She'll never admit it but you can bet Judge Sonia Sotomayor wishes she never mentioned her "hope that a wise Latina woman... would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male."
But in today's age of the media microscope, every judge, politician or CEO has at least one "whoops" that they wish they hadn't said or done. And until time travel becomes an option, the challenge is in how well you handle your critics when these events come to light.
And they always come to light.
The Senate Judicial Committee's Sotomayor hearings provide an excellent window into how people should -- and should not -- handle these situations. The risk, of course, is that the exception -- the "whoopses" -- will overshadow the rule -- people's long history of saying or doing the right thing.
Based on the communications consulting we do for Fortune 500 CEOs and politicians, I would offer the following advice to Judge Sotomayor and any other public figures who find themselves under similar criticism.
1. Own the Headline
Rule number one: Change the headline and repeat, repeat, repeat. Though the pre-hearing press on Judge Sotomayor focused on her "wise Latina" comment, she effectively changed the headline after day one of the hearings. Thanks to a strong opening statement yesterday, the headlines today were all about her "fidelity to the law" and "cautious approach to jurisprudence" -- a direct refutation of the accusation her opponents are making, symbolized by the "wise Latina" comment.
If "a judicial activist bent on imposing her personal views from the bench" is the critics' story, "fidelity to the law" needs to be her story. It should be her mantra. Every answer should be connected to the idea that she has decided cases in the past and will decide cases in the future based on a "fidelity to the law." If, by the end of the confirmation process, the press isn't rolling their eyes at her constant repetition of "fidelity to the law," she isn't communicating as effectively as she should be.
If you want an example of what not to do, look at Governor Sarah Palin. Instead of identifying a simple, clear narrative to define her resignation and taking control of the story, she has allowed herself to be largely defined by the media. Protecting Alaska is not a credible story. And mixing up that reason with three or four others only muddied her narrative further. Maybe creating a mystery was her goal. Assuming that wasn't the case, she has decidedly failed communicate a clear and consistent message that would turn the conversation to her advantage.
2. Don't Say You "Misspoke"
The go-to defense for many public figures -- from dishonest politicians to troubled CEOs -- is to try to explain away their Whoopses. While the goal is correct, attempts to justify a misstatement usually have the opposite effect -- exacerbating the story and lengthening its time in the media spotlight. Claiming that one "misspoke" or that one's comments were "taken out of context" -- even if true -- keeps the focus on the comments, providing further ammunition for one's opponents.
During her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton was famous for this -- although many politicians as well as corporate CEOs have had plenty of practice trying to explain and defend.
The "taken out of context" defense lost its punch long ago, and for most observers -- whether true or not -- the headline is the context. Put simply, if you say you misspoke or that you were taken out of context, that becomes the story -- and it isn't a good one.
For this reason, Judge Sotomayor missed an opportunity when responding to the "wise Latina" remark. Tomorrow's headlines are like to echo her comments that the remark was a "bad" joke that "fell flat," rather than on something more substantive and more positive about her testimony.
3. Keep it Simple'
Perhaps Judge Sotomayor's most effective response so far to attacks regarding her Whoops has been her silence on the matter. By refusing to dignify her critics' comments in the press, she did a lot to dampen what could have turned into a disaster if she had tried to over-clarify her position.
In times of crisis or controversy, it's human nature to fight back, defend yourself against every accusation, and correct anything you perceive as misinformation. But such an approach can backfire if you say too much. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is an example of someone who took the bait. If you're like me, you grimaced and yelled, "Shut up, already!" at your TV during Sanford's seemingly endless monologue confessing his affair. He couldn't resist explaining himself in excruciating detail, assuring that an already embarrassing story would most likely become a career-killer.
To borrow from The Godfather, communicating in the public sphere isn't personal, it's business. Many a politician and company have overreacted to criticism based on emotion and a desire to explain the truth -- just to see the effects of their reaction snowball into full-blown PR disasters.
4. Seize the Opportunity
With the right communication approach, criticism of a Whoops can provide a valuable opportunity to reinforce people's perception of what you do actually stand for. Nobody enjoys being criticized but taking a strategic approach to how you communicate can end up strengthening your reputation instead of damaging it.
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