Clear Comm Consulting

The President, the Professor and the Police Officer

Jul 29, 2009

Have you ever witnessed an accident? Everything moves in slow motion. You see it happening but you can’t do anything to stop it. That’s how it must have felt for the President’s advisors as they listened to him at last week’s news conference as he wandered into the matter of the arrest of his friend, Harvard Professor Henry Gates. The Professor, who is Black, was thought to be an intruder by someone passing by as he attempted to get in a stubborn front door at his house. Later the Professor was arrested for disorderly conduct after apparently arguing with the police officer who responded to the 911 call. But for me, this is a classic example of what can happen in the public spotlight and it comes down to three or four moving parts.

“I don’t know all the facts, but here’s what I think…” Let’s all take a pledge right now to never say these words. I was watching the news conference live and as soon as President Obama said those words I thought, “Uh oh!” Anyone should know you can’t weigh in on an issue, especially a highly charged issue, unless you really know as many of the facts as possible. So why would a normally careful public figure do such a thing?

Personal Relationships Cloud Our Judgment: If someone says something negative about one of my family members or a good friend, I’m ready to put up my dukes! We just can’t look at personal relationships with any perspective. It’s an important lesson we all need to learn.

One more sentence would have helped a great deal: As I watched the President wade deeper and deeper into his explanation at the news conference — saying police had “acted stupidly” — I kept waiting for that balancing sentence that any public figure needs to use in a situation like this. They are the words that could have brought a sense of reason to the whole episode: “Also, I want to say, police officers have a very difficult job and I appreciate the hard work they do every day.” There was little balance from the President that night and that fueled the issue for days.

Other notes: While his response to the controversy was slow, the President has made some progress in recent days. Also, for someone who is not a national figure, Sgt. James Crowley responded to the situation with a deft touch. We heard him defend his arrest, but even more important was how he framed his message. We heard him first say, “I support the President of the United States 110%…” By saying those words first, he was showing he is not a one-dimensional character. He could express his support for the President, but disagree with him on this issue.

Finally, I wasn’t there when it all happened. I don’t know what took place and clearly we have race issues that still plague our country. My hope is we see the huge roll “balance” and “reason” play in our dialogue and any communicator should never lose sight of these important qualities.

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected].

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

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