The perils of an open, ignored microphone

April 5, 2012: 2:09 PM ET

You would think that seasoned public figures would know better, but it's quite difficult to remain guarded and on-message for every waking moment. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

By Bill Connor, guest contributor

FORTUNE -- Just as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow in the east, politicians and business types will continue to forget the presence of a live microphone at precisely the wrong times.

Consider President Obama talking sotto voce with Dmitry Medvedev after a joint appearance a couple of weeks ago, confiding to the Russian president that "This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility," presumably implying that what he had just said publicly was not necessarily what he really meant. To this, Medvedev replied, "I understand. I'll transmit this information to Vladimir and I stand with you." Not the sort of gift the Obama campaign would have chosen to deliver to Mitt Romney.

And how about former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown calling a senior citizen outside Manchester a "bigot" on a BBC wireless mike inside what he thought was the privacy of his chauffeured Jaguar? Or George W. Bush telling Tony Blair that "the irony is that Syria should just tell Hezbollah to stop doing this s -- and it's over"? Or Joe Biden whispering to the President that the passage of health care reform was a "big f-ing deal," and he didn't mean "fantastic"?

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You would think that these seasoned public figures would know better, but the fact is that it's quite difficult to remain guarded and on-message for every waking moment.

I know a CEO who did the same thing, with disastrous results.

As part of his company's multi-pronged effort to spread the word about a new product launch, the company's communications professionals set up a newsworthy and disciplined news conference. They invited the right reporters (who showed up, because the company had a genuinely interesting story to tell), they thought carefully about the key messages the CEO would deliver, and they trained him so that he would be a compelling storyteller and know how to deal with both softball and tough questions from the reporters. The whole thing went swimmingly, until the CEO stepped on a crowded elevator to head back to the office.

"Whew," he said to his communications vice president. "Home run. And man, am I happy they didn't ask me about those merger rumors."

What he didn't realize was that there was a reporter at the back of the elevator. A reporter who proceeded to ask: "What merger rumors are you talking about? I cover your company and I hadn't heard those."

As his vice president shot him a look that fell somewhere between withering and horrified, the CEO tried to salvage the situation with a joke. "Well," he said, "you know how competitive our sector is. But that's life in the big city."

To which the reporter responded, "So you're saying that your chief competitor is spreading rumors about a possible merger between your company and another company?"

Finally realizing that he'd better stop talking (and with his VP's elbow now sticking him sharply in the ribs), he said, "No, I didn't say that, and that's all I'd like to say for now. And by the way, I'd appreciate it if you would consider this whole conversation off the record, since the news conference is over and we're standing on the elevator here."

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The reporter then said, "With all due respect, this is a public place -- and perhaps if you had asked me beforehand to make this conversation off the record, I might have considered it. But the fact is, I'd be doing our readers a disservice if I didn't report what I heard."

And with that, the elevator doors opened and the CEO, the reporter and the VP stepped off. The vice president called the reporter right away, trying to cajole him into dropping the story, but his paper's website put up the following headline a couple of hours later: "CEO accuses top competitor of spreading false merger rumors."

Of course, all the other journalists picked up on this and changed their stories accordingly, throwing all the goodwill and the umpteen thousands of dollars spent in preparing for the announcement right out the window.

So, here are a few rules to go by, especially for those who have a public profile:

Assume that there are tiny microphones hidden in the bushes as you exit your front door every morning.

Okay, I'm exaggerating slightly here -- but do remember that the gym, the hotel bar, and business class to Chicago aren't the places for conversations on sensitive topics

Stick to your message.

You don't want to be robotic in an interview – you want to be engaging and natural – but maintain message discipline and don't let the reporter put words in your mouth.

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Everyone is a reporter.

The Internet has permanently blurred the lines between traditional journalism and "citizen journalism." Anyone with an iPhone can capture you and your words and instantly broadcast them worldwide.

If you're President Obama, you might be able to shake off mistakes like this and carry on. But that's if you're President Obama. At an Associated Press luncheon this week, making an obvious reference to his earlier gaffe, he said: "It is a pleasure to speak to all of you," he said. "And to have a microphone that I can see."

Bill Connor is a principal at Washington, D.C.-based Oratorio, a media, presentation, and crisis communications training firm.

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