How to Avoid Mitt-in-Mouth Disease

You’d think that Mitt Romney would have a virtual Ph.D. in strategic communication and messaging. Just look at all the messages he has had to deliver over the years: wins and losses in business, sports and politics.

But he has a chronic case of foot-in-mouth disease — which makes me wonder if he really has gotten top-quality media training after all.

Here’s Mitt as quoted in a recent Peggy Noonan column in the Wall St. Journal:

“All great political families have myths, stories they tell themselves about how history happened. The great story about Mr. Romney’s father, George, is that one word—”brainwashed”—did in his presidential candidacy in 1968. People have hypothesized that Mitt is careful with words and statements, that he edits his thoughts too severely, because of the power of that myth.

“I don’t think my father’s comment figures into my thinking at all,” he says. It’s his own mistakes “that make me want to kick myself in the seat of my pants,” that “cause me to try and be a little more careful in what I say. . . . I’ve had a couple of those during the campaign, which have haunted me a little bit, but I’m sure before this is over will haunt me a lot.”

Asked for an example, he mentions “I like to be able to fire people.” He meant, he says, those, such as health-insurance companies, that provide inadequate services. “I have to think not only about what I say in a full sentence but what I say in a phrase.” In the current media environment, “you will be taken out of context, you’ll be clipped, and you’ll be battered with things you said.” He says it is interesting that “the media always says, ‘Gosh, we just want you to be spontaneous,’ but at the same time if you say anything in the wrong order, you’re gonna be sorry!”

Mitt’s comment about ‘being spontaneous’ makes me think that he’s trying to memorize messages and simply unload his script at the right moment. That’s not how to navigate a media interview. Reporters know a prepackaged quote when they hear one. What they want are comments that are both substantive and quotable.

Memorization doesn’t work because an interview or conversation inevitably drifts off-point. That, Mitt, is why you need to learn how to stay on-message even when you’re off script.