Years ago, my best friend in high school said to me, “Did you know that Time Magazine is coming to do a story on our drama club? How cool is that?” I took the bait, hook, line, and sinker. After all, we had a great drama club, with a wonderful teacher. Our high school had been hit (like other school in the late 1960′s) by some very bad racially-motivated disruptions and one riot — a terrifying episode with chairs being thrown in the cafeteria and kids running from the school to get out — and I thought, “oh, they want to come tell a story about all the good stuff going on here!” I had the rationale figured out, and of course, I told lots of other people this good news.
Except, of course, that it wasn’t true. I had been snookered, and I felt totally stupid for having believed the story. I should have known better.
OK, I was a high school kid, and a gullible one at that. But why is it, please, that a lot of high-placed government officials, including a cabinet secretary for crying out loud, exercised no more skepticism or discernment than that high school kid of long ago? The Shirley Sherrod story could have been checked out in an hour or less. Andrew Breitbart is not a stealth right-wing operative, his motives and methods are very well documented. And he’d already brought down the community group, Acorn, and another White House employee, Van Jones. And it’s not like we don’t know the direction in which Fox News (or, as Keith Olbermann calls them, “Fix News”) goes in.
Shouldn’t there have been some little voice in the back of someone’s head, when this whole scuzzy story came up, that said, “Check it out. Don’t be pushed by the 24-hour news cycle and the requests for immediate comment. Wait and do your homework.” One of the things I’ve told friends and clients, over and over again is: “when the media calls and asks for comment, don’t feel compelled to provide an immediate response. Do your background work first. Make sure you know your own talking points. Take the time to say what you really want to say, rather than what is demanded by the news outlets.”
Well, the USDA and others obviously weren’t listening to me or others who could have given them the same advice, and now all of us who care about human rights, race relations, and effective government, plus all of Obama’s media operatives, have an embarrassing mess to deal with. Ms. Sherrod lost her job in a very public way, there’s been a whole lot of apologizing and backpedalling going on, and Andrew Breitbart gets lots more media attention, which he craves. All for want of an hour of research and a little deliberate consideration.
A former boss of mine, a minister who has a deep understanding of effective public witness, once suggested that the very first goal of public relations should be “to not look stupid.” I’m with him on that: it’s like when physicians take an oath to “first, do no harm.” Whatever else there is comes after that. Beyond “don’t look stupid,” however, should be these:
- Do your homework. Not to write a term paper, but to make sure you know who is behind a rumor and who else is driving it. And research those other people who turn up, too.
- Talk to those likely to be affected first. If you’re feeling like a statement needs to be made on closing the widget plant in East Galumph, talk to the Mayor of East Galumph before you tell the newspaper you’re taking action. It’s not only responsible, it’s considerate and logical and it avoids unpleasant surprises.
- Make sure you have your talking points in place, and use them. Choose no more than three, be sure that you have them clearly in your brain, and don’t get distracted by other points that the media might raise. Stay on message.
- If requests for more comments come, stay focused on the work that is yours to do, and don’t cave in to threats, slimey comments, or other tactics to induce you to make a statement.
- Model responsible behavior and treat your colleagues and employees fairly.
Sometimes I feel like these things are regarded as a far stretch, or too time-consuming or difficult to accomplish. But why? This is simple logic, and it can save an awful lot of mess and tsouris later. Not to mention ugly charges of racism and discriminatory practices. Just ask Tom Vilsack or Shirley Sherrod.