One of last week's biggest political pile-ons was the controversy over Sarah Palin's use of the term "blood libel" in defending herself against accusations that her inflammatory political rhetoric (and gun-sight imagery) had contributed to the shootings in Tucson.
Here's the statement she posted online, linked to her Facebook page (the controversial language in question comes at around the 3:26 mark).
Sarah Palin: "America's Enduring Strength" from Sarah Palin on Vimeo.
My first reaction to this story was to be surprised that we're still surprised by anything Sarah Palin says -- or any word or expression she uses or misuses.
But an opportunity to attack a political opponent is an opportunity to attack a political opponent, so the game was on in the media.
Did she mean to be inflammatory?
Personally, I doubt it. My bet is that she was aware of the expression, but wasn't aware of its origin.
Had she known, Palin (or, at least, her advisors) would have to recognize that using such inflammatory language would do nothing to help endear her to the segment of the American public not already on her side.
In politics, as in public opinion, it's important to keep your eye on the "undecideds" -- that's where you should be spending most of your effort. Your supporters already support you, and people who've decided against you take a lot more persuading to bring on-side; so your most efficient use of resources is to focus on the undecideds.
To knowingly use divisive and hate-fuelled language at a time of crisis does not reflect positive leadership qualities; people who may be shopping for a new leader don't tend to like that. To do so could cost you at the voting booth.
What should she have said once the criticism erupted?
Once the statement was made and the expression on the record, Palin had a difficult choice to make.
Admitting she didn't understand the historical significance of the expression could make her look ignorant (not ideal, for a would-be leader of the free world).
Standing by her statement could give her opponents more material to use against her.
Palin's choice, until this evening, has been option number three: return to silence... which leaves the rest of the world to debate whether she's ignorant, or insensitive, or intentionally divisive.
Tonight, ABC News is reporting, Palin will make her first media appearance since her controversial Facebook statement, on Fox News' Hannity. I'll be interested to see what route she takes; while I think addressing it is the right move, I think she may be a bit late.
If you don't speak, the media will fill in the blanks for you.
If you search Google News for "Sarah Palin blood libel" you'll get thousands of articles.
Thousands, over the space of a week.
While the vast majority of the coverage I've seen on this topic has been critical of Palin's choice of words (even from conservative commenters like former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer), articles like the one by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in The Wall Street Journal last week came to her defence, arguing her use of the expression is appropriate.
But whether or not the usage is appropriate, a good understanding of the public's sensitivities (and even the mainstream media's prejudices, for that matter) would have told a good PR advisor that using an expression like "blood libel" would hurt her more than it would help.
The ABC News-Washington Post poll results released today, suggesting that 70% of Americans disapproved of Palin's response to the Tucson shootings, seem to bear that out.
UPDATE Monday night
Here's audio of Palin on Hannity tonight. The segment on the "blood libel" issue begins around the 15:55 mark.
To my ears, this isn't a statement aimed at the undecideds.
When it comes to public relations, it doesn't matter whether you meant to offend anyone. If people were offended by something you said, you want to take a hard look at your language, and see how you might avoid doing that next time.
It doesn't really matter how many others may have used similar language before you; this is between you (or your organization) and your audiences.
Think about how this works in our personal lives: if someone says something that offends you, how much does it matter whether they meant to offend? Maybe a bit, but not much. If you're going to feel better about your relationship with that person, you probably want your perspective acknowledged, and the person to regret having offended you. What likely won't help is if you're told you are unreasonable to have been offended.
Sarah Palin is so certain that the "lame-stream media" is out to get her that she's betting few people were actually offended by her language. That's a bet I wouldn't be willing to take.
The time to respond to a gaffe is immediately, and the way to respond to a gaffe is with an apology.
If you don't think you have anything to apologize for, you shouldn't do so insincerely; but if that's the case, and you're concerned about public opinion at all, don't re-raise the issue after the initial controversy has passed.
Doing so may just as likely offend -- and alienate -- even more people.