Words Matter: Foot-in-mouth disease

By MERRIE SPAETH   |   Jan. 31, 2003 at 7:49 PM   |   0 comments

DALLAS, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Columns have explored the investment lessons from 2002, the lessons from business models that failed. But I want to know if American leaders and executives have learned any language lessons. Lesson No. 1 is to avoid "bimbo" comments. The "bimbo" phenomenon in language occurs when a speaker tries to deny a negative word. Listeners tend to ignore the denial, so they actually "hear" the opposite of what the speaker is trying to say. I named it for the young woman who announced in 1994, "I am not a 'bimbo'"; 2002 was a banner year for such howlers.

The winner of the 2002 Bimbo was former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling for a string of comments like, "I did not lie to Congress or anyone else," and "I was not aware of any financing arrangements designed to conceal liabilities or inflate profitability."

In 2002, executive after executive tried to change reality by denying it. "We don't have a liquidity crisis, just the perception of a liquidity crisis," said WorldCom's then-new CEO, John Sidgmore. Perception turns quickly into reality, and WorldCom is now the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

A spokesman for the drug company Imclone, whose financial shenanigans toppled home furnishings diva Martha Stewart, said, "We in no way intended to mislead the public." In January 2002, Enron CEO's chief of staff, Steve Kean, after the first revelations about the firm's off-balance sheet transactions, also insisted, "It was not our intent to mislead." I guess misleading is fine if it's not intentional.

In all fairness, this problem isn't limited to business leaders. The no-longer-so-young lady who first said, "I am not a bimbo," reappeared in 2002 to comment on the death of her friend, mobster John Gotti, saying, "If he wasn't a killer, he'd have been a decent person."

Also, Easton, Penn., talk show host Ron Angle suggested African-Americans return to Africa if they don't like America. In the ensuing uproar, he defended himself, saying: "I am not a racist. I am not a bigot. I am not an anti-Semite." And from the sports world, after an altercation, New Jersey Net Kenyon Martin said, "I don't care what people think, I am not a thug."

Besides giving us a good chuckle, why do these comments matter? Because they represent a missed opportunity. Since your listener will remember only a little, the choice of language is like choosing the right weapons for the battlefield. It is an opportunity to increase credibility and motivate others. It should never be wasted on denials, particularly when the sin or problem is true. Again, denying something does not abolish it.

To put 2002 in perspective, the 2001 winner was former Rep. Gary Condit of California for comments like: "We have nothing to hide," "I have not been silent," "I did not ask anyone to lie," "They do not have any reason to be suspicious," and "I am not stonewalling."

The 2000 winner was the director of Indonesia's Central Bank, Syahril Sabirin, for saying, "I don't think I've stolen any money recently." In 1999, former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson took top honors, writing to a columnist, "you wrote that I was a recluse rapist. I'm not a recluse."

"Bimbo" comments are a result of traps laid by others. Thus, at congressional hearings probing the Enron debacle last summer, a congresswoman asked Enron's general counsel and the managing partner of Vinson and Elkins, "What's the difference between an investigation your firm does and a cover-up?" The lawyer slid into the trap, repeating the word "cover-up" to deny it, saying, "We don't do cover-ups." From the hours of hearings, that was one of the only comments The Wall Street Journal quoted.

This new year has just started, and already so have the "bimbo" denials. In Washington, the head of the teachers union has resigned after being charged by the FBI of spending millions of dollars of union dues on personal luxuries for herself. She was quickly replaced by Ester Hankerson. Now the FBI is looking into Hankerson's use of a union credit card to pay for her granddaughter's travel to a convention of the American Federation of Teachers.

Predictably, the person who is faced with embarrassment tries to blame someone else. In this case, Hankerson blamed her assistant. Equally predictable are the public denials. Hankerson said, "I am not guilty of anything." She added, "Anything that happened with my credit card, it was not because I was trying to take anything from the union."

The teachers union has also approved pensions for staff people, but for years, the money was never deposited in an account to pay them. Hankerson said she didn't know anything about that, either, although she was a member of the executive board which approved the budget and the pension money.

I am a board member for a company, and the amount of paper is overwhelming. That's no excuse, however.

In 2003, I am looking for leaders to take responsibility for their language and follow through with their actions. I wish Hankerson hadn't blamed her assistant but had said: "I'm responsible. I was sloppy, and I didn't live up to the high standards we expect from those teaching our young people. You have my promise to do better, and I'll keep you posted." On the missing pension-fund money, I'll bet the teachers themselves would like to have heard: "This money is in trust. If we can't be good stewards, I'm going to find someone who can."

If our leaders will be honorable in what they say, we can hold them accountable. And that's our job as citizens.


(Merrie Spaeth, director of media relations for President Ronald Reagan, is president of a Dallas-based consulting firm and is a regular commentator on public radio and television.)

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