Dealing with a Gaffe

Everyone makes mistakes. Even (especially?) politicians. Unfortunately, for politicians, these embarrassing events happen in public and usually in front of a camera. Some gaffes can be easily overcome and some can destroy a campaign and hurt a career.

Let’s take a look at some classic politician gaffes:

Katz kicks a kid


Former Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz played soccer with some inner-city kids for a photo op. Unfortunately, things didn’t go well for Sam (or the kid). Sam missed the ball but managed to kick a kid in the face. Worse he continued to play the game without checking on the kid. Katz ended up being re-elected anyways.

Three Agencies?

In a policy debate, Rick Perry forgets his policy. He dropped out of the Republican race shortly thereafter.

Math is Difficult

math is difficult

Showing arrogance and condescension, Jim Prentice attacks NDP Leader (and then Premier) Rachel Notley on her economic policy by saying that “I know that math is difficult, Rachel.” Notley and her party handily disposed of the PCs and their dynasty a couple of weeks later.

Spelling is Difficult Too

At a photo-op just a few months before the 1992 election, Vice President Dan Quayle gives student a lesson in how not to spell.


The Dean Scream

Democratic insurgent candidate Howard Dean lost the Iowa Caucus in 2004 and then he briefly lost his mind…and his campaign flamed out shortly thereafter. Better to burn out than to fade away.

And Joe Biden…the gaffe-meister

There are entire videos on all of Joe’s gaffes. He is still Vice President of the United States.

Please Proceed Governor…

With millions of eyes watching the debate, Republican nominee dug himself deep into a whole as he tried to attack President Obama’s response to Benghazi. His campaign was over. In a slightly ironic twist, he received 47% of the vote.

Some politicians survived their gaffes. Some didn’t. Why? There are a two main determining factors:

1) Does it reinforce a narrative?

Jim Prentice was leader of a party that had governed for 44 years and was accused of being arrogant and out of touch. Some of his previous statements had been criticized as arrogant. He cemented the idea that he was arrogant by talking down to a female leader of a party. To make things even worse, his statement was actually wrong.

Rick Perry was never accused of being the brightest of all of the Republican candidates seeking the presidential nomination. His forgetting his own policy reinforced the opinion that he really wasn’t smart enough to be President. To remedy this problem, he has bought himself a fancy pair of smart looking glasses.

One would think kicking a kid in the face would be something that a politician couldn’t recover from. However, Sam Katz wasn’t known to walk down the street kicking kids. It was pretty easy to brush off as a clumsy mistake. People generally forget the first time a politician does something embarrassing. However, they won’t forget a second similar incident. A gaffe that reinforces an existing narrative is the type of gaffe that will sink your campaign/political career.

Know your narrative: know your strengths and weaknesses as both a candidate and a person. For example, if you know that you aren’t the most physically coordinated person, don’t have a photo-op playing sports. Try your best to avoid putting yourself in positions that can cause embarrassment.

2) The politician’s response to the gaffe.

Get ahead of the coverage.Address the issue and sincerely apologize (without any reservations) to anyone impacted by your mistake. Had Jim Prentice came out with a sincere apology to Rachel Notley about his mistake and his comment about math, he may have been able to move past it. Had Mitt Romney had released a clarification after getting fact checked by Crowley on TV, he may not have looked like the petty person that he appeared to be during the debate.

Don’t simply ignore the gaffe and move on. Hoping nobody notices it may be your first instinct but, if you don’t deal with it, you risk losing control of the coverage of the gaffe. With social media, things can go viral very quickly and it is better to get out ahead of the gaffe before that happens.

Use self-deprecating humour to defuse the situation. Laugh at yourself just a little. In fact, if you can effectively use humour to laugh at yourself, you can make yourself a little more relatable – everyone has felt the pangs of embarrassment before. Joe Biden’s entire political career has been dogged by his embarrassing gaffes. His folksy charm and humour has allowed him to bounce back every single time.