Chicago Bear’s starting quarterback Jay Cutler played the first drive of the third quarter in last Sunday’s National Football Conference championship game and did not return because of a knee injury. However, just because fans saw him standing on the sidelines, the social media networks, like Twitter and Facebook, lit up with critics claiming that Jay Cutler had no heart, and he should have played the rest of the game regardless of his pain. On Monday, the Chicago Bears announced that Cutler had an MRI, revealing that he had a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, an injury that would severely hamper any quarterback’s mobility.
The announcement made all those who committed their opinion to the social media sites look foolish. It also reminded me of what I have always counseled my bosses and clients during my career as a professional communications consultant. I have repeatedly said, “Don’t commit something to the written word unless you will be comfortable with your words if they show up in the newspaper or are repeated in the electronic media.” In other words, if you’re ready to write a letter, send an e-mail or make a posting on a social media site, put it aside for at least a few minutes and then read it again. Will you be comfortable if it is repeated by someone in the media? If the answer is no, don’t send it.
This axiom is especially true for anyone who is a public figure, like a politician, celebrity or sports star. If it serves someone’s purpose to reveal what you wrote, even if you think it’s been done confidentially, it may be forwarded to a reporter who just might turn a simple opinion into a major controversy. Of course, when you commit something to a social media site, you do so with the understanding that it will immediately become public. I find that to be vexing because many people made very harsh statements about Cutler on Sunday without knowing the facts. That will certainly put anyone in a vulnerable position once the facts are known.
It can be even more frustrating for a person who has written something in confidence, only to find the words on the front page of a newspaper. This happened to Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, while I was a senior member of his communications and public relations staff. Ernie Tucker, the then religious editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote what was meant to be a humorous front-page story, revealing that Cardinal George had declared Jesus Christ to be a meat eater. Cardinal George made this declaration in a light-hearted letter when he responded to a correspondence he received from a vegetarian advocacy group. The group wanted to get the Cardinal’s endorsement of Jesus as a vegetarian, but in his response, Cardinal George said that historical records tended to indicate that Christ did indeed eat meat.
Unlike many in the media, I can’t read anyone’s mind or heart, so I don’t know why the vegetarians gave a copy of the letter to Tucker, but the story was not meant as a mean-spirited jab at Cardinal George. Nevertheless, he was miffed that a portion of what he thought was a private correspondence would end up on the front page of a newspaper. When he asked me why anyone would do this, I told him it was because he is Cardinal George, a major public figure in Chicago, and when he says or writes anything, the press views it as fair game.
If you are a public figure of any renown, be careful out there. Just remember the Miranda warning of communications. You have the right not to commit something to the written word. Anything you write can and will be used against you in the court of media public opinion.