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Lessons from the Helen Thomas Blunder

When Helen Thomas resigned as White House correspondent for Hearst newspapers earlier this month after more than 50 years as a front-row fixture at Presidential news conferences, it signaled more than the end of an era. It was a stark reminder to everyone in communications of the cost of ignoring cardinal rules.

The supreme irony here is that Helen Thomas seemingly forgot for a moment that she was a public figure herself. She was undone by the very thing she spent an entire career eliciting from newsmakers in the public eye – the big, controversial quote:

It was a costly mistake for her to assume that she could spout off her personal opinions in a public space — the White House lawn — to a part-time journalist and film-maker.

Shortly after the video of the damning quote was uploaded to the web and YouTube, Thomas resigned and issued an apology for her remarks. On June 6th, Nine Speakers Inc., Thomas’ agency, dropped her as a client. The White House Correspondents’ Association called her remarks “indefensible.” President Obama appeared on NBC’s Today Show and said that she made the right decision to step down, but that it was a shame that her remarkable career had to end in controversy and scrutiny.

From a public relations and professional communications perspective, Thomas made several key mistakes that we at CommCore remind our clients to avoid:
• She unnecessarily offered a controversial personal opinion that was not appropriate for her role (in this case, a supposedly objective journalist.)

• She either forgot or chose to ignore the reality that there is no such thing as an innocent comment in today’s real-time media environment where pocket-sized video cameras are almost ubiquitous.

• She either forgot – or never knew – how to “bridge” from a question one doesn’t want to answer to a related comment one is willing and able to make in public.

• She forgot or ignored the tried-and-true adage that no public figure can keep public mistakes private regardless of rank and stature.

Only Helen Thomas knows if it was hubris that ended her ground-breaking career as a frontline female journalist, or whether she had been on the job too long and simply lost her ability to judge situations properly at age 89.

What lessons did you draw from Thomas’s blunder? Will you use her faux pas as a case history with your clients?