Yesterday, the United States 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York struck down an long-standing Federal Communications Commission policy that said “a single, non-literal use of an expletive (on air) could be actionably indecent.” (Read the Story: Chicago Sun Times).
I always had a problem with this rule because it fined broadcasters for things that were out of their control or accidental, specifically at live events. One of the fines that was levied was because during the Golden Globes or some event, U2 lead singer Bono uttered the "f" word. How was the broadcaster supposed to know that the normally composed and decent Bono was going to drop an f-bomb.
One could of course argue that because they were airing the event and they could have had a time delay and bleeped it. Yada, Yada. My point is, accidents happen, it is really not a big deal. It really isn't. The point is, the FCC was not taking into consideration the spirit of how it was done. Was it planned, or was it simply an excited utterance.
By the time I was 5 or 6, I knew all of the dirty words and by the time I was 9 or 10 I had actually heard George Carlin's version of what you can and can not say on air. I don't run around swearing all of the time because of it, but that is for another time.
This little news item actually made me think of all of those times as a meeting and event professional, you are confronted with the same types of things that happen at your event. I could only imagine the profanities that were being thrown around the control room when Bono dropped the bomb. "Holy $*it, did he just say that...." "My f%$$ing heavens, we are going to get fined for that" or "F&^K, there goes my job, I can't believe that *a$$hole just said that"..
It is funny to reminisce, because I have been in the back of a conference room when an award has been given out and a normally composed Senior VP has gotten up to accept said award after too many vodkas and proclaimed that he "Loves all you Fuc&$^$" and on an incentive trip where a CEO falls getting onto the stage and lets out a string of expletives that would make a Drill Instructor fall over. I have also been at a conference where the Keynote's act was a verbal assault on the senses. The two are very different and should be handled very differently.
How do you handle it? In the case of the accidental gaffe, you should handle it a little better than the FCC. First, take it with a grain of salt. One or two words are not going to bring the place to its knees. Second with a little laughter. It was a slip and everyone knows that is what it was. Let it go, it will be in the dustbin of history soon. Should you be confronted by a drunken lout that is spewing filth from every orifice, simply turn the microphone off and walk them off the stage (while handing a live microphone to someone who can segue out of the embarrassing mess and get back on topic).
In the case of the hired keynote that is on stage and every other word is a swear word, well, that is most likely the fault of whoever hired them. Keynotes don't typically change their act that radically from event to event so all hired keynotes should be screened before they are allowed to grace your stage. It is imperative that you find someone that fits with your brand (and brand applies to companies, associations.... anybody).
Watch their YouTube presentations, their DVD promo materials, all of it. There are a hundred other things you should do before you hire a keynote as well, such as speaking with them and letting them know that is expected. Most good keynotes like to learn what is expected and also some details about your brand so that they can work it into their presentation. Dude swears every two seconds and talks about your mother, you should have caught it before you ever sent him a contract.
That being said, relax. It will actually be funny a couple of months from now when you are telling the story at a party. Really, it will be.