The Rev. Pat Robertson, one of America’s best-known evangelist broadcasters, created a firestorm Wednesday night even as he was busy soliciting donations for earthquake-ravaged Haiti on his Christian Broadcasting Network’s flagship show, “700 Club.” Robertson intimated that Haiti had been cursed by God for making a pact with the Devil to kick out the country’s former French colonial masters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXiyceNZmiU
“You know … something happened a long time ago in Haiti….They were under the heel of the French…They got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you get us free from the French.’ And so, the Devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out,” Robertson said. “You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.”
It didn’t take long for the statement to create tremors of its own. Religious leaders such as Franklin Graham (son of evangelist Billy Graham) condemned the comment. “He must have misspoken,” Graham said of Robertson. “But we need to get on the path of helping people right now. God loves the people of Haiti. He hasn’t turned his back on Haiti.” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, “At times of great crisis there are always people who say really stupid things.” White House advisor Valerie Jarrett said on ABC that she was “speechless at that kind of remark. Our heart goes out to the people of Haiti….That’s not the attitude that expresses the spirit of the president or the American people, so I thought it was a pretty stunning comment to make.”
The Christian Broadcast Network website today contained an official statement claiming Robertson was speaking objectively about Haiti’s history that has led “countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed. Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath,” the statement reads. “If you watch the entire video segment, Dr. Robertson’s compassion for the people of Haiti is clear.”
There are times when efforts at “clarification” ring hollow, and this is one of them. At CommCore we advise our crisis communications clients that timing is one crucial factor among many when deciding whether to apologize for a public statement that created controversy, intentional or not, or whether to try to explain it away.
With the very real possibility of tens of thousands of fatalities in Haiti at this very moment, and the prospect of a rebuilding effort that will take years to complete, now is not the time to parse phrases and try to convince an audience of what Robertson may or may not have “meant” to say.
Now would be a time to come right out and apologize immediately for making a statement that regardless of whether it was interpreted correctly, was ill-conceived and inappropriate.
What do you think? Can you come up with other misguided efforts at revisionist history after a controversial public statement created an uproar?