Shirley Sherrod: A Tale of a Tape

Busy backtracking after discovering that they’d been wrong to condemn the USDA’s Shirley Sherrod for a speech she made about something that happened more than 20 years ago, the NAACP called the whole episode “a teachable moment.”  I assume that what the NAACP has learned is that they should do a little investigating, maybe review the entire video of a talk, before they pass judgement and call for the firing of one of their supporters.

But there’s something else that we can all learn as presenters.  Anything you say with other people present can come back to haunt you later, so you need to be extremely careful any time that you even approach a controversial issue like race.  You can probably identify some of the other topics that are potential danger zones yourself, but they include such obvious ideas as politics, drugs, and the Twilight books.

Not that Shirley Sherrod did anything wrong;  she actually told a powerful story about how her understanding of race relations had changed over time.  For her purposes as a speaker it was a very effective strategy.  Unfortunately her real message was obscured by the activists who edited the tape of her speech in order to try to make it into a political issue.

Don’t think it can’t happen to you.  Today it’s increasingly likely that any public presentation will be recorded and that these documents will be posted on the internet where anyone can find them.  Of course you would never mean to say anything offensive.  Shirley Sherrod certainly didn’t.  But take the time to think about how anything you might say could be perceived out of context.

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