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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jumping to Conclusions:The Importance of Context in a Sound Bite World

In every field there are teaching moments, and boy, do we have one right now in the communications and media arena.


Shirley Sherrod is an African American civil servant who heads up the Department of Agriculture's rural development office in Georgia. A conservative blogger posted a video clip on YouTube this past weekend showing Ms. Sherrod at a pulpit 25 years ago recounting a story about rural farm poverty. In the clip she is seen to clearly recount an incident in which she appears to say she endorsed discriminating against a white farmer because black farmers needed help more.

Within hours of the video clip appearing online, the office of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reportedly contacted Ms. Sherrod by e-mail on her Blackberry while she was in her car, and demanded that she pull over and resign from her position on the spot by reply e-mail. Furthermore, the NAACP -- which had last week accused the Conservative Tea Party movement of being racist -- responded to the video by supporting calls for Ms. Sherrod's resignation.

But there emerged a problem with the problem: The brief video clip of Ms. Sherrod's comment was apparently completely out of context of the rest of her speech. So much so that the NAACP has retracted its condemnation and claimed it was "snookered" by the edited video. And the Obama Admnistration has asked Vilsack to reconsider the firing; Vilsack agreed to review the case in a statement released at 2 am Wednesday morning. See: http://nyti.ms/9IfHXH and http://bit.ly/bSOpHW

In full, Ms. Sherrod has asserted she was recounting an analogy about the struggle to balance the needs of different minorities in rural Georgia. What was not seen in the clip posted by the blogger was that she went on to say she came to realize that the struggle wasn't between black and white, but was common to all poor farmers regardless of race. You can compare the two:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7idSlkvQv0c&feature=related – Shortened version

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9NcCa_KjXk – Full video

In fact, Sherrod went on to help save the farm of the white farmer in question, a point that very farmer was happy to make on network ABC News Tuesday night. She now says she is not sure she wants her job back.

At CommCore, we regularly work with our clients on creating and delivering memorable sound bites and stories that are relevant to a core message and targeted at a specific audience. We will also use what happened this week to Sherrod and Vilsack as a reminder to our clients that no matter how good a sound bite or a story is, its context as is as important -- if not more important -- than the bite or the story itself.

How would you apply this lesson to your communications challenges, or those of your clients? Are the lessons from this flap only relevant to the blogosphere, or do they apply to mainstream media and public appearances as well?

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