Treat a Microphone Like a Gun | The HBS Blog

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I’ve always found it particularly ironic, if not downright hypocritical, that some people try to teach children that honesty is the best policy by telling them a fib: George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then ‘fessed up because he could not tell a lie. Somewhat less ironic is the teachable moment wherein people in the media training business try to impress upon clients the dangers of an open microphone. This lesson involves Uncle Don, host of a 1930s kids radio show who, thinking his microphone was off at the end of a particularly arduous broadcast, said aloud, and over the air, “there, that ought to hold the little bastards.”  Uncle Don, the legend goes, was summarily fired, declined into alcoholism and died a pauper.

Like Washington and the cherry tree assassination, Uncle Don’s gaffe never happened.  It was totally made up. And here’s the ironic part: the author of the mic mishap fable was a newspaper columnist in Baltimore (where Don’s show wasn’t heard).  So we have a fake news story about a blooper that never happened being used to teach news interview subjects to be wary of what they say in proximity to a microphone. I guess those who use the fable, like parents dispensing the cherry tree story, feel that the ends justify the means.

Years ago, I dispensed with Uncle Don in media training workshops when I learned it wasn’t true.  Besides the news, with great regularity, supplied me with real examples of people opening their mouths in front of open microphones and broadcasting thoughts that were better locked in their mental vaults.

Citing three or four of the most recent examples--they are endless--I tell my clients to treat a microphone like a gun. Anyone familiar with gun safety has been taught to treat all guns as if they are loaded. Similarly, I recommend treating all microphones as if they are on, recording or broadcasting live.   I like to add, “Never say anything in proximity to a microphone that you don’t want the world to hear.”

This may seem self-evident, but again and again we are treated to people who should know better -- including broadcasters -- saying stupid, embarrassing or counterproductive things in the presence of a microphone, only to have their off-the-cuff remarks become on-the-web curiosities and then in-the-news scandals.

There is an added caution to “Treat a Microphone Like a Gun.”  And that is, treat a reporter as if he is a microphone.  Just because a reporter has put away his pad, pencil and digital recorder doesn’t mean he’s off-duty.  He is recording you in his head.

In fact, when I was a newspaper reporter I found it useful to emulate the TV detective created by the late Peter Falk, Lt. Columbo, and to throw out a “one more thing” question as I strolled casually toward the door of an interview subject’s office.   Thinking the interview over, they sometimes responded with far greater candor than they had during the official, formal interview.

Incidentally, encountering a reporter in a restaurant or at a bar is still encountering a reporter.  When a good story is in the air, any reporter -- in any stage of relaxation -- will focus like a laser and begin making mental notes.  The French ambassador to the United Kingdom, Daniel Bernard, learned this the hard way.  At a 2001 dinner party at the London home of Lord Black -- at the time the owner of the third-largest newspaper publishing concern in the world -- the ambassador made a particularly undiplomatic and scatological reference to Israel.

For an ambassador to do something like this anywhere, anytime is dumb.  To do it in front of a room full of reporters is suicidal, at least career-wise.  There was no way that the many journalists at the dinner were going to ignore that one.  Knowing reporters, I suspect most of them had mentally written their stories before coffee and dessert.

So when around a microphone -- or a reporter -- emulate the real Uncle Don.  Don’t say anything  you don’t want the world to hear.

 

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