Donald Trump demonstrated in the third and final 2016 presidential debate how an indulgent comment can drown out everything else he said.
Playing coy on whether he would accept the outcome of the election if he loses wound up obscuring Trump's best overall debate performance and virtually assured his sharpest barbs at Hillary Clinton would be lost in the waves of subsequent news cycles.
Then he doubled down on his comment the following day by saying he would accept the election outcome – if he won.
This is a much more widespread affliction than a presidential candidate on the precipice of losing. CEOs too often let hubris get in the way of doing their job to deliver a crisp, clear message. This affliction is aggravated by overconfidence and a failure to prepare. To play off a Trump metaphor, you think you are a Big Leaguer, but perform like a Little Leaguer.
Strategic communication requires discipline not only in what you say, but in what you don’t say. Only fools assume that the news media, especially in highly charged moments, won’t seize on inflammatory comments.
In Trump’s case, he began walking himself into the airplane propeller by raising the red flag of a rigged election. While an audience applause line at his political rallies, his claim baited reporters to find the evidence of fraudulent electoral procedures. Since a majority of local and state election officials are Republicans, they could be expected to take offense at his claim, which they vigorously disputed.
Then comes the penultimate presidential debate and Trump, having already pushed himself out on the plank, appeared ill-prepared for the question he knows is coming as sure as flooding flows from major hurricanes. He could have answered the question about his acceptance of the presidential election outcome in a lot of ways, but he chose the one way that would command the airwaves and submerge his other messages. He tried to be cute.
Whether or not Trump’s tactic turns the election tide is irrelevant to what his comment did to his campaign and his surrogates. He and they will be forced for days to justify ambivalence about a deeply held political tradition of graceful losers and peaceful transitions of power. This probably isn’t what Trump intended, but a man with his business and celebrity background should have known what storm his comments would cause.
It’s worth recalling that a former BP president, besieged by the controversy of one of the worst oil spills in history, wished out loud he could get some rest, as if his anguish was greater than the lives of people directly impacted by the oil spill. His wish came true sooner than expected, and perhaps not in the way he would have wished it.
Slips of the tongue can occur. But when stakes are high, you have to play the game at full capacity. That means preparation and discipline, not winging it and indulgence. Trump’s comment and its aftermath should be an object lesson on the mind of every executive who is asked to step into the limelight.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.