Below is a quote from the January 1, 2015 obituary of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, discussing his political history:
“Mr. Koch’s candidacy was undermined from the start by the publication of an interview in Playboy magazine in which he disparaged life upstate and in the suburbs as “sterile” and lamented the prospect of living in the “small town” of Albany.”
This quote was from 1982 when Koch was running for governor against Cuomo. I remember the event well, as I was in college at the time and already a political/media junkie. Instantly, Koch went from overwhelming favorite in the polls to a struggling candidate. The second he called life in the suburbs “sterile” and suggested that living in the small town of Albany was boring, his campaign was finished. Nobody outside of New York City would vote for him and Cuomo went on the wing the governor’s mansion.
Here we are 33 years later, and these sound bites have outlived both Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo. That’s the thing about sound bites, they are memorable, for good or ill.
Once Koch said that living in the suburbs was “sterile” there was no way the reporter at Playboy wouldn’t use the quote, because it was attacking, emotional, confrontational and interesting. And that’s what every newspaper picked up on after it was first published. Koch, as mayor of New York City, could get away with saying things like that, because it wouldn’t offend people in New York City. But Koch was the quintessential New York City dweller who was a fish out of water anytime he stepped out of the five boroughs.
Interestingly, the sound bites that destroyed the higher political ambitions of Ed Koch weren’t damaging because he was factually wrong. As someone who lived in New York City for nearly 20 years and now lives in the suburbs, I can tell you, Koch was completely correct when he called the suburbs ‘sterile’ compared to New York City (which is fine by me at this stage in my life). Koch was also correct in noting that Albany is a small boring town compared to Manhattan.
So, while it is fun in popular culture to criticize politicians for telling lies all the time, it is actually when politicians speak the truth that they get into the most trouble.
So what is the media training lesson here? It is not that politicians should avid speaking the truth or saying interesting things, or avoid trying to be quotable. But politicians must remember that if you say anything that is seen as a critical attack on someone or someplace, it will be quoted, and it will likely be re-quoted in other stories, and it may even be used in your obituary and the obituary of your political competitors long after you have died.
Don’t ever attack (or be sarcastic) against someone or someplace unless you have really thought through all the implications and you want to see the attacking quote again and again.
If you need help crafting helpful sound bites or figuring out how not to get quoted using career-ending sound bites, please call me to discuss. 212.764.4955 TJ Walker