This week the media jumped on a story about the firing of Shirley Sherrod from the USDA because of allegedly racist remarks. It was a top news story in major media outlets and the talking points were simple, straightforward, and seemingly irrefutable. The problem? The story was not really true.
A video posted on YouTube portrayed Sherrod as a racist. But it was actually Sherrod giving a talk about moving beyond race. The edited portions of the conversation were taken out of context.
Not only did the woman lose her job through manipulation of the media, but she was publicly humiliated. It's no secret that the media today is running at a fast and furious pace—even legitimate news outlets are now using the likes of TMZ to source “facts.”
Using social media for sourcing can be dangerous and yet is becoming an increasingly routine practice. Some PR people see this as a great opportunity to shape and direct stories about our clients; however, it is just as likely to turn into a nightmare when facts about our clients are distorted or misunderstood.
As more news is reported real time, an enormous burden is put upon an industry of professionals already stretched too thin. The downsizing of traditional media shows no sign of reversing course—and when the media we work with don't have time to fact check, they often accept what is written online or by PR folks as gospel.
Many of us have had clients impacted by sloppy or erroneous reporting. The Sherrod incident is an extreme example; however it illustrates how it is easier for political or competitive rivals to deliberately distort information.
Competitors can plant false rumors about products and companies on blogs, where mainstream media can source it as fact, based on “research." And when the media is just reporting about what they find on YouTube, the full picture can often be missed.
There is a reason the symbiotic relationship of journalists and PR folks has existed for decades. It's not all about spin—it's about telling the story accurately and comprehensively. Here are some PR tenets for today's world:
Do your homework and don't waste anyone's time. Journalists simply don't have it anymore. We are all in real time now.
Be factual and cautious of hiding information. Often we are shaping the stories written in the media and in online outlets. Falsehoods and misrepresentations will come back to haunt you.
Give the media as much help as you can. Yes, it might seem like you have become their assistant—and in today's new reality you might just be. Come prepared with accurate and sourced facts that reporters can use. You are now the fact checker.
Make corrections (wherever possible) of erroneous materials posted online. Keep numerous Google alerts on the category to catch things early. Try to have information that is not factual amended as soon as it appears. Even erroneous material can live forever online.
Dabney Oliver is VP of PR and social media at Loomis Group, an integrated marketing agency with offices in San Francisco, Boston, Paris, and affiliates worldwide. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.