Hot Mic Snafu During Democratic Debate: What Caused It & How They Handled It

Every so often a live televised event has a production screw up so flagrant it becomes Exhibit A when telling skeptical bosses or clients, “See? That’s why you need professionals running your event.”

There was the stage backdrop collapsing around Carly Fiorina during a speech, resulting in panicked shrieks of fear from the audience, showing what happens when your pipe and drape is too high to be secured by sandbags alone. You just know that someone got fired for hiring that vendor. Then there was Michael Bay getting so flummoxed by not being in sync with the teleprompter that he abandoned his Samsung product launch and simply walked off the stage. Though there’s a decent chance that was Bay’s fault, someone probably got fired backstage there as well. For more details, see our blog post: Golden Globes & CES Teleprompter Fails Yield Lessons for Event Pros.

What Happened?

June 26, 2019 might have broken new ground in both the gravity of the miscue, and the relative calm with how it was handled. Here’s what happened. NBC had just come back from a commercial break when moderator Chuck Todd started asking Elizabeth Warren about gun control. Unfortunately, he never got to finish, because it was clear to everyone in the auditorium, as well as the hordes watching at home on TV, that something was wrong with the microphones. And watching this unfold in real time, and having the moderators try to figure out what the problem was on live television, was utterly cringeworthy.

The whole room was hearing random chitchat from voices offstage amplified through the sound system. Initially, Todd assumes it’s a problem with the audience mic, which is designed to pick up applause, laughter and other reactions from the crowd. Todd thinks the problem’s been fixed and resumes his questioning, only to have to stop seconds later when everyone hears unseen voices in mid conversation. Eventually they figured out that the previous moderators’ mics were still ‘hot’ (on) and whatever they were saying backstage was being piped through the speakers for all to hear.

What Should You Do At Your Event?

If this happens at your event, it’s hide-under-the-table time, because there’s not much you can do as a planner. Few things are as frustrating as audio visual miscues that planners have little control over. I’m not talking about the tech team being given the wrong slides – that’s on the planners. I’m talking about when a technician drops the ball.

If you’ve ever run a conference where people are mic’d with a lavalier, even non-technically savvy event organizers know that the speakers’ microphones need to be turned off when they leave the stage. This can happen either by a stage hand turning off the mic’s battery pack and taking the mic off them altogether, or by the sound engineer cutting the feed from that speaker’s mic at the sound board. It seems there’s a decent chance that BOTH opportunities to cut the sound were missed. At least we didn’t witness the stereotypical version of this snafu which involves the hot mic’d speaker going into the rest room and, well, you can imagine the rest. 

PLAN AHEAD! Here are a few tips:

  • Ask your technical director prior to the event and during rehearsals to make sure they know to cue your sound technician to cut presenter pics when they leave the stage, or speak with your audio technician directly if you don’t have a technical director at your event
  • Schedule rehearsals whenever possible, for both your presenters and your sound techs
  • Plan to have a stage hand or someone back stage confirm that mics are off and belt packs turned off and/or removed when a presenter comes off stage. If they’re not able to, they should communicate with the sound tech to make sure that their feed is turned off at the sound board
  • Remind presenters to be mindful of their mics when coming off stage and to make sure that they’re off or muted prior to engaging in backstage conversation
  • Prepare your MC for the eventuality that something like this may occur and what actions to take if it does happen. A good MC should not have any problems managing and distracting from awkward situations in a tactful way

Yet while this was painfully awkward for all to see and hear, it’s worth noting how the hosts handled the situation. Things happen in live events, as we all know, and some you can’t control. What you can control, however, is how you react to them. In this case, Todd decided, correctly, to cut to another commercial while they sorted it out. This took some guts on his part, because NBC had literally just come back from a commercial break and doing so would mess with the show’s timing, but he had no other choice. However embarrassing it might have been in the room, at least they shielded the viewing public at home from watching them with their pants down any longer.

Even if there’s no television audience to worry about, if this were to happen at your event it’s still preferable to have the MC tell the audience that they’re going to take a couple of minutes to iron out the technical difficulties, and then handle it in stride when they get them fixed. Once you resume the program, the host can joke about it or ignore it altogether, but the key is to not make a big deal. Remember, audiences look to hosts for cues on whether or not they should worry about an incident like this, and projecting a sense of calm and control send the right message.

How have you handled technical glitches like this? Comment below!