by Steve Adubato, PhD

Humor is a funny thing, particularly when it doesn’t work. I am not talking funny in a ha-ha, belly laugh kind of way. I am talking funny that can get a top level executive in hot water in a hurry, particularly when this so-called humor either falls flat or unnecessarily offends a key audience or a group of stakeholders.

Consider the case of New York City Schools Chancellor Cathie Black, who has had an impressive career in the corporate world as a publisher. By all accounts, Black is smart, articulate and an aggressive leader whose overall communication philosophy was expressed quite well a couple of years ago in her popular book, “Basic Black”. However, the kind of off the cuff, so-called humorous communication that may work in the world of publishing doesn’t always translate well in the world of education.

One of the first rules of communication is to “know your audience”. A few weeks ago, Cathie Black smashed this communication rule to smithereens. In speaking before a Manhattan audience of largely white and well-off professionals, School Chancellor Black was talking about classroom overcrowding when she uttered this cringe-inducing comment; “Could we just have some birth control for a while? It would really help us.”

Some of the folks laughed nervously at Black’s attempt at humor, but she should have realized she already put her foot in her mouth. But apparently, she put her foot in even deeper when she further talked about school overcrowding. She said it winds up being “many Sophie’s choices.” This “humor” was referring to a book and movie about the Holocaust in which a Jewish mother in an Auschwitz death camp is forced to decide which of her two children will live due to an obscene and inhumane space limitation in the camp.

Many in the room said that while they didn’t think Black’s comments were particularly funny, they weren’t necessarily offended. But the thing about public communication is that the audience in the room is often only the first audience of many who will be exposed to your comments. As soon as word got out of what Black had said, she became a target. Many Black and Hispanic leaders accused her of being insensitive to the plight of minority families and children. Others said that this was a concrete example of why someone from the private sector with no experience being an educational leader was the wrong choice to run the largest public school system in the nation.

But there is a much bigger lesson here that goes beyond Cathie Black. Public displays of humor are risky business indeed. In an effort to be witty or quick on your feet, many professionals wind up saying things that come back to haunt them. Therefore, there are some additional rules that Cathie Black broke and that the rest of us need to understand.

The biggest rule is to make sure that whatever you say that you THINK is funny does not offend a key constituency or customer. If you are not sure, then resist the urge and play it straight. Second, never think the audience you are communicating with is solely the people in a particular room. We live in a digital media environment where everything can become viral within minutes.

One more thing. If your humor backfires, immediately apologize and take full responsibility. Don’t blame anyone else and don’t say you were taken out of context. Just own it. To Cathie Black’s credit, that’s exactly what she did. Hopefully she learned an important lesson about public communication and the art of humor. The rest of us can learn as well.