The sound bite: It’s something we in public relations and marketing strive for. We coach our clients how to speak in sound bites for the media, getting our key points nicely wrapped up in a brief, punchy and self-contained two or three sentences. There’s a real potential danger, however, with sound bites, especially when they get taken out of context.
We’ve been witnessing an example of that danger in the furor over comments made by Barack Obama’s pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama’s campaign has been hobbled by the constant replaying of Rev. Wright’s “G-d damn America” sound bite, among others.
I must admit, when I first heard his comments, I dismissed him as a fringe nut-job.
But then I saw him speak Monday, when C-SPAN broadcast his address to journalists at the National Press Club in Washington. He didn’t come across at all like a lunatic; quite the opposite. He spoke eloquently about the history of the black church in America, sounding more like a professor than the stereotype of the black minister. I learned some interesting and important history.
It was after his talk, when he took questions from the moderator, that the danger of the sound bite became apparent. He was asked, very directly, about the various comments we’ve all seen on TV where he supposedly is putting down America, blaming America for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, sounding anti-Semetic and anti-Israel, and making other troubling statements that have forced Obama to distance himself from his pastor.
Every time he was asked about a troublesome statement, he first responded by asking the questioner if she had heard or read his entire sermon. In every case, the response was “no.”
“How then can you criticize what I said if you don’t know the context of the statement?” he asked over and over. Each time, he put the offending statement into context and, you know what? It wasn’t so bad; in fact, it often made perfect sense. In some cases, the logic may be painful, but it was logical. It’s a matter of a speaker using hyperbole or provocative language to make a point. But if that single provocative statement is taken on its own — in isolation — it can take on a very different meaning.
I don’t know Rev. Wright and I haven’t studied his writing and speeches. It’s possible that his performance at the National Press Club Monday was a sham, but somehow I doubt it. Sure, he comes off as cocky and irreverent, but that’s his style. And he may have a right to be cocky, having grown his congregation from a few hundred to 8,000 members and implementing programs in Chicago that shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and help families in need in many ways — things, he was quick to point out, where our government is often dropping the ball.
But the key point that needs to be made is,in my opinion, is: How did the media get it so wrong? By jumping on sound bites that they knew would be provocative, without doing their due diligence to check on the context, they may have done a great disservice to the public. I’m not a strong Obama supporter; I lean more toward Hillary. But the media, in their apparent feeding frenzy, may have forgotten a journalist basic — check sources and look for the context in order to tell the whole story.
In the rush to get their story on the air (and also, to perhaps prove they can be as tough on Obama as they’ve been on Hillary), the sound bite has been abused.
For marketers, it’s a good lesson to be learned when crafting those crucial sound bites. It’s possible for a sound bite to bite back, big-time.