Obama’s Gaffe: When the Boss Misspeaks—Publicly


California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

It’s a chronic problem in corporate America: senior-level executives making inappropriate (or dumb) comments.

It happens time and again, giving PR pros a chronic headache and making communicators wonder whether media coaching for top execs is a nonstarter.

The latest example comes from President Obama. During a fundraiser Thursday in California, Obama called that state’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, "the best-looking attorney general in the country."

"You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake," Obama said. "She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country."

For PR pros, if the comment doesn’t register 5.0 on the Wince Scale, you’re not paying attention.

Obama got hammered. "Obama in need of gender-sensitivity training," read one blog from New York Magazine (per the San Francisco Chronicle) while The Daily News reported that the Republican National Committee tweeted, “Not awkward and perfectly fine for him to say, right?”

Of course, the comment will be considered ancient history by next week, when it’s eclipsed by the latest public dust-up. And the response raises questions about a double standard; people don’t freak out when someone says a male politician is attractive (think former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, or ex-vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan).

Nevertheless, Obama’s comment about Kamala Harris provides a few lessons for PR pros, particularly when they’re dealing with powerful executives.

Communicators might want to bookmark the comment (and the subsequent criticism) to help illustrate to C-level execs how offhand comments that may have been considered fair game 10 or 20 years ago are now pretty much verboten.

In addition, the episode is a reminder for PR pros to let their clients know that, in a social-media age, there is no such thing as an  “intimate setting,” or an off-the-cuff remark (Just ask Mitt Romney about his retort during last year’s presidential election about 47% of Americans being a bunch of deadbeats.)

It’s also an opportunity for communicators to reiterate to their top execs and/or clients that it’s a good idea to stick to the script when they speak in public.

Or, if top execs have an itch to deviate from the script, to make sure any comments are either innocuous or self-deprecating. Otherwise, comments that the chief may deem a joke or ever so cute are likely to backfire.

Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1