Out of context – the Hilary Mantel kerfuffle

If there is one lesson to be learned from the Hilary Mantel kerfuffle that surfaced this week it’s that anyone with a public audience, whether that be a renowned author, politician or lawyer, needs to be aware that what they say could be taken out of context.

Please don’t take that to mean run for cover at the first mention of the media, nor does it mean qualifying every word you say in a public setting. It means that as there is no law preventing out of context reporting, you can’t guard against it happening.

For anyone who was fortunate enough to miss the sudden ‘explosion’ around Hilary Mantel’s comments, the famed author gave a speech some time ago in which she commented on how the media depicts the nation’s favourite royal – the Duchess of Cambridge.

It transpired that she was being sympathetic to the duchess in the speech, but the bits that were quoted by the media made it look like she was attacking the future queen. Even the PM stepped in to defend the poor duchess from his trip to India. What a hero? Or at least he was until the true nature of Mantel’s comments came to light – that she was in fact very supportive of the duchess.

It’s rare for the ‘truth’ to emerge from these out of context stories, but this instance is a reminder to all law, accountancy or any other professional service business or individual that it can be a risk and that most of the time the accurate point you were trying to make may never emerge in the media.

Perhaps overuse of the “my words were taken out of context” by backtracking politicians has meant everyone ignores those claims, Mantel being the exception.

Whatever the reason, simply saying something was reported out of context after it was spoken is not enough to limit the damage.

Any business or individual with or seeking to gain a public presence via the media or speeches should have a PR strategy in place that helps to guard against it.

It’s not unusual now for law firms, businesses and politicians, even celebs to tie any speech or public comments to press briefings beforehand and or press releases afterwards. How often do you read in the papers or hear on radio or TV the phrase “x will tell an audience of y that x, y, z later today”

It’s hard to be taken out of context when your key messages are in the public domain before you have even delivered them.

Longer term, building a reputation and well known message and brand also guards against being misquoted. Imagine if The Body Shop was quoted as saying chemicals in grooming products were the best thing since sliced bread, we would all think that could not be right. We would question it and believe them when they said it was taken out of context.

Consistent messaging and reputation can pay dividends. Mantel was unfairly caught out. Who would have known her comments would have been picked up? Nevertheless, you can bet from now on her PR people will be making sure every word she says stays well within context.

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