What companies can learn from the Shirley Sherrod case

Shirley Sherrod
Shirley Sherrod

The Shirley Sherrod saga highlights the vulnerability of a reputation in the Internet era — and the lessons apply to companies as well as individuals.

For anyone who was asleep last week: Sherrod, a federal agriculture official, was vilified, fired, then got a presidential apology — all within about 48 hours.

Mark Twain famously said that a lie can go around the world while truth is still putting on its boots. In the Sherrod case, the lie did get off to a blazing start — but the truth caught up just as quickly.

The traditional media failed miserably on this story, falling for a deceptively edited video from a partisan source. They did eventually uncover the truth, but only after stumbling badly.

Crisis communication
In today’s media environment, effective crisis communication is more important than ever. If your company should fall victim to a fast-spreading untruth, there’s no guarantee that your situation will be wrapped up as neatly and quickly as the Sherrod case was. Still, there are steps you can take to minimize the damage and help get your story told.

• Determine the facts. Write up a summary with the main points of the dispute and how it unfolded. Speed is of the essence, but don’t let speed lead to sloppiness or carelessness.

• Identify your targets. You’ll want to contact any media outlet or blog that covered the issue, of course. Beyond that, you should consider issuing a news release with your side of the story. If coverage of your situation has spread widely, a release will increase the chances that someone doing a Web search on the issue will find your information.

• Make noise. Promote your position loudly and endlessly. The main reason the truth came out in the Sherrod case was that Shirley Sherrod herself refused to go quietly. She pushed the media — notably CNN — to look deeper.

• Offer supporting evidence. In the Sherrod case, the media ran with a 2 ½ minute video excerpted from a 40-minute speech. When the full video emerged, the story flipped 180 degrees. Be prepared to offer documents, videos, links to Web material — anything that will bolster your side of the issue.

• Appeal to the media’s sense of fairness. Believe it or not, most media outlets do have one. They pride themselves on getting things right and are embarrassed when they don’t. If you feel your side of the story hasn’t gotten a full airing, don’t hesitate to say so. And don’t hesitate to go over the head of whomever you’re talking to and contact someone higher on the food chain.

• Light a fire under your lawyers. If attorneys have become involved in your issue, give them a sense of urgency. They may insist on signing off on your statements, but impress upon them the need to seize the story while it’s fresh. The media world runs at a much faster pace than the legal world.

The Sherrod story had elements that made it irresistible to the media and the blogosphere. It also had clear evidence that shifted the narrative.

Should your company find itself on the wrong side of media attention, it may not be as easy for you to get the discussion headed in a different direction. But if you don’t get out and advocate aggressively, it’s a pretty sure bet that nobody else is going to do it for you.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 07/26/2010 - 11:56 am.

    With all due respect, this is terrible advice. It assumes that you will be able to turn the story to your advantage, which is very unlikely. The media changes its narrative only rarely.

    The first rule of dealing with bad publicity is “don’t feed the beast”. The media wants a story. Don’t do anything that gives them one. You don’t want to defend yourself, you just want the story to go away. Of course some stories won’t, the BP oil spill for instance. But stories that keep themselves alive are rare, usually they are kept alive by the participants.

    Rule 1: Don’t fire someone. It provides another news cycle for the story. You will get zero credit and you are asserting your control over, and therefore responsibility, for whatever happened. Its even worse if the person you fired will not go quietly, since you have ensured several more news cycles focused on the story as their side of the story comes out.

    Rule 2: Make a statement that, by itself, has no news value. In this case, the USDA department should have said “We do not tolerate racist behavior by our employees.”

    Rule 3: When you do act, try to make it the end point of the story. Will this actually resolve the controversy? There are actually two parts to that question.

    One is how “hot” the story is. While it is still hot, the media and the folks feeding them are going to be looking for ways to keep it alive. They don’t want it resolved. You want to wait until the story is on life support, so you can kill it with the action you take.

    The second part is whether the action you take will actually provide a resolution to the media’s narrative. Think about this as a story and ask yourself whether you would be satisfied with this conclusion as a reader. If you end a murder mystery with two dead bodies still unexplained, readers are going to be looking for sequel and the media will create one for them.

