Last week, I posted a “Strategic Snapshot” video essay about the United Airlines PR disaster, a reputational meltdown involving complicated and timely industry dynamics. But here, in the form of another Strategic Snapshot, is a simple and timeless mistake that even top communicators make…anytime they get caught “off mic”:

(Direct link at

Or here’s a partial transcript….

A press conference, interview or public event is not like filming a movie, where you can say “action” or “cut.” The fact is, if you’re a communicator, your words and actions anywhere in public are fair game — regardless of whether your official “speech” or remarks have begun. Whenever there’s a camera, microphone or reporter’s notepad…anywhere nearby….you should assume you’re on the record..

President George W. Bush learned that the hard way when he and Vice President Dick Cheney got caught off mic trashing a political reporter.  And President Obama forgot a microphone was nearby when he talked bluntly with advisers about his strategy in budget negotiations with the GOP.

Sometimes, the microphone’s right there…but you think it’s just a sound check, so nobody’s recording. Well…. think again: Maybe it’s just a minor issue of appearing grumpy or flustered, as President Clinton did before a 1993 Oval Office speech to the nation. Sometimes it’s an unfortunate joke, like President Reagan’s famous apocalyptic sound check for a weekly radio address

Or maybe it’s the telling detail the changes everything. In 1960, those who listened to Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy’s first presidential debate on the radio thought Nixon won. Those who saw it on TV thought Kennedy did. Kennedy ultimately won the race, partly because Nixon never shook the impression of looking haggard during that first TV debate, with political analysts even noting how he forgot to shave. How could they make out that 5-o”clock shadow from such grainy TV footage of yesteryear? Because they watching the sound check, when Nixon flagged it himself!

Fast forward to today, and there’s a whole new set of problems thanks to wireless technology. During his losing 2010 campaign. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s wireless microphone stayed on long after he closed his car door and started telling aides what he really thought of a voter he’d just met.

These are all political examples — partly because politicians tend to have a lot of microphones around. But the lesson is clear for any communicator. If you’re anywhere in public, or anywhere near a microphone… you’re ALWAYS on the record (even if you think you’re not)!

59 thoughts on “The Rookie Mistake that Even Veteran Communicators Still Make

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