5 Lessons From Ken Starr’s TV Interview Debacle

"Don’t lie" and other tips to avoid public missteps

June 7, 2016

Here is a simple media training tip that I think my four-year-old son could grasp: don’t lie after you have already been caught in the act of disclosing the truth when asked a simple straightforward question. It’s not rocket science. I can actually imagine having a conversation with my son about the importance of not lying, especially after I knew the truth based on information he already shared.

Apparently, Ken Starr, the recently ousted president of Baylor University, and his media adviser Merrie Spaeth, founder of Spaeth Communications, thought a different approach would work.

In a June 2 interview on KWTX News 10, a journalist ask Starr if he had seen an email that had the subject line “I was raped at Baylor.” Starr replied, "I honestly may have. I'm not denying that I saw it.”

Spaeth, whose firm specializes in strategic consulting, training and crisis communication, interrupted the interview. She requested the news director not use that answer, then asked Starr to leave the room so the two of them could regroup. Upon returning to the interview room, she said: “She (the reporter) needs to ask you that question again. Whether you do that on camera or not is up to you. I just want to be sure it doesn’t end up being mis-edited.”  (This is at the 2:15 mark of the clip).

The question is asked again, and this time Starr responds that he had no recollection of the email. He actually looks over to Spaeth to get her approval, to which she says: “Don’t look at me. Look at her.”

I find this appalling. Besides the obvious—don’t lie—here are some other lessons from this debacle.

1. The actual interview is not a time for media training.
Starr was a key figure in investigating Bill Clinton during his presidency, and Spaeth has an impressive background, according to her bio. It is befuddling to say the least that they thought the actual interview was a time to review messaging and go over basic tactics.

2. Don’t blame shift.
Spaeth commented about material being mis-edited. Interviewees like to blame those “unethical journalists” for shoddy editing if an interview comes out unfavorably. If you say something you didn’t want to during an on-air interview, then you have one person to blame—yourself. Sure, there are some journalists out there who will unethically manipulate a story, but more often than not, the responsibility falls to the person responding.

3. Don’t tell journalists what they can and cannot use.
For all its flaws, the news media contributes an important role to democracy. If you do an interview for your school website or are involved in a sponsored content story for a media outlet, you have the right to provide input on the final editorial product. If you are conducting an actual media interview - and thus putting yourself in the position to communicate your message to an outlet’s audience, then you don’t have the right to tell journalists what they are allowed to publish. Spaeth is out of place to ask the journalist not to use Starr’s first response. By doing so, she has already signaled that something needs to be hidden.

4. Hypocrisy doesn’t work.
In an interview with the Star Telegram on June 1, just one day before the KWTX interview, Starr said: “I am resigning in order to facilitate full transparency and eventually the full healing of Baylor University, including the victims and their families whose lives have been shattered.”

In an article on the World Economic Forum’s blog, Sridharan Nair of PwC outlined keys to building trust. Among the principles outlined is the organization doing what is says it will do. Unfortunately for Starr, he veered far away from his stated goal of transparency within 24 hours. Not a recipe for instilling trust.

5. Be aware of spin.
There is a fine line between strategically communicating a message in an ethical way and spin (also known as lying). Communications thought leader Gini Dietrich's Spin Sucks blog attempts to steer the PR industry away from the perception that we’re all a bunch of spinmeisters. Merrie Spaeth could be a very nice person and perhaps her record and accomplishments over the years aren’t indicative of her actions during this particular interview. We all make mistakes and are guilty of bad judgments. Unfortunately though, these sorts of actions contribute to the negative perception of PR/media relations folks being truth distorters. 

If for some reason legal proceedings prevent comment on a topic, then don’t put your spokesperson out there. Otherwise, it is essential that we are proactive, truthful and communicating corrective action in the midst of a crisis. Particularly in our digital communications age, spin will only get us so far. In the aftermath of this television interview, I would imagine Spaeth and Starr would say the same.

Kevin Anselmo is the founder and principal of Experiential Communications, a consultancy providing media training and strategic communications services to individuals and groups within higher education.


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