Three recent stories in the media caught my attention, and glaringly remind us all how quickly an "own-goal" comment can cause reputational damage.
First, the double-whammy story with CNN anchor, Don Lemon on CNN This Morning in mid-February, made sexist comments about U.S.Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley who launched her 2024 presidential bid by saying there should be mental competency tests for politicians older than 75. As you might imagine, her statement got her into hot water with older voters. Let's leave aside for a minute the fact that Haley herself took a misstep when speaking to the public with her ageist comment.
Don Lemon, an experienced news anchor who should know better, handled the story badly. He could have simply critiqued her comment, discussing the ageism tied to her statement. But instead, Lemon also made a major blunder, arguing that Haley, who’s 51, “isn’t in her prime,” adding, “when a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.”
Sadly, he didn't stop there. He kept going down the rabbit hole. Lemon received pushback on-air from his co-anchors, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, the former asking if he meant the “prime” age for having children. Lemon then said, “Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just saying what the facts are. Google it, everybody at home … I’m just saying Nikki Haley should be careful about saying that politicians are not in their prime, and they need to be in their prime when they serve. Because she wouldn’t be in her prime, according to Google or whatever it is.”
Lemon was off the air for several days, after the network announced that he "agreed to participate in formal training, as well as continuing to listen and learn.” The network’s CEO Chris Licht said he’d had a “frank and meaningful conversation” with Lemon. I'd like to have been a fly on the wall doing that frank discussion.
Seriously. Think about it. That's two really stupid comments back to back, by two people who should know better, Nikki Haley and Don Lemon. I can understand Haley – wrong as it was – trying to skewer Joe Biden and Donald Trump on basis of age. But Lemon... just kept going down a no-win path in a way that was deeply troubling.
But there's more! Just a week later, Boston sports radio host Tony Massarotti jumped right into hot water for on-air racist comments during his 98.5FM The Sports Hub’s “Felger & Mazz.” His co-host Michael Felger was doing the show remotely from a New Orleans hotel and Massarotti asked Felger about two African American men sitting behind him, chatting in a common area at a hotel.
“I wanna know now who the two guys behind you are,” Massarotti asked Felger. “They can’t hear us, right? Okay, so I would be careful if I were you. Because the last time you were around a couple of guys like that, they stole your car.”
Massarotti has since made an emotional apology, calling his comments "hurtful” and adding that he was trying to be a “wiseass” at the time.
This shows that anybody – no matter how much experience they've had in front of a microphone – can cause pain and torpedo a career in just a sentence or two (this, of course, begs the deeper questions about personal racist beliefs in the 21st Century... but that's a topic for another blog).
So what's the communication lesson?
A good place to start is simply: think before you speak. Be accurate. Be kind. Be generous.
Trying to be glib or funny can instantly get you into hot water, including causing reputational damage to an individual or organization.