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The Schonbach Scandal – Why the Vice Admiral has had to step down.
January 27, 2022

Another leader falls for the “I-didn’t-know-that-my-comments-were-going-to-be-made-public” trap.

This week the leader of another organisation fell victim to the “I-didn’t-know-that-my-comments-were-going-to-be-made-public” trap. We often discuss it in our media training courses, especially when talking about live microphones and overheard comments.

This time, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach, head of the German navy, was forced to resign from his position following his remarks about Vladimir Putin and the Crimea peninsula.

What did Schonbach say?

Speaking at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Schonbach said of Vladimir Putin: “He wants respect and giving someone respect is low cost, even no cost. It’s easy to give him the respect he clearly demands and probably also deserves.” The Vice-Admiral added: “The Crimea Peninsula is gone. It will never come back — this is a fact.” His prediction directly contradicted the official line of the EU and the US, which states that Russia’s annexation in 2014 of the peninsula from Ukraine was unacceptable and must be reversed.

Shortly after his comments were made public, Schonbach announced in a statement: “I have asked Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht to relieve me from my duties with immediate effect.”

In our media training workshops, we’ll look at other examples of prominent people who, like Schonbach, didn’t realise their comments would be published.

When else have leaders slipped up?

During the 2010 election in the UK, the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, forgot that he was wearing a microphone. Following an encounter with a supporter, he was famously heard to complain to an aid about “a bigoted woman.” Brown rang and apologised to the woman in question, Gillian Duffy, for his comments, but, by then, they were being aired and reported on almost every news outlet.

“Yo, Blair, how you doing?” was President George W Bush’s greeting to British prime minister Tony Blair at the 2006 G8 summit.

It served to underline the criticism that Blair was, in some way, subservient to the US president.

Even royalty has been caught out. Prince Charles didn’t realise (or did he?) that a microphone had picked up his less than flattering observation about BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell: “I can’t bear that man. He’s so awful, he really is.”

So how can you avoid getting into trouble like this? 

The advice we give in our media interview coaching courses is to assume that every microphone is on. Whether you’re in a TV or radio studio, whether the journalist is visiting, you avoid saying anything that you wouldn’t be entirely happy seeing repeated and reported.

With press interviews, the risks can be greater than with broadcast. At least when you’re appearing on TV or radio, you’re aware of the microphones, the lights and the cameras, but when a print journalist rings you or arrives at your office, at what point does the interview start? When are you liable to be quoted? The answer is right from the moment you first meet through to when you or the reporter leaves.

What about a journalist’s point of view?

One of our media trainers, who, like everyone we use, is a working journalist, was asked to interview the boss of a company that was making redundancies. The interviewee handled the situation well, expressing sympathy for those who were to be let go, and explained the rationale behind the decision. As he and our colleague walked to the lift, making small talk, he mentioned that he was very busy at the moment…because he was off on holiday the next day. You can imagine the angle that our colleague took when he came to write up the story.

As with a broadcast interview, you can be friendly and apparently relaxed, but you’re still aware that anything you say can be quoted in the article. During our media training courses, we also discuss the phrase “off the record.” What does “off the record mean”? Opinions vary, but essentially, a journalist will use the information you give them without attributing it to you. You’ll hear political reporters say: “One minister told me…” and the FT sometimes reports: “People close to the deal believe that….”

How safe is it to go off the record? The PR executives and in house Comms teams that we work with will sometimes speak off the record to their favourite journalists.

They might arrange introductions and background briefings for journalists with their clients or colleagues.

Here they’ll be very clear that this is only for “background,” and nothing discussed should be quoted. The understanding is that if the journalist thinks that something mentioned could be a story, they’ll check first with the PR or Comms person before writing it and quoting the person they were talking to.

However, even here, it’s best to assume that if you say something, it could be reported and attributed to you. Tell me that you’re about to make a major acquisition or undergo a complete rebrand and, I’m sorry, but that’s just too good a story to miss.

How could a Communicate Media training course benefit me?

As we say in our media training courses, the media is a very powerful force, and it can be useful – but only if you take care, know what you’re doing and follow the rules. Now out of a job, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach now has plenty of time to reflect on this fact.

Contact us today on 07958 239892 or email gareth@communicatemedia.com to organise your training course today.

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