White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest proved last week that a careless word in a press conference can ignite a media firestorm.
Taking to the podium to condemn Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, Earnest said: “The first thing a president does, when he or she takes the oath of office, is to swear an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And the simple fact is, that what Donald Trump said yesterday disqualifies him from serving as president.”
As the word “disqualifies” rapidly made its way across the web in headlines, sound bites and new memes about Trump, Earnest’s statement incidentally convinced many Americans that he actually had been booted out of the race.
That afternoon, tweets paired with the hashtag #TrumpIsDisqualifiedParty soared to the top of Twitter’s list of trending topics. As a testament to how viral a tiny misstatement can become, in the week since, the hashtag has made millions of impressions on Twitter and some news organizations even doubled back with stories making it abundantly clear that Trump was not disqualified.
The reaction to Earnest’s statement is an extreme example of some of the greatest challenges spokesmen face in dealing with the media. As the news industry relies more on controversial sound bites and the public takes less time to seek out the greater context beyond a headline or a tweet, it’s increasingly important to choose words carefully.
It’s safe to assume Earnest meant to say that Trump’s idea makes him “unqualified” for the presidency. But to many, the point was lost in his phrasing and the ensuing coverage.
“White House: Donald Trump Muslim plan 'disqualifies' him from presidency,” a CNN headline read, perfectly encapsulating the common response across the media landscape.
Hard to blame the media for jumping on this. The blame rests with Earnest for being careless with what he said.
This should reinforce the need for scripting what you say before talking to the media, paying special attention to what not to say. It takes discipline for spokespeople to say what they need to say and no more.
Crafting a relevant key message and wrapping it into a quotable sound bite takes time, and it demands practice to pull it off.
Media training helps. But common sense helps, too. It doesn't take a degree in rocket science to recognize words, phrases or expressions that will create a headline. As an experienced communications professional, Earnest should have known better when he uttered the word "disqualified." Even "unqualified" would have been a headline-grabber. He, after all, is the White House press secretary, not a TV commentator.
Word choices can make a huge difference in conveying your point and not letting the story line – or a headline – get away from you. In a world of skimmer-readers, the headline is all they may see and ingest.
Put yourself in the shoes of a reporter. Would you overlook a showstopper line, regardless of whether the spokesperson meant to say it or not?
No matter how long an interview goes or how much you have to say before it’s done, reporters look for just a few punchy quotes to inject into a story. Often a single quote defines the story, yet you never know which one a reporter will use. So, always choose your words wisely.