When Transparency Backfires: A Lesson From Marco Rubio’s Town Hall

There's an old courtroom expression: "Never ask a question if you don't know the answer."

The logic behind this adage is that, during  cross-examination, you never want to be surprised by anything that might come from the mouth of the opposing side once they take the stand.

After last night's CNN town hall debate about gun controlwhen survivors of last week's Parkland, Fla. school shooting met with Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Ted Deutsch, Broward County sheriff Scott Israel and National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loeschperhaps a new version of that quote is in order: "Never answer a question without first reading the room."

As every brand communicator knows, transparency is a best practice when it comes to crisis management, whether you're getting out in front of an internal crisis before a reporter or outside organization has a chance to reframe it or making your business practices visible to clients.

That transparency can backfire, though, when honest talk is not worded in a way that empathizes with your audience. Sen. Marco Rubio's words at last night's town hall are a perfect example of this. While some praised his willingness to even engage with a still-grieving community at the town hall, others saw a serious problem in his message.

In one of the most tense moments of a heated conversation, 17-year-old shooting survivor Cameron Kasky asked Sen. Rubio point blank if he would stop taking money for the NRA. Rubio, a career politician who had a lot to gain by reaching across the aisle in this dialogue, answered truthfully and without tact.

“I will always accept the help of anyone who agrees with my agenda,” he said, adding, “They buy into my ideas, I don't buy into theirs.”

As a business term, "buy in" is a startlingly poor choice of words, undermining Sen. Rubio's own claim seconds later that the existence of donors on both sides of the aisle means that policy makers come to decisions based on what they think is right, and not because of lobbyist influence.

Because of his off-the-cuff phrasing, Sen. Rubio's pointthat donations follow his agenda, not the other way aroundwas met with boos and cries of "BS." Though he didn't attempt to pivot but rather reframe the question as a matter of his personal values and choices, Sen. Rubio's choice of language ultimately undermined the content of his words.

Suffice it to say, Rubio's visible discomfort was the talk of social media:


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