We All Make Mistakes

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Huge Part of Protocol Is Just Smoothing Over the Slipups

Rules were made to be broken, even in the case of protocol. Of course, when foreign diplomacy is at stake, slipups, no matter how unintentional, can lead to international incidents — but mostly these faux pas put a few gray hairs on protocol officers’ heads and give the public a chance to see their leaders as human.

Remember when President Barack Obama presented England’s Queen Elizabeth with an Apple iPod during his first official visit with her in April? Protocol officers blanched — and then gasped when his wife Michelle hugged the queen in what became the embrace felt around the world. Touching the queen, after all, is a serious breach of royal protocol. Neither gesture pitted the American and British militaries against each other, but media coverage put protocol front and center, even overshadowing the main purpose of the visit, the G-20 summit.

“A major faux pas in international protocol is to give an inappropriate gift to your guest,” said Pamela Eyring, president and director of the Protocol School of Washington. “We have to do our homework. We can’t just assume that a product that we purchase at Best Buy will be a great gift for the queen of England.”

Protocol exists to help. The word is of Greek origin, protos, meaning “first,” and kolla, meaning “glue.” “The point of protocol is to connect something to another thing,” such as creating a relationship between two people or two countries, said Shelby Scarbrough, founder of Practical Protocol, an international special events management and business protocol training organization.

“It is the rules that govern our society so that we can behave in a more civilized way,” Eyring added. “If we didn’t have protocol rules, rules of engagement, rules of business, rules in society, we’d be back in the caveman days.”

“I think the presence of a protocol professional is an insurance policy that things will go smoothly,” observed Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.

But despite everyone’s best efforts and planning, things go awry.

Gift Gaffes Gifting is one of the biggest problem areas, Eyring said, whether it involves a badly chosen present or omitting one completely.

At a meeting with an ambassador, the governor of Georgia was left empty-handed despite plans for a gift exchange, recalled Chris Young, the state’s chief of protocol and president of Protocol and Diplomacy International – Protocol Officers Association. “Oftentimes, we’ll tell the visiting person’s staff what we’re giving so that we can make sure that there’s not a disparity in the level of gifts or any kind of embarrassment,” Young said.

The plans were set and the governor presented his guest with a gift. “Lo and behold, the other person didn’t have a gift and didn’t even have anything … couldn’t open up their coat pocket and take out a nice pen or something,” Young remembered.

Embarrassment and apologies ensued — and a gift made its way to the governor later.

“The mistakes, they’re always called accidents — they’re never called on-purposes,” said Nicole Krakora, director of special events and protocol at the Smithsonian Institution. “It’s not really the mistake that you make. It’s how you recover from the mistake.”

It could be through an apology or sometimes with a crafty cover-up. Krakora once watched as a host received a gift from a visiting delegation and had nothing to give in return. “The host — the receiver of the gift — immediately on stage said, ‘Thank you very much. We are going to include this as part of our corporation’s collection,’” Krakora said. “Fortunately, the event that they were celebrating was a partnership that was being launched with several organizations from that country. They were celebrating the product that was coming out of it, so the person at the microphone was able to spin it to say, ‘Thank you for this gift commemorating our partnership.’ It didn’t look like it needed to be a gift exchange.”

Standing By Seating is another faux pas breeding ground, the protocol experts agree. People are sensitive to their seat because of their rank, Eyring noted. Still, no amount of place cards and seating charts can insure against unforeseen events.

At a black-tie dinner at the presidential palace in Panama, Krakora was seated between a government minister and a Panamanian businessman who wanted to do business with the minister. “Throughout the dinner he spoke across me to the minister in Spanish,” Krakora recalled. “When he wasn’t speaking to the minister, he was on his BlackBerry, texting and making phone calls and just generally doing all of the things you’d never want to have happen.”

As the table host, the official tried in vain to get the man to stop talking shop by offering to speak with him privately after the meal. “I ended up listening to the conversation, wishing I had learned Spanish,” Krakora said. “It put the minister in a terrible position.”

Sometimes the problem arises before anyone is seated. At a luncheon where several heads of state were the guests of honor, Krakora rushed from the anteroom to the main room when it was announced that lunch was served. “Being a protocol officer, I assumed that we all needed to hurry and get into position because then the guests of honor, the heads of state, would be announced into the room as is proper,” she said. “I walked into the lunch, and I nearly died.”

The problem? The heads of state had been shown into the room already and were standing at their seats behind their chairs waiting for everybody to arrive. “The proper thing to do is have everybody in place and then you announce the guests of honor into the room and they make an entrance.”

Crisis Control Seating and gifting may be two of protocol’s biggest mine fields, according to Eyring, but any event has the potential for problems.

Scarbrough relayed the story of a protocol officer who saw the words “Made in Taiwan” on the bottom of a piece of china laid out at the State Department before a Chinese delegation was expected to arrive for lunch. “The relationship between China and Taiwan is very strained, so it would not have been good,” she said. “They rushed and got another set of china — it was probably British china or something — and brought it out and changed it on the head table, but they couldn’t get to the rest of the party.”

Announcements are not immune to issues, either. When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited President Bush toward the end of his administration, “during the arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, the house announcer, instead of saying, ‘Ladies and gentleman, the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China,’ said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the national anthem of the Republic of China’ — a very different place,” Young said, referring to Taiwan’s official name. “Every protocol officer that initially hears that has one of those cringing feelings and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. What can you do? There’s nothing you can do, right? You’ve just got to smile and go on.”

The offenders don’t even have to be human. In 2003, during a visit to England, the Bushes hosted a dinner for Queen Elizabeth at Winfield House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. “The dinner was beautiful, I mean absolutely exquisite, every detail paid attention to,” said McBride, who now works as a protocol consultant. “Then, just as Her Majesty was giving her toast, our ambassador’s dog started barking.”

The White House social secretary quickly and quietly scooped up the dog and carried it out of the room.

“Protocol and diplomacy really is no longer limited to the highest level of government, but it’s for state and local leaders and business executives,” McBride added.

No one needs to remind Young of that.

When Coretta Scott King, wife of civil rights activist Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died on Jan. 30, 2006, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue asked her family if they wanted her to lie in honor at the state Capitol. “This had an enormous amount of symbolism: She would be the first woman, she would be the first African American, and it also would be a very interesting juxtaposition to what happened in Georgia when her husband was assassinated almost four decades earlier, when the governor wouldn’t even put the flags at half-staff,” Young explained.

Before the public began arriving to pay their respects, Young noticed the company name on the portable toilets set up outside City Hall. “We were expecting a crowd of about 25,000 — turns out we had a crowd of about 50,000 come through — so you had to have somewhere for people to use the restroom,” he said. “That’s not abnormal except guess where the portable toilets came from. They came from the King Portable Toilet Co.”

Having someone make the wrong association was not an option. “So what do we do? We go out there with poster board and electrical tape on a frigid early February morning to rectify the situation,” Young said.

Flexibility is crucial for protocol officials. “We’re all human and these kinds of things are going to happen,” Young said.

Take ownership for mistakes that can’t be avoided, and make sure the victims know no offense was intended, Scarbrough advises. “If it’s a cultural mistake, you hope that you know you did it,” she added. “Most times most people won’t say anything because they, depending on the culture, would not want to shame you or offend you by pointing it out to you.”

“A faux pas is one little thing,” Krakora concurred. “If the rest of your exchange and the rest of your dealings and the rest of your visit show courtesy and respect, sincerity is palpable.”

For more information, also see “Rules of Engagement: Protocol Instruction Pulls Together Finer Points of Global Diplomacy” in the May 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014