WHITE HOUSE press secretary Sean Spicer standing at the door to a United Airlines plane, sipping a Pepsi.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, and it assuredly is, then that would be the picture for the past few week. To wit:
- United Airlines forcibly “re-accommodated” a Vietnamese-American physician out of the seat he had paid for on an oversold flight in Chicago, smashed his face against an arm rest, broke his nose, then blamed him for being “disruptive.” When that turned out to be a bald-faced lie – and when a global backlash resulted in United losing $1 billion in value in just 24 hours – the airline did a whiplash-inducing about-face, and apologized, and said it would never happen again, blah, blah, blah.
- Pepsi’s in-house “creative team” put together a commercial featuring one of the Kardashian Crew modelling, then rushing outside to join a passing protest, with lots of knowing nods and fist-bumps ensuing. The Kardsahian Crew member – famous-for-nothing Kendall Jenner, who later insisted she was “traumatized” by the mean tweets that followed – hands a grateful cop a can of Pepsi and all is well in the world. Take that, Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, et al.: you wouldn’t have so many darn problems if you bought the right soft drink! Global backlash, withdrawal of ad, grovelling apologies, blah, blah, blah.
- Spicer calls the Nazi gas chambers “Holocaust centres;” repeatedly mispronounces the name of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who his boss had just, you know, bombed; and says Adolf Hitler didn’t use “chemical weapons” on millions of Jews, gays, gypsies and dissidents when, in fact, he had. Standing before the assembled White House press corps – all of them agog and agape – Spicer said: “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Immediately, the Anne Frank Center and many others demanded Spicer be fired. Spicer retracted, apologized, blah, blah, blah.
From Sean Spicer to United Airlines to Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad, missteps reinforced by hypocrisy can quickly spiral out of control
Quite a week, eh? It all reminded me of a long-ago Canadian equivalent. During the year 2000 federal election campaign, former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day – who, it should be noted, this writer always thought bore more than a passing resemblance to former U.S. vice-president Dan Quayle, of potato/potatoe infamy – decided to use Niagara Falls as a backdrop to a campaign announcement.
Standing at the falls’ edge, Day attempted to draw an analogy between the flow of Lake Erie from “north to south” and the “brain drain” from Canada to the United States. A reporter from the area pointed out to Day that, in fact, the relevant body of water drained from “south to north.” Oops!
Missing a golden opportunity to poke fun at himself, and thereby seem human, Day darkly warned that he would “check the record and if someone has wrongly informed me about the flow of this particular water, I’ll be having a pretty interesting discussion with them.” So not only did Day succeed in making himself look like a dummy, he also came across sounding like a dummy who couldn’t take responsibility for his own mistakes.
Such mistakes can have profound consequences, if you don’t deal with them quickly. I’m always a big fan of Bible-thumping Republican/Conservative politicians who denounce gays/abortion/infidelity, and then get caught having gay sex/procuring abortions/working with sex workers. They end up exposed as sweaty, creepy, debauched nut bars, not self-professed men of God. And regular folks – as United, Pepsi and the White House certainly discovered in recent days – punish them not for the sin but for the hypocrisy.
The lesson, naturally, is that candidates/companies/communicators should, if the circumstances warrant, ’fess up, laugh at themselves, then move on. Periodically falling on one’s sword is an excellent strategy.
Voters and consumers are forgiving. They’re profoundly aware of the tendency of humans to have human failings, being human beings themselves. And, as long as mistakes are not being made all the time – see Messrs. Day, Quayle and Spicer – they will forgive and forget, and move on.
Apologies cost nothing. Retractions are free. Once given – unequivocally, sincerely, directly and without condition – they have magical healing powers.
But the best approach, of course, is to avoid making the dumb mistake in the first place.
Spicer, sipping a Pepsi on that United flight to ignominy, would certainly agree.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.
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