Lessons From Shirley Sherrod

July 27, 2010

This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for MinnPost.com. To view the original, go to http://bit.ly/9ENk03.

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.

Shirley Sherrod

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.

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.