    Rule 4: Remember whether the story is true, complete or fair is almost completely irrelevant. What you would like, obviously, is a happy ending where you come off being a hero, as Sherrod did here. But if the media narrative is already negative, that is going to be very difficult to achieve. It will require that the core of narrative be an obvious, incontrovertible falsehood. Its not enough that the facts be inaccurate, they have to contradict the narrative, as they did here. That is a rarity.

  2. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 07/26/2010 - 01:04 pm.

    Thank you, Mr. Williams (#1). I’m more inclined to go with your take on this matter than the author’s. You have made sound, sensible, and practicable suggestions. They make better sense than the author’s inane, lame, or vague (as in lawyerly) recommendations.

    This whole fiasco has indeed left a very bitter after-taste that will linger for a very long time.

    On the one hand, I’m not satisfied with the Obama administration’s handling of the matter. Yes, contrite apologies have been made. But this administration keeps getting itself in situations where it is baited by one miscreant after another. It is so afraid and hamstrung by any criticism (valid or not) that it has forgotten that truth needs no defenders in the end, only upholders.

    On the other hand, the reckless and the agenda-full media (and crazed men like Andrew Breitbart and Sean Hannity) are getting away with nary a consequence for what they did. And this is neither the first time nor the last for these liars.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 07/26/2010 - 01:47 pm.

    I’d go with Ms. Sherrod’s actions of quick and firm refutation on this one, which I also believe the Administration should have done with regard to Van Jones and ACORN. Getting rid of people who have been falsely accused is a wussy way of “resolving” the problem and does nothing to discourage further such tricks by the Breitbarts of the world.

    Expose the liars every time instead of blaming their victims, until everyone knows their names and believes nothing they say.

  4. Submitted by John Reinan on 07/26/2010 - 03:09 pm.

    Ross, it’s hard to disagree with you — your comment summarizes a classic and intelligent response to these situations.

    But I think we’ve got to re-examine every existing precept in light of the dramatic and unprecedented changes in the media universe over the last five years.

    The echo chamber has gotten so loud, rapid and many-tentacled that if you sit on a story, hoping it will die, you’re doing yourself no favors.

    I think stories *are* kept alive these days — they don’t die for lack of oxygen like they used to. Plenty of oxygen will be provided by people commenting on the story; more oxygen will come from others commenting on the commentators; and the whole nasty spiral feeds on itself.

    The dramatic changes in the media universe are all about social media, and social media is all about engagement.

    Many voices will be weighing in on your story, and there’s an expectation that one of the voices will be yours. I think one has to at least consider joining the fray.

  5. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 07/26/2010 - 04:00 pm.

    Has no one noticed that Andrew Breitbart and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly have not apologized???? They are the wrong doers in this drama. They should be boycotted by all patriotic Americans because they have not stood up for “Truth, Justice and the American way.”

  6. Submitted by Ross Williams on 07/26/2010 - 04:40 pm.

    John –

    BP is firing its CEO. At the height of the crisis that would have been “front page” news worthy of several news cycles. With the well capped its a “page two” story of limited interest. The main narrative is over and this is more tying up a loose end.

    I agree social media has changed the landscape. But I think it actually makes patience and planning even more a virtue. There was a time when, to be heard, the message had to be inserted into the media narrative. Now it is possible to start new narratives long after the main narrative has ended. Those new narratives can, for those open to hearing them, redefine events.

    In any case, the blogsphere is driven by emotion. Anything in the mainstream media that raises the emotional temperature is just going to increase online social networking activity. Which, again, is the opposite of what you want if the narrative is running against you.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/26/2010 - 04:48 pm.

    If lessons were to be learned, chief among them would be the damage the left’s mendacious, politically inspired appropriation of words such as “racist” and “hate” have wrought upon the commons.

    When you have a group of people chanting accusations such as these as by rote, not only does it dilute their meaning and importance, it hyper-sensitizes everyone…especially the accusers.

    I think it used to be called “a dose of your own medicine”.

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