The 7 Worst Communications Failures Of 2011

Want a good lesson in how to tarnish your public image, put off your fan base, torpedo your career, or lose the trust of your clients? There’s plenty to pick from in our annual list of 2011’s communication losers.



Welcome to my annual list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice as a speaker or communicator. This week comprises my list of 2011’s losers. (Winners will be announced next week.)

  • Joe Paterno:  Penn State football coach Paterno allegedly did not properly follow up on reports of pedophilia by his well-known assistant coach. While the obvious legal and ethical failings are the big story, his central message and core promise were also destroyed. To date, Paterno still has not spoken to his fans in a heartfelt way, which is only prolonging and deepening the hurt and pain many of them feel.
  • Herman Cain:  After multiple claims of sexual harassment by at least three women didn’t do the trick, Cain finally got out of the presidential race when a woman came forward to announce they’d had a 13-year affair. He was able to stay in the race as long as he did because he’s a masterful presenter. Presentation skills can take you only so far, however. Substance and credibility form the other half of the persuasion equation, both of which had been long missing from the Cain campaign. 
  • Wall Street banks: The Street’s big banks and financial institutions continue to publicly speak and behave in ways that the communicates to the average person, “We don’t play by your silly rules.” Either they’re getting bad advice from their corporate communications departments or they’re ignoring them. Whatever the problem, they’re missing a tremendous opportunity to be statesman-like, help the country, make a bad situation better instead of worse, and generate a lot of new business in the process.
  • Anthony Weiner: It was not so much his frat-boy style transgressions that cut short the congressman’s career, as his week-long series of loud and insistent denials that caused the media to camp out on the doorstep of and cast all manner of aspersion on the object of his “affections,” a 21-year-old journalism student. It’s one thing to mess up your own life. It’s another thing entirely to mess up someone else’s.
  • U.S. Congress: I can tell you why Congress has a historically low approval rating of only 9%: These lawmakers don’t get out enough. And, when they do, it’s to the echo chamber of like-minded voters and corporate and special interests, to whom they’re beholden. Living and working in their well-protected cocoons, they’ve forgotten they work for constituents, as well as how to talk to them, and, thus, have lost all connection
  • Barack Obama: Last year, Obama made both lists. Regrettably, not this year. What I said in 2010 was that while I’ve been a huge fan of Obama’s big speeches, I always worried about his ability to fare well in smaller venues and connect emotionally with voters. His inability to fashion a coherent narrative and comfort (lead) the public through difficult times contributed greatly to his party’s midterm losses. In this vital skill, he has been an abject failure. What a shame.

I’ve no doubt I left many worthy candidates out. What do you think? I want names.

Next week, the 2011 winners. 

Ruth Sherman Associates LLC / High-Stakes Presentation Skills Coaching, Consulting & Media Training for CEOs, Celebrities, Politicians, & Entrepreneurs / Greenwich & Los Angeles

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[Image: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World