U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano experienced what can befall any spokesperson at a critical moment who isn't fully clear about the talking points on a vexing question.
On Sunday, Secretary Napolitano said on one talk show that "the system worked" after a Nigerian passenger tried to set off an explosion on a Northwest Airlines flight into Detroit, meaning, as The New York Times reported, that it worked after the incident and that "the government responded by increasing security and alerting other planes."
However, in another interview, "she did not make clear she was referring only to what happened after the incident, making it sound as if the system as a whole worked."
There you have it -- inattention under the duress of persistent media questioning (and an understandable desire to be as reassuring as possible) caused a embarrassing lack of clarity. This came as embarrassing not only to Secretary Napolitano but to President Obama and his administration.
Spokespeople always need to be mindful of what they speak about, whom they speak to, and whom they speak for -- especially at tense, unfolding occasions like an incident of aircraft terrorism. Talking points are critically important to develop and keep firmly in mind before the cameras. (You're always speaking to a camera or a reporter's notebook, not the journalists involved -- news briefings and interviews are never conversations.)
"Administration officials said," The New York Times advised, "that during a weekend conference call they had resolved to use the Sunday shows to reassure the public. but that the 'system worked' formulation was not in written talking points."
Going on without talking points is like flying casually through a media glare. You may not get to where you want to be -- with harm all around.