#BeMyGuest Post: Open Mic Night For Gordon Brown by Elissa Freeman

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A special #BeMyGuest post…

I’ve been pestering Elissa Freeman (@ElissaPR) to write a guest post for my Blog for a while…and after you read her take on the Gordon Brown Gaffe (from a Canadian perspective), you’ll understand why.

Elissa is the Director of Public Relations / Public Affairs for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, so she knows her stuff, but it is her genuine and enthusiastic nature which makes her one of my favourite people to follow on Twitter.

So, without further ado, let’s get into it…

Open Mic Night For Gordon Brown by Elissa Freeman

We Canadians have a particular affinity for the Brits. Indeed, we whip ourselves into a frenzy when the Royals visit. And those of us who are old enough, still know the words to God Save The Queen. But no matter how loudly we sing, we realize that even God can’t save Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

In true Canadian style, we can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for Mr. Brown – and especially for his PR team. The Canadian morning shows were all abuzz about the verbal shot heard ‘round the world about calling Mrs. Gillian Duffy “a bigoted woman”, yet the tone was somewhat empathetic rather than an out-and-out gloat.

The Gordon Brown Gaffe reminds all PR pros that a minor slip in protocol can wreak havoc. The Gaffe falls under the most basic principles of preventative PR: nothing is ever off the record…especially when you’re attached to a live mic.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chased one of my spokespeople down the corridor because we forgot to disengage the mic. It’s easy to forget, mind you; the cameraman wires up your spokesperson, there’s great concentration on the messages to be disseminated, the interview finishes and off you go.

The speed at which the most minor of details could derail a tightly reigned-in PR plan was frightening. The speed at which the crisis communications plan kicked into action was admirable. First, a media apology, then a personal apology, followed by a wrap-up statement with the press.

Personally, I would have wished that mic was still on during Mr. Brown’s 45-minute dressing down with the highly offended Mrs. Duffy. What was even more interesting? Mrs. Duffy was nowhere to be seen when the Prime Minister faced the press immediately thereafter. In a best case scenario, she should have been by his side, accepting his apology. Maybe that’s why one in four Brits didn’t find Mr. Brown’s apology as being genuine.

Try as we may to control the message, human frailty doesn’t allow a PR pro to have power over everything. In this case, a live mic could be the death knell for Gordon Brown’s re-election bid.

I hope you enjoyed Elissa’s take on what will probably go down as one of the most public gaffe’s in recent history.

In addition to the points she’s made above, the other thing that struck me about how this panned out was how the event was amplified by social media – five years ago YouTube was only a week old and Twitter didn’t exist – would this have be as scrutinized as heavily without the mass adoption of social media we now currently enjoy?

If you’d like to leave a comment, please drop it in the box below…but just remember, the whole world is watching…listening…reading… 😉


  • Reply April 30, 2010


    I certainly feel sympathetic toward him because it’s like a high school musical nightmare–you go offstage, forget to turn off your mic, and say something embarrassing. I’m surprised that only 1 in 4 Brits accept the apology because I would think they’d find a snafu like this amusing. If she is really a “bigoted woman,” then I appreciate PM Brown’s honesty.

  • Reply April 30, 2010

    Emily Cagle

    Hi Elissa,

    Good post.

    “Mrs. Duffy was nowhere to be seen when the Prime Minister faced the press immediately thereafter… Maybe that’s why one in four Brits didn’t find Mr. Brown’s apology as being genuine.”

    I think it was the IF word that made the apology seem guarded and disingenuous. He said “I apologise IF I said anything that has been offensive”. It was a ‘politician’s apology’ and Brits know spin when they hear it.


  • Reply April 30, 2010

    Paul Sutton

    Hi Elissa
    I think once he’d made the gaffe he was damned if he did apologise and damned if he didn’t. It’s the fact he said it in the first place (or rather, got caught saying it) that did the damage. It’s obvious to everyone that he HAD to apologise, so it was always going to be seen as a PR exercise even if it was the most genuine apology ever made.

    Adam, I think in this case it would have received the scrutiny even without social media. The TV made sure of that. I wrote a blog post for Bottle PR before the second tv debate that talked about the influence of the media on the election (http://blog.corkingpr.co.uk/by/verity.blake/why-the-media-will-decide-who-rules-the-uk-for-the-next-five-years-91) but have even slightly changed my mind since then – I feel that TV has had a far bigger influence on this election than social media, and that social media hasn’t played quite the role we expected it to.


  • Reply April 30, 2010

    Adam Vincenzini

    Paul – I agree…to a point.
    Yep, it would have been huge anyway, but on the schedule of the media…not the user / people – 5 years ago, we would have had to wait until we got home to watch the news to see the clip – today, we go straight to YouTube from our desk and can see the offending clip.
    This speeds the process…and perhaps extend the life of the story? It gets scrutinized even further.
    For me, its a classic example of the ‘new’ news cycle – which enables people to shape the direction of the coverage more so than ever before.

