Maslansky: CEO Lessons From a 'Wise Latina Woman'

How much do you think Judge Sonya Sotomayor wishes she could take back her “hope that a wise Latina woman…would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male” statement from a few years ago?

Embarrassing statements are nothing new in today’s age of the media microscope – every judge, politician or CEO has at least one “whoops” that they wish they hadn’t said or done. But until time travel becomes an option, the only remedy is how well you control the damage once the statement is out there.

And they always come to light.

Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings provide an excellent window into how these situations should – and should not be – handled.

Based on the communications consulting we do for Fortune 500 CEOs and other leaders, I would offer the following advice to anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation to Judge Sotomayor.

Rule number one: change the headline and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Sonia Sotomayor, as nominee for US Supreme Court Justice.
Sonia Sotomayor, as nominee for US Supreme Court Justice.

Though the pre-hearing press on Judge Sotomayor focused on her “wise Latina” comment, she effectively changed the headline after day one of the hearings. Thanks to a strong opening statement, the day one headlines were all about her “fidelity to the law” and “cautious approach to jurisprudence” – a direct refutation of the accusation her opponents are making, symbolized by the “wise Latina” comment.

If “a judicial activist bent on imposing her personal views from the bench” is the critics’ story, “fidelity to the law” needs to be her story. It should be her mantra. Every answer should be connected to the idea that she has decided cases in the past and will decide cases in the future based on a “fidelity to the law.” If, by the end of the confirmation process, the press isn’t rolling their eyes at her constant repetition of “fidelity to the law,” she isn’t communicating as effectively as she should be.

If you want an example of what not to do, look at Governor Sarah Palin.

Instead of identifying a simple, clear narrative to define her resignation and taking control of the story, she has allowed herself to be largely defined by the media. Protecting Alaska is not a credible story. And mixing up that reason with three or four others only muddied her narrative further.

Rule number two:Don’t say you “misspoke”: All too often, the go-to defense for public figures – from dishonest politicians to troubled CEOs – is to try to explain away their Whoopses. While their instincts might be in the right place, attempts to justify a misstatement usually have the opposite effect – exacerbating the story and lengthening its time in the media spotlight.

Claiming that one “misspoke” or that one’s comments were “taken out of context” simply serves to draw attention to the comments, providing further ammunition for one’s opponents. The “taken out of context” defense lost its punch long ago, and for most observers – whether true or not – the headline is the context. Put simply, if you say you misspoke or that you were taken out of context, that becomes the story – and it isn’t a good one.

Rule three: Keep it Simple. Perhaps Judge Sotomayor’s most effective response against attacks regarding her Whoops has been her silence on the matter. By refusing to dignify her critics’ comments, she avoided widening the story by over-clarifying her remarks.

In times of crisis, it’s human nature to fight back, defend yourself against every accusation, and correct anything you perceive as misinformation. But such an approach can easily backfire if you say too much. Case in point: South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. Who didn’t grimace and yell “Shut up, already!” at the TV during Sanford’s seemingly endless monologue confessing his affair? He couldn’t resist explaining himself in excruciating detail, and in doing so guaranteed that an embarrassing story would most likely become a career-killer.

Rule four:Seize the opportunity. With the right communication approach, criticism of a Whoops can provide a valuable opportunity to reinforce people’s perception of what you do actually stand for. Nobody enjoys being criticized but taking a strategic approach to how you communicate can end up strengthening your reputation instead of damaging it.

Michael Maslansky is CEO of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research, a corporate and public affairs market research firm that specializes in language and messaging. Michael has conducted extensive research to understand how to most effectively communicate about issues, brands and products. Read Michael’s blog: www.michaelmaslansky.comor follow him: