Responding to Viral Video Nightmares

In the past few years several public figures have been reprimanded for comments that were caught on video. Helen Thomas and Shirley Sherrod are two that come to mind. The difference was that one of the clips was intentionally taken out of context (Sherrod) and the other was a privately held belief that became embarrassingly public (Thomas).

Once the videos hit blogs and TV, they became viral at lightning speed. The public wanted swift attention to both matters (which usually means “I want her to be fired!”).

The pressure on a leader to react and respond quickly is intense. The never-ending news cycle thrives on swift decisions.

But that doesn’t mean you have to react immediately.

If this happens to you, or someone who works in your organization, how should you respond?

Slow down

The initial videos of Sherrod showed comments taken out of context. No one stopped in the beginning to say, “Is this the entire speech? If not, we need to see the whole before we run it.”

Business leaders confronted with a similar situation — let’s say a video of an angry customer — should also try to ascertain whether they have as much information as possible before making a decision.

JetBlue caught some flak from the blogosphere for waiting until the next day to post something on their blog about Steven Slater’s epic resignation down the emergency chute. But, as Jenny Dervin, JetBlue’s director of corporate communications said, the team wanted to sort out the facts before they had enough solid information they could say publicly. They waited until they knew what was going on and could craft an informed response.

In Sherrod’s case, her supervisors would have fared better if they had not let Glenn Beck’s show dictate the deadline for taking action. Instead of waiting to talk with her and hear her side of the story, they felt pressure to appear decisive and in control of the situation.

Work with the media

When reporters call for details, tell them you are gathering information and that you will get back to them as soon as possible. Emphasize that your goal is making the right decision, not the speediest. Offer to be on camera saying that, if appropriate. And be sure you do get back as soon as you can.

There is one caveat: Speed is everything in situations involving health and safety. In those cases, people will understand and forgive if you overreact. They will despise you for a long time if you lack urgency.

Stay on guard

Know that in the age of flip cameras and free social media tools, everyone is a reporter. Anything anyone says in public—or even in private meetings—can end up on YouTube. The best advice is to stay a little guarded. Don’t say anything you would be embarrassed by if it wound up online. But realize that won’t protect you from comments that are taken out of context. The clip Sherrod got in trouble for was just a small part of a speech and didn’t reflect her current views.

Get your own footage

If you or your colleague is speaking at a planned event, set up your own camera. Not only could you use some of that footage for your blog or YouTube account as part of your day-to-day social media efforts, but you also will have the full speech to refer to in case someone else parses it. PR pros have been recommending this approach for years when it comes to “60 Minutes” interviews or other high-profile settings, but this applies to pretty much everything now.

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