  • Reply April 30, 2010

    Paul Sutton

    You certainly have a point about the speed of the news cycle, and the affect that the web has had on this. I often find things out from Twitter before I hear them anywhere else. Just not sure in this case that social media has had the impact I expected.

    Although having said that, close inspection of my Twitter feed from last night may reveal that I spent about 40 minutes chatting to others about the debate as it happened. So maybe I’m wrong after all!!

  • Reply April 30, 2010

    Adam Vincenzini

    I don’t think there’s a right or wrong…we’re just still in the very early stages of this news consumption / engagement evolution…in 2 or 3 years will have a better idea…until then we can debate as mush as we want…awesome!

  • Reply April 30, 2010

    Sharon Hollingsworth

    Enjoyed reading your excellently written “take” on this major gaffe, Elissa! This is the stuff that PR nightmares are made of – but having said that, it seems entirely possible that she did make a bigoted remark, so maybe it was worth the PR fallout?? Easy for me to say of course!

  • Reply April 30, 2010

    Yaz Maziar

    Far more exciting than reading about more Toyota recalls. Excellent synopsis Elissa.

  • Reply April 30, 2010

    Stephanie Lawrence

    Great post Elissa. I also thought it was interesting that not much media attention has been paid to the substance of the actual comments – the story itself has focussed on PR – not immigration / racism.

    So one of the lesson is you need to keep your spokespeople in character at all times – could plant a nice sound bite if a mic was left open and the comments captured were on message, but appeared to be off the cuff.

  • Reply April 30, 2010


    Great post!

  • Reply April 30, 2010

    Heather Rourke

    It’s not just your spokesperson you have to worry about – anyone who comes in contact with the media needs to know that they’re always “on”. I’ve seen many staffers, PR and other, babble with journalists during the set up and take down for interviews. You’re the best spokesperson wrangler I know, Elissa!

  • Reply April 30, 2010

    Jules Zunich

    To paraphrase Adam: Elissa’s genuine and enthusiastic nature which makes her one of my favourite people to follow on Twitter.

    When these very public gaffes happen, I immediately shutter with both pity for the PR team and relief that I am not on it!

    Thanks Elissa. Great, as always!
    ~ Jules

  • Reply May 1, 2010

    Alanna Glicksman

    Great post Elissa!

    While I sympathize with Prime Minister Brown, public figures need to remember that they are never off the record. Every comment is fair game for the media to scrutinize, and while it is regrettable that his mic was left on, the media frenzy is to be expected. As Adam pointed out, the reaction is only heightened by social media, but it seems that Brown’s PR team had an effective crisis communications plan ready.

    Elissa- thanks for the tip about the mic. I’ll make sure I chase down spokespeople when I start my job!

  • Reply May 1, 2010

    Elissa Freeman

    Some excellent commentary here from both the idealogical and ‘on the ground’ POVs. For those of us in PR, we are straddling the fence; one foot steeped in the old school and the other tentatively testing the waters in the new school, ie social media. While we’ll all likely continue to practice PR according to its tried and true formula, the speed at which social media is amplifying the message is something we’re still getting used to!

    Also – a big thank you to Adam – and Emily – for creating #BeMyGuest. I’m honoured to be part of your world!

  • Reply May 2, 2010

    Corinne Hodgson

    In many respects, I think the incident is a good example of the “MacDonaldalization” of modern politics. Everyone is so politically correct that it is strangling honest debate and scaring away potentially effective leaders (e.g., Colin Powell). Hence, politicians must be “wrangled” and every utterance vetted for its PC’ness. In this artifical, surrealistic world, the unguarded comment is as uncommon as the two-headed calf, and examined just as closely. Thus, someone like a Winston Churchill — who was frequently inebriated, acerbic and cyncial, and unabasheduly intellectual and upper-class — could never be sufficiently wrangled — even by a pro like Elissa — to be elected to anything. Whereas Carl Rove wrangles George Bush into two terms as president. Maybe we should be electing publicists rather than politicians.

  • Reply May 3, 2010



    Great post! Politics is a high stakes, winner take all game. It has never been more apparent than the advent of the masses’ access to social media. I feel this is a blessing and a curse all wrapped up into one. As a young PR practitioner, it is mind-boggling to think what is going to come down the pike next!?

    Good luck to everyone under the scrutiny of the public, and to those who do their best to keep them from saying anything “un-PC”

    -Andrew Shipp

  • Reply May 3, 2010

    Bill Walker

    A very important post indeed, and an issue that continues to be critical when we prepare spokespersons for media or public interactions of any kind. Glad you wrote this Elissa. We need to stress to communicators these days that (as the PM learned last year) smartphone video capabilities mean there really is no off the record, not anywhere, anytime, when you are in public. Whether folks are mic’d up or not.

  • Reply May 3, 2010


    Excellent post. Elissa… you never fail to providee excellent coaching and insights to build strong media relations… And, for the record, i’ve never run awaay with the mic still on!

  • Reply May 7, 2010

    Term Papers

    I have been visiting various blogs for my Term Papers research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information… Regards

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