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Friday, January 14, 2011

Of Sound Bites and the Vitriol Police

The punditry since the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, Arizona suggests we are in for an extended period of dissection of public comments past, present and future. This is a heightened version of what's been going on for a while. Almost every one commenting is being examined through the lens of political correctness and "bias" from Arizona talk radio hosts, to MoveOn.org, to Sarah Palin’s "cross-hair" map. This adds on to the NPR/Juan Williams debate and the Jon Stewart/Glenn Beck rally fight over sound bites.

The purported theme of the national discussion on talk radio, TV panels and in the blogosphere may well be the "civility" in politics and society addressed by the President in his speech in Tucson. As students of media, we’re noticing that just about any pronouncement by a public figure is now being vetted in the media for the slightest hint of incitement to violence or intolerance. I’m not sure if this is political correctness, incorrectness or our inability to talk about the issues and achieve a middle ground. Since almost any complex discussion contains a few words or a sentence that can be taken out of context in a tweet or blog to reinforce a fixed position, it's a challenge to communicate – unless all you want to do is stake out or reinforce your original position with all audiences.

But we are now seeing a fine-tooth combing of less obvious comments or action by other politicians and public figures.

Besides the Sarah Palin, Keith Olberman, Bill O'Reilly, Juan Williams jousting, the latest salvo is the Daily Beast's take on comments more than a year ago by Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty to a gathering of Conservatives: http://bit.ly/eiAtxV. Apparently Pawlenty's reference to Tiger Woods' wife, and the metaphor of using a 9-iron golf club to "smash a window out of Big Government in this country" was incendiary enough to some to merit retroactive examination.

Without passing judgment on these and other related public comments, the ongoing discussion underscores several key points about sound bites that we at CommCore remind our clients of:

• Sound bites are effective precisely because they are short and memorable, which is also why quick quips can become negative sound bites. Think before you speak, particularly if you are one of those prone to quick quips.

• Creating a good sound bite is an art that requires careful understanding of messaging, story-telling, and context.

• Clever is not necessarily good. It's just clever, and it could be too clever by half.

• Remember that a sound bite is not just about YOU and YOUR point. It’s about YOUR AUDIENCE and THEIR frame of reference, too. Never forget who you are talking to when you deliver a sound bite.

• Remember that every cell or smart phone is a camera, and every member of the audience is a potential "citizen journalist." Be aware of the potential for any sound bite to be repeated out of context and disseminated, and frame it accordingly.


Has the current debate over public comments affected your or your clients' organizations' communications and public relations? If so, how? If not, why not?

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