By now you’ve heard the unfortunate story of how a right-wing blogger cherry-picked portions of a speech from Agriculture Dept worker Shirley Sherrod during an NAACP event back in March. Sherrod’s remarks were neither racist nor inflammatory, but a decision by one blogger, Andrew Breitbart, to post an edited portion of the NAACP video led to quick assumptions from other media (ie Fox News) and a knee-jerk reaction from the White House to support her dismissal, not to mention humiliate her.
It is very easy to take words and sentiment out of context. This has been going on since time immemorial. From movie reviews (“great movie” — when in fact the critic said “this is not a great movie”) to emails being misinterpreted to soundbites that make someone sound smart or stupid depending on the media outlet’s goals, there will always be cases of people’s words being taken out of context. What is disturbing is how quickly this recent event spiraled out of control. Neither Barack Obama nor Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack viewed the whole Sherrod speech or read the entire transcript — yet because of the media storm coming from the right, they supported Sherrod’s dismissal.
As we post videos on YouTube, Powerpoints on Slideshare, photos on Flickr, 140 characters on Twitter, emoticons in emails — we need to be careful to monitor the coverage of our content and be prepared to respond to out-of-context reporting. Also, we need to do our homework. This phrase, “do your homework,” has been lambasted at nearly every conference in which a journalist or PR exec implores the audience to “do your homework” before embarking on a campaign or making an important phone call. Cue to eyes rolling. It is just so obvious. But, had the media and White House done their homework — and listened to the entire Sherrod speech while also having some healthy skepticism of the source of the blog post — then this whole firestorm would not have occurred.
Homework is a drag — just ask your child or recall your own school/college days. But it makes us smarter and more responsible. In the School of Reputation Management, homework is under-rated but indispensible.