A MEETING OF insurance executives organized by the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers found itself interjected into this year's presidential race when keynote speaker L. Paul Bremer, former administrator of the U.S.-led occupation government in Iraq, told attendees that the United States made a mistake in not deploying enough troops in Iraq.
Bremer's October 4 remarks to the CIAB Forum at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., were released by conference organizers and picked up by media outlets around the country. His comments became fodder for Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards.
Press reports quoted a Bremer spokesperson as saying Bremer had believed his speech was to be off the record, but a CIAB news release issued August 28 specifically stated that the conference was open to media coverage.
A controversial outcome from the hiring of a speaker as topical as Bremer does not surprise Ruth Levine, founder of Speak Inc., a speakers bureau in San Diego. She notes that Bremer, who recently left government service, is a neophyte when it comes to the speaker's circuit. “They [ex-government officials] don't know what the expectations are.” Levine says. “It will be a while before they completely understand the protocol. The mistakes Bremer made are very common — and I'm pretty sure he won't make them again!”
A high-profile speaker provides an organization with “a great marquee name that can attract record attendance,” Levine says, adding that it also helps to put a group “in the spotlight.”
Yet sometimes that spotlight can be a bit too bright. Levine points to some trouble Morgan Stanley Dean Witter ran into when it booked former President Bill Clinton to speak at a conference in Boca Raton, Fla., a few weeks after he left office in 2001. Considered a coup at the time, Clinton's booking ended up leaving many Morgan Stanley clients angry with the company for booking the controversial former president, forcing Morgan Stanley Chairman Philip Purcell to acknowledge that booking Clinton had been a mistake.
Ultimately, Levine says, when a meeting planner books someone such as Bremer, he or she should make it clear to the speaker what is mutually expected and that the speaker “not say anything that will be politically controversial.”
As to whether a speech should be on or off the record, Marc Reede of the Nationwide Speakers Bureau, Beverly Hills, Calif., says that in theory, a bureau can have some control over conditions at an event, such as press coverage, but that in reality, once a speaker arrives, all bets are off. And if someone is a public figure in the news, says Reede, “They shouldn't be surprised if they are quoted.”
The CIAB, after first releasing excerpts from Bremer's remarks, is keeping a low profile. Its original news release concerning the speech was posted on its Web site but has since been removed. And organizers are maintaining a discreet silence. “Given the sensitivities involved here,” said Barry Meiners, CIAB's director of marketing and communications, in an e-mail, “we are declining interviews for the time being.”