Gaffes and The Golden Rue (and other rules)

 Elon Musk, Tesla (Wikipedia)

Elon Musk, Tesla (Wikipedia)

The Golden (olden) Rule runs something like this: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” In the world of communications professionals, replete with PR firms on retainer, Chief Marketing Officer’s (CMO) on antidepressants because their average tenure is 2.5 years, and communications directors on-call, ready to take over for the stressed-out CMO, the Golden Rue (that’s no misspelling) goes like this: Sooner or later, we all regret our very own gaffe-riddled words — and may have to eat them — so let’s not enjoy the Schadenfreude sandwich when our competitors screw-up their own maladroit syntax. Or, something to that effect (I’m still working on it).

This week the polymath CEO Elon Musk (Space-X, Tesla, etc.) is having to make amends for speaking his mind, as is his natural wont, during an interview with a German business publication last month where he revealed his plain spoken thoughts on Apple’s getting into the electric car business:

Elon Musk is oft-great for a quote, whether talking with Stephen Colbert about terraforming Mars with thermonuclear devices, or discussing “what-keeps-him-up-at-night” puzzlers like those pesky, inchoate A.I. robotic armies potentially threatening mankind with an extinction level event (this is not an exaggeration; Google has the patent on this). But, when talking about competitor Apple, the sui generis Musk showed himself human and proved up the adage that it’s best to keep the competitive hyperbole to a minimum. Salty language is great when company-facing, motivating the troops and whatnot; but when client-facing, speaking to the public (and by definition to the other side because any CMO worth their salt has a skunkworks competitive intelligence team running 24/7), the preferred ratio for the perfect bravado cocktail is 2 jiggers more graciousness, 1 jigger less hyperbole.

Being gaffe-prone doesn’t necessarily speak ill of CxO’s; just acknowledges the amount of face-time/prime-time a dynamic company will have by definition, especially in the age of Bloomberg West, all manners of Dreamforce’s, SouthBy’s, DLDnyc’s, and other cool venues where your hipster CxO can malaprop with the best of them.

If you’re in the C-Suite and actively engaged with the public, investors, the media, and creating content (both video and print), chances are you’ll come to rue and regret your (their) own gaffe at some point, so live by the Golden Rue which basically advocates not piling on, to be gracious to the other guy, and to “measure twice, cut once” as any good carpenter knows, especially when giving interviews, speaking publicly, or writing a piece, response (or remonstrance) on Pulse, Medium, or microblasting on social media du jour.

Having to walk back public comments can be a tricky task (trisky?). Herculean even. Some gaffes can end a career, viz., Amy Pascal, whose private gaffes were leaked vis-à-vis the Sony hack. Some gaffes are par for the course, especially if that course is public policy, e.g., Veep Joe Biden, George W., et. al., whose every word is public, parsed, and a potential whoopsie daisy. And, some gaffes are ill-advised word choices just because they soundgawdawful, as we were reminded by Christopher Hitchens about the D.C. politico who should have used the word miserly instead of the word which sounded an awful like the N-word. Whether you’re advising business executives or policy wonks, sometimes “just because” is good enough, Dear Reader, and occasionally career-saving great advice for your client.

Usually, though, a quick apology, and occasionally a mea maxima culpa, along with a heartfelt and concomitant corrective, and you’re well along your way helping navigate the communication waters for your organization. Nonetheless, both the rule and the rue (golden-hued didactic directives) suggest the giving and receiving of a full measure of grace and understanding when it comes to the ubiquitous gaffe. Especially, if we learn from the Golden Rue.