.

As a media trainer, this type of media gaffe is particularly painful to watch, because it is completely preventable.

Imagine if Mr. Hovde had said this instead:

“The media are writing a lot of stories about how individual people are suffering in this economy, but they’re not writing nearly enough about the larger issues regarding our national debt. I beg the reporter who’s here to write more of those types of stories.”

That quote would have conveyed the exact same thought, but wouldn’t have earned Hovde the same negative headlines.

Mr. Hovde’s gaffe is a perfect example of what I call the “seven-second stray.” I call it that because if a spokesperson is on message for 59 minutes and 53 seconds of an hour-long interview but says something off message for just seven seconds, I can virtually guarantee that the reporter will select that seven-second answer to play over and over again.

The seven-second stray is deadly. Not only is it often damaging to your reputation, but it drowns out everything else you’ve said, becoming the only quote the audience will remember from your interview.

I can’t help thinking that Mr. Hovde’s gaffe, which occurred at the very end of his talk, was the result of relaxing just a little bit too much at the end of an otherwise successful speech. It serves as a good reminder to all of us that we’re on the record until we’re safely ensconced within the safety of our cars, a few miles down the road from the speaking venue.

h/t Amanda Terkel

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