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December 17, 2012

Media Tip: Beware the Seven-Second Stray

A guest post from Brad Phillips, author of The Media Training Bible.

In the late 1990s, I was a producer for CNN's Sunday public-affairs program, Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. Because Late Edition aired after all of the other Sunday public-affairs shows, one of my tasks each week was to watch the earlier programs to monitor what politicians were saying. If a politician said something interesting, I'd edit a video clip out of the quote so that Wolf could air it on the show.

I was always on the lookout for a politician saying something off message. Why? Because anything unscripted and off-the-cuff was inherently more interesting than the canned responses we always heard. And in a newsroom, a less scripted response will almost always be deemed more newsworthy.

Years later, I developed a name to describe that phenomenon: "the seven-second stray." I call it that because if a spokesperson is on message for 59 minutes 53 seconds of an hour-long interview but says something off message for just seven seconds, I can virtually guarantee that the reporter will select that seven-second answer to play over and over again.

The seven-second stray can be all it takes to kill a political career. Just think of "legitimate rape." Or "macaca." Or "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." For Todd Akin, George Allen, and Gerald Ford, respectively, their entire careers became defined by just those few words.

Avoiding the seven-second stray isn't easy, especially when candidates are endlessly followed by cameras (or trackers) while suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. Creating compelling messages in advance helps, as does conducting regular practice interviews.

But the best way to prevent a politically fatal seven-second stray is to avoid being lulled into a false sense of comfort while speaking to reporters or appearing in front of live audiences. In our media training workshops, we regularly see spokespersons who remain wary of the reporter at the beginning of the interview--but who let their guards down as the interview continues and they get more comfortable with the reporter who's "friendlier" than they expected.

They may also fall for another reportorial trap--filling awkward silences when the reporter fails to jump in at the end of an answer with another question. Spokespersons who fill those silences are usually far off their message by that point, and are more likely to utter the kinds of seven-second strays that land them in regular rotation on cable news.


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