From my steady review of major news events, here are the ten worst communication blunders of 2009:
1. Tiger Woods praised his wife Elin after his car crash Thanksgiving night: “My wife, Elin, acted courageously when she saw I was hurt and in trouble.”
Why this blunder was so awful: Assumes the public is gullible enough to believe anything a famous figure uses as a cover up to the quite obvious facts.
The lesson: Remember that Aristotle said our statements must be backed with logic before they will earn acceptance.
2. President Barack Obama told Jay Leno the President had bowled a mediocre score of 129 in the White House bowling alley. Obama’s lament: “It was like—Special Olympics or something.”
Why this blunder was so awful: Sounded like the President was demeaning children with special needs.
The lesson: Avoid any reference to people with disabilities, because your attempt at humor is likely to offend someone.
3. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford referred to his mistress as his “soul mate,” yet claimed he was “trying to fall back in love with my wife.”
Why this blunder was so awful: Even saying privately, much less publicly, that you are trying to love your wife again (though you will die knowing that you have met your soul mate) could prompt your wife to borrow a golf club from Tiger’s Elin.
The lesson: Wise communicators make clear choices, rather than diluting their commitments to satisfy everybody.
4. “Balloon boy” Falcon Heene explained on national television why he had not emerged when searchers called his name. Glancing at his parents, he answered: “You guys said we did this for the show.”
Why this blunder was so awful: Falcon’s honesty exposed the family’s hoax, designed to generate fame for a new reality show.
The lesson: As an old saying goes, make sure everyone on your team is “singing off the same page.”
5. At MTV’s Video Music Awards, Kanye West stormed the stage when Taylor Swift was accepting the Best Female Video Award. Seizing the mic, he shouted: “I’m sorry, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.”
Why this blunder was so awful: Kanye’s impulsive act detracted from Taylor’s high tribute, and embarrassed the unsuspecting Beyonce, looking on from the audience.
The lesson: Top-level communicators control their emotions, and express their differences at appropriate times, without demeaning others.
6. When the Swine Flu epidemic had fostered mass fear and even hysteria, Vice President Joe Biden announced: “I would tell members of my family—and I have—I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” because “when one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft.”
Why this blunder was so awful: Biden’s comments could have caused thousands of passengers to cancel their flight plans, and freeze interstate business activities for weeks.
The lesson: Leaders must reduce anxiety, not magnify it. You can speak candidly, yes, but without becoming an alarmist.
7. Israel Hyman, an Arizona man, announced to his 2,000 Twitter followers that he was going on vacation. En route, he updated his travel location regularly. Returning home, he learned that someone broke into his home and stole valuable video equipment.
Why this blunder was so awful: You’re quite inconsistent when you halt mail and newspaper delivery, but then post on the Internet when you are leaving and when you’ll get back.
The lesson: As Hyman concluded: “I forgot that there’s an inherent danger in putting yourself out there.”
8. An applicant for a job with Cisco tweeted that Cisco’s job offer was forcing him to weigh “a fat paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating my job.” Fortunately, he didn’t have to worry about his decision very long. A Cisco official read that tweet.
Why this blunder was so awful: The applicant assumed there was no likelihood anyone connected with Cisco would read his tweet.
The lesson: Years ago I heard the advice, “Never put on the Internet anything you wouldn’t display on a highway billboard.”
9. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented a symbolic button to Russian diplomat Sergei Lavrov, thinking the Russian word on the mock button meant “reset.” Her hope was that Russia and the United States would reset the direction of their relationship. Right away, Lavrov explained that an accurate translation would be “overloaded” or “overcharged.”
Why the blunder was so awful: The gaffe reflected that Clinton and her staff had not researched the language nuance, with the result becoming an accidental affront.
The lesson: We will communicate clearly and persuasively with other cultures and nations only when we adapt successfully to their lingo, customs, and history.
10. A billboard in Mobile, Alabama proudly pictured three of WPMI-TV’s broadcasters. The very attractive head shots were impressive, until you read the headline for the news story displayed beside them, reporting that three people had been arrested in a gang rape case.
Why the blunder was so awful: A quick read of the sign (that’s all a passing motorist has time for) could infer that these are the three gang members.
The lesson: When selecting visuals, as in a Power Point presentation, watch out for visual illustrations that undermine your intended message.