PR Parable: Step Carefully

The story starts like this: A hunter digs a deep pit. He sets razor-sharp spikes firmly on the floor of the hole. Then he covers the snare carefully, creating a blanket of twigs and leaves to conceal the subterranean hazard. Only thing left to do is entice an unwitting victim to lend weight to the false cover and fall quickly to a painful demise. Humans have employed the tried-and-true pitfall method to capture and kill prey for centuries. The practice continues today and the story of Shirley Sherrod is just the latest example. The trap differed slightly this time around, but the story is the same.

Shirley Sherrod

The snare? A brief video clip of a speech Sherrod, a then-U.S. Department of Agriculture employee in Georgia, delivered at an NAACP event earlier this year. She recounted an experience from more than 20 years ago when she worked with struggling farmers in Georgia. Sherrod noted that, as an African-American who grew up with the pains of a deeply segregated society, she found it difficult to bring the full weight of her office to bear when confronted with helping a white farmer in financial trouble during the 1980’s.

Now, viewing that one clip without hearing the full speech could certainly pique concerns. However, Sherrod’s complete talk walked the audience through her personal evolution to the present-day, where she has grown to better understand race relations and now embraces opportunities to assist fellow citizens from all backgrounds. A truly positive message of personal change.

The bait? Capitalizing on today’s lightning-fast news cycle, conservative blogger and commentator, Andrew Breitbart posted the isolated clip on his widely-read blog, accusing the NAACP and Democratic Party of engendering a culture of racism. Sherrod’s single sound bite, not her entire speech, served as the star witness in Breitbart’s argument. Shortly after the blog post, Fox News amplified Breitbart’s post with a story of its own: “Video Shows USDA Official Saying She Didn’t Give ‘Full Force’ of Help to White Farmer.”

Image from Squidoo.com

The fall? If you live in the U.S. and don’t live under a rock, you already know about the fall. Just like lemmings drawn to the cliff’s edge, the NAACP, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and, yes, even the White House, lined up to take the plunge. All three issued immediate statements criticizing Sherrod and distancing their own interests from the seemingly nefarious plot. Vilsack took it a step further by requesting Sherrod’s resignation and the White House explicitly supported that action. But, wait… Did anyone watch the whole speech? Or, talk to Ms. Sherrod? Guess not.

Tom Vilsack (AP Photo)

Well, someone finally did. And just as fast as they reacted to Fox News, the pitfall victims rescinded, apologized, and fumed. Just like the faux carpet of branches and leaves, the video clip ensnared their political image, inflicting a barrage of public injury to their individual reputations.

A colleague of mine suggested that this story is the result of a speeding news cycle that requires public figures to “shoot first, ask questions later” with their media responses. I like his observation more than my first conclusion, which pointed to a complete lack of attention and ignorance of the facts. Unfortunately, all carnage here was avoidable. In fact, had any of the victims discovered and exposed Mr. Breitbart’s ruse for what it was, political reputation points were available for considerable award.

The lesson. In times of crisis or emerging issues, (1) look ahead with keen focus; (2) identify a sure-footed path forward; (3) act quickly, but take the necessary time to formulate a smart statement, rooted in fact.

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