Even Secretaries of State Forget the Rules Sometimes

Every camera is live, every microphone is hot.

It’s a lesson that inexperienced newsmakers and young broadcasters often have to learn the hard way (yours truly was, unfortunately, no exception).

But what excuse is there when a career politician and current Secretary of State forgets (or disregards) this very basic rule?

You’d have to ask John Kerry, who found himself in an awkward position on Fox News Sunday because of a speakerphone conversation he had with an aide just before his interview began. Kerry used heavy sarcasm in characterizing the Israeli incursion into Gaza as a “pinpoint operation.”


Fox News Sunday Catches Kerry on ‘Hot Mic’ Moment Discussing Israel

It’s not clear whether Kerry’s sarcasm was intended to condemn the casualties on the Israeli side, the Palestinian side, or both. And although his words don’t reach the Donald Sterling level on the scandal meter, it seems reasonable to assume his tone was never intended for a TV audience.

The Train of Thought is Easily Derailed

Note how Kerry’s off-the-cuff remarks immediately became a target of anchor Chris Wallace’s attention. Sensing that his story had just gotten better, Wallace used the clip to lead into a new line of questioning (any good journalist would). Then, in trying to defend his statements –and Israel– the Secretary of State launched into a rather disjointed explanation that only served to obscure his messaging. None of this would have happened if Kerry had texted or emailed his aide instead of having a phone conversation with a TV microphone clipped to his lapel.

No Privacy Under the Lights

Lest you think Kerry’s privacy was somehow violated, it’s important to note he was not recorded in his office or bedroom. He was in a TV studio with cameras everywhere (please refer to the first sentence of this email).

The “Always On the Record” Era

Even if you don’t expect to do a satellite media tour anytime soon, Kerry’s misstep should serve as a cautionary tale. Remember Mitt Romney? He was brought down by a hotel worker with a digital audio recorder. Everyone now has a broadcast-quality TV camera hidden in a pocket or a purse. It’s called a smartphone, and it ensures that your candid words and actions can make news even when there’s no “reporter” in sight.

Want more tips for navigating the sometimes treacherous waters of media interviews? I’ve assembled them here, and I invite you to share with friends and colleagues.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.