Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian
On July 20, 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture apologized to Shirley Sherrod. So did the NAACP, President Obama and, for good measure, news commentator Bill O’Reilly.
The source of all these mea culpas was the previous day’s events, when Sherrod had resigned her position as the Ag Department’s State Director of Rural Development for Georgia. And the source of her resignation was a video posted by the conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart. The clip showed Sherrod, who is black, giving a speech at a recent meeting of the NAACP. The clip showed – or rather, seemed to show — her admitting that she had once discriminated against a white farmer.
Within hours, Sherrod was more reviled than aerosol cheese. Both the NAACP and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack were critical. O’Reilly called for Sherrod’s immediate resignation, saying her comments were “simply unacceptable.” And behind the scenes, the Obama Administration was quietly getting ready to post her position on Zip Recruiter.
As Sherrod was driving home from work that night, her supervisor called, asking for her resignation; she pulled over and typed it out on her Blackberry. But her email included some serious foreshadowing, stating, “I will get the whole story out.”
And indeed she did, appearing on television the next day. Because it turned out that the video had been “slightly edited,” in the same way you might say that aerosol cheese has been “slightly processed.” When the full clip was seen, it became clear that Sherrod actually was speaking against racism. As another conservative journalist, Rich Lowry, later wrote, “Her full speech is heartfelt and moving … the tale of someone overcoming hatred and rancor when she had every reason not to.” Even the white farmer’s wife spoke on Sherrod’s behalf.
And so began the apologies from all – well, most — quarters. Secretary Vilsack also offered Sherrod a new position with the department, but she declined, perhaps knowing that the job would conflict with the speaking tour she would soon be booking.
Today, it’s easy to criticize everyone for their haste. But as PR pros, it’s worth considering the factors that might have been at play. As The Atlantic later noted, the Administration was “extremely sensitive to the charge that Obama is using his presidency to advance the cause of black people.” Thus, the effort to minimize some bad publicity may have created worse publicity.
After the dust settled, Sherrod continued to be involved with organizations that assist poor and minority farmers. And of course, she wrote that book. She also sued Breitbart; that case was settled confidentially in 2015.
Ultimately, Sherrod’s story is a helpful reminder for both PR pros and our clients: Although you can get a great workout by jumping to conclusions and pointing fingers, it’s usually healthier just to exercise some discretion.