Five lessons from this 'car crash' speech

When journalists describe a speech as a ‘car crash’, it’s fair to assume things have gone horribly wrong.

When that same speech results in the speaker apologising for ‘deeply offensive’ remarks and being sent on diversity training, things really have gone off the rails.

That was what happened this week to Labour politician Hugh Gaffney who found himself firmly in the media spotlight following comments he made at a Burns night supper.

The MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill used homophobic and racially insensitive terms at the event.



Mr Gaffney is far from the first person to see unguarded comments in a speech backfire spectacularly. Previous examples have included the ‘trouble with girls’ remarks made by Nobel prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt, and Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis describing France as ‘sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat’ at a launch event for his company’s French language website.

Most infamously of all, Gerald Ratner managed to wipe £500m from the value of Ratners jewellers with his ‘total crap’ comments during a speech at the UK institute of Directors.

Now clearly the most obvious lesson from Mr Gaffney’s speech is that offensive language should, of course, be kept out of speeches.

But that would be a pretty short blog. And there are some more subtle lessons that can be learnt from this latest public speaking debacle.


Anyone can be a reporter

It seems pretty clear that Mr Gaffney was not expecting journalists to be present when he was invited as guest of honour at the Scottish Labour Students Burns Supper at Edinburgh University.

But in the modern world, anyone with a smartphone and internet access has the potential to be a journalist and broadcast what has been said. Consequently reputations can be quickly broken.

In this case, some since deleted tweets from the event showed the shocked reactions of some members of the audience, while another attendee seems to have to have subsequently taken her recollections of the speech straight to the Scottish Sun.

Even internal speaking events can spark crisis media management incidents as Uber director David Bonderman found out when he made a sexist joke at a meeting to discuss sexism last year. Within a few hours of making the remark he had resigned.



Mr Gaffney’s comments appear to be a deeply misjudged attempt at injecting some humour in to his speech.

And attempts at humour have led to the downfall of many a speaker. The jokes used in the infamous Gerald Ratner speech we referred to earlier were actually included on the advice of one of his colleagues on the board at the Ratners Group. While Burger King boss Bernado Hees was forced into a grovelling apology when he revealed there were few distractions when he studied at Warwick University because ‘the food is terrible and the women are not very attractive’.

We tell participants on our presentation skills training courses that they need to tread very carefully with humour. Gags, which should be limited and clean, need to be tested on a trusted sample audience before they are included in a speech.


Act quickly

As with any crisis, you need to act quickly. The Scottish Sun reports that it took Mr Gaffney five hours to respond to their enquiries about his speech.

In a world where reputations can be shattered by a few tweets and online stories, that is simply far too long.

Even if initial statements are short and lack detail they at least show you are aware of the issue and are trying to rectify the situation.



When you have made a public speaking gaffe, you need to be honest and admit a mistake has been made. It may have taken Mr Gaffney some time to say sorry, but actually his apology felt genuine and heartfelt.

He said: "Last week I attended a Labour Students Burns Supper in Edinburgh.

“At that event I used certain language relating to the Chinese and LGBT communities that was wrong and completely inappropriate.

“I want to offer my unreserved apologies for what I said; my remarks were deeply offensive and unacceptable.

“I will be taking part in equality and diversity training at the earliest opportunity. I will do everything possible to make amends with both the Chinese community and the LGBT community."


Media and presentation training

Public speakers need to ensure that they have had presentation and media skills training. It may prevent them making the comments in the first place. If not, they will need the skills to handle the media afterwards.



Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.

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