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Public Relations

Prevent a “Walk Back” – Get Your Message Right the First Time

Years ago, Monty Python crafted what may be the funniest sketch in the world. The episode titled, “Face the Press”, is about a civil servant who works at the Ministry of Silly Walks. There, using grants from the government, he develops crazy high stepping gaits. In the sketch, John Cleese walks with the most exaggerated manner of hops, twists, turns, lunges, and leg swings. I never thought I would see the day when the Ministry of Silly Walks was reality, but lately, it appears that the Python’s sketch has come to life with all manner of civil servants doing walk backs. But what is a walk back?

Walk backs are silly walks of the verbal kind

Lately, when leaders in both the political (and corporate) entities wish to re-shape perception of prior statements, a spokesperson is called in to tell the audience what the leader *really* meant to say.

We have words which apply to communications such as retraction, clarification, explanation, and, now we have a new term: walk back. If you’ve noticed an increase in the use of walk back in political or corporate news lately you’re not alone.

In a 2013 entry in StackExchange, a writer asked, “Does “walk back” have a meaning of ‘deny’ or ‘keep distance from somebody / something.’ as an idiom?” In responses posted to the query, one individual noted, “I’ve often heard walk back used idiomatically to mean backpedal from or retract a statement or promise.”

In our opinion, a walk back happens because somebody didn’t think first before making a statement. Leaving others to clean up a mess. Noted crisis communications expert Jonathan Bernstein says, “I think walk-backs are disingenuous, they are a less-honest way to acknowledge a mistake.”

In news headlines we’ve seen spokespersons backpedaling by redefining a message. Examples from the news include (emphasis mine) the following usage:

The opening sentence in a Washington Times article, “Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer predicted Wednesday that President Trump is going to walk things back on immigration after expressing interest in a compromise bill on Tuesday.”

Or in a NY Times article, “Through it all, Mr. Trump repeated a series of misleading assertions and falsehoods, such as when he seemed simultaneously to walk back and yet double down on his accusation that President Barack Obama had wiretapped him.”

In a story published on Talking Points Memo, the piece opens with the lede, “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday tried to walk back her suggestion that historically black colleges were the product of a “school choice” movement rather than legalized segregation and Jim Crow laws.”

Walk backs in recent news headlines

Learn from the poor examples of walk backs

Communication is fraught with complications and challenges. What one person says may not be comprehended (as intended) because the recipient’s experience, worldview or beliefs differs widely from those of the speaker. In the case of the walk back, a speaker communicates, and later finds that what he or she said didn’t fly, creating the need to distance him or herself the statement, hence a walk back.

The art of the apology requires one to communicate with sincerity, transparency, and honesty in order to find acceptance with individuals one has wronged, slighted, or insulted. If someone has mis-spoken, then clarification is in order. If one was erroneous in one’s statements, then a retraction and apology are required. But we don’t see much of the retraction or apology these days from leaders. What we get are these limp walk backs, which are doing nobody any good.

Some of the walk backs we’ve seen and read are delivered with a dismissive tone, indicating that anyone in the public who thought such a thing must certainly be dim-witted, because *obviously* the person meant, what the spokesperson is now saying, not what was perceived.

Such ham-fisted attempts to shift perception, distance or change understanding cause more damage than they cure. People are easily offended, and not so easily wooed back into alliance. Backhanded apologies do not go down well with those who have been offended or wronged.

Craft your messages to avoid walk backs

If you are going to deliver a message or statement about a situation, endeavor to keep it from being taken “the wrong way”. It’s better to craft a solid message which says what you mean it to say, rather than have to deploy a second round of messages clarifying the first message.

Far better is to have message templates prepared (before you need them) so you do not waste time when you need to respond. Communicating in a crisis is no fun for anyone. Doing it with grace, sincerity, transparency, honesty, and believability doesn’t happen when you’re in the pressure cooker. Advance preparation of both messages and leaders yields better messages, and less confusion. Better messages, mean no walk backs.

To get your message right, seek trusted opinions of people within and without your sphere and from all points of view. This will aide you in comprehending how your message may be perceived. Then edit your message to avoid compounding the very thing you’re trying to correct. Put the draft of the final message through its paces with your trusted panel, and make any adjustments required.

If you’re going to speak in person to news media, get media training to prepare you to respond to all manner of questions related to your message and subject. Practice your message delivery in a role-playing situation. Have a team playing the public or the media. Let them ask you hardball questions and get practice responding, staying on message and not losing your cool. Once you’re comfortable speaking, answering questions, you can deliver a message that prevents the need for a silly walk back.


Thanks to Deviantart Member chaplin007 for his Ministry of Silly Walks used in our header.

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