If you ever doubted the damage one ill-advised and poorly-executed public statement can make, just read some of Alexander Haig's recent obits. Years ago, Ronald Reagan's former advisor Lyn Nofziger predicted that the third paragraph of Haig's obituary one day would detail the "I am in control here" communications blunder that forever tainted Haig's image as a leader. Nofziger was prescient, but in last week's coverage, the now-famous faux pas frequently dominated paragraphs one and two as well.
So how could a man who rose to the rank of Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart set himself up to have his public image so badly ambushed? Like most blunders committed in front of a live microphone it came down to what he said, and how he said it. With Ronald Reagan hospitalized following an assassination attempt, Haig ironically broke the cardinal rule every military man is taught to honor: obey the chain of command. He didn't. As Secretary of State, Haig was behind both Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate in the pecking order for assuming control of the country. Yet Haig announced that it was he who was in charge until Vice President Bush returned. Forget about mangling the Constitution's succession of power rules. What Haig failed to comprehend in the heat of the moment was the average person's contempt for someone seemingly using a moment of crisis for personal gain. At a time when the American people needed to be calmed and reassured, Haig's actions achieved the opposite effect. The appearance of a career military man unlawfully grabbing power became an indelible black mark on Haig's record that no reputation management expert could erase.
But as strategically flawed as his content was, the execution of it was even worse. Moments earlier, Haig had been in The White House Situation Room telling the Cabinet much the same message: "I'm in charge here." He then ran up the stairs to get to the Press Room where a scrum of reporters waited. The General would have been well advised to keep the media troops waiting a few more minutes and take the stairs a bit slower. By the time he got to the podium, Haig was winded, which caused his voice to shake - not the effect you want in a moment of crisis.
Haig's defining communications moment proves that sometimes the best media training advice is the simplest: Think and breathe before you speak.