Crisis communications, public relations, media relations and community relations are a background story worth analyzing as the events of Ferguson, Missouri continue to unfold. From a crisis communications and public relations standpoint, here are 12 questions you should ponder.
1) Did the rules of public relations and crisis communications once again lose out to the rule of law or lawyers? Traditionally in a case like this, law enforcement and lawyers want to say nothing until all of the facts are gathered. Lawyers want to try the case in court and not in the court of public opinion. But ponder this: In the absence of information, was a significant void created that empowered activists, which lead to violence? By failing to inform the public of the known facts early, did the police immediately lose the battle of public opinion when speculation, innuendo, and rumors filled the void of silence?
2) When there are opposing sides and differing perspectives, is it true that activists are guaranteed the upper hand in public relations and public opinion if the side being accused is too silent? (Gerard was a guest on The Crisis Show on this topic, click here for more)
3) Did the ambiguous information about the number of shots fired make things worse? An early news conference by Ferguson police had a spokesperson not stating a definitive number of shots fired. Instead he said, “There were more than a few.” When questioned for clarification, he said that meant more than two. Did this create the impression in the community and among the media that the police are hiding something?
4) Would the protests have been lessened if police had pro-actively released the video showing Michael Brown robbing a convenience store and intimidating the owner earlier than they actually released it? While the Ferguson police must tread lightly in what they say to the grieving parents of a dead 18-year-old, Michael Brown’s mother told the media, “My son just turned 18 and graduated high school and he didn’t bother nobody.” While parents traditionally want to believe in their children and often forcefully take the stance that their child is a victim, the video of Michael Brown robbing a convenience store and his assault and intimidation of the store owner clearly contradicts the mother’s statement that, “He didn’t bother nobody.”
5) Would Ferguson police have quelled the pressure faster from Black Twitter if police had released the video showing Michael Brown robbing a convenience store? Would this have helped police control the facts and lessen protests? Black Twitter protested that the media were using a photo of Michael Brown that made him look like a thug, rather than as a peaceful youth who was the victim of alleged racial profiling by police. However, the video of Michael Brown robbing a convenience store and his assault and intimidation of the store owner clearly shows Brown acting in a way that is more “thug” like than peaceful youth. Yet pressure from Black Twitter caused numerous media outlets to stop using the photo they initially selected.
6) Would Ferguson police have avoided the accusations of “character assassination” if they had more quickly released the video of Michael Brown robbing a store sooner, rather than delaying the release? Once the video was released, supporters of Brown called it, “character assassination.”
Did Ferguson Police further lose control of the factual narrative because they failed to issue a bold statement that would have said something to the effect of, “Our goal is to be forthcoming with new information as it becomes available. Some people have portrayed Michael Brown as an innocent 18-year-old. Others have said that the video of him robbing a store and pushing a store-owner is a distortion of his character. At this point, we are passing no judgment, but showing the events that happened prior to the shooting. Ultimately we will wait for an investigation to tell us what happened, how it happened, and how we might keep it from happening again.”
7) Are Ferguson police just outright stupid not to realize the public relations nightmare they are creating when they arrest working reporters sitting peacefully at a McDonald’s? Is the department and the officers working there too blind not to see that in the age of social media their every action will be captured on video and shared on social media? Did their action make it appear they are trying to hide facts and silence the media through force?
8) Did the lack of fast and complete information from Ferguson police cause the media to raise their cynic filter, which lead the media to distrust the police? For example, the Ferguson spokesperson said, “There were more than a few shots fired.” As a former journalist, if I were covering this news conference I would have been appalled that a spokesperson could not give more detailed information and I would have pressed them for more facts. Do the police in Ferguson not realize that part of the story is their failure to be forthcoming with timely information?
9) Did the Ferguson Police Department begin losing the public relations battle when they left the body of Michael Ferguson in the street, without placing a canopy and curtains over the crime scene? Are they blind to the perception? Are they blind to the need to provide dignity to the dead? Are they so stupid that they don’t know these images will fill social media?
10) News reports indicate the police officer in question was badly beaten, including severe facial injuries and an eye socket fracture. Some reports say the officer was nearly beaten unconscious. Would there have been fewer or no protests if the Ferguson Police Department had shared that information with the public quickly on the first day that this story began to unfold, rather than using their police jargon that, “The officer was physically assaulted.”
11) To date, police are still withholding information, forcing reporters to file sunshine requests. If the police are forced to give up this information through a sunshine request, does that also clearly mean this is public information that should have been shared with the public from the beginning?
12) Will this type of crisis be repeated in other cities in the future because law enforcement officers and city leaders fail to study this case and learn from it? In my expert opinion, it will happen many times over because historically city leaders are in denial about such events ever happening in their community. Most would rather pray it never happens than prepare for and plan for the day it does happen.
In conclusion, this case has many moving parts. To study it from the perspective of crisis communications, media relations, public relations and community relations, you must remove your own prejudice from this case. Now is the time to gather with your leaders to discuss if a scenario similar to this might affect them. The time to prepare for your darkest day is on a clear sunny day when you have clarity of thought and reason. A crisis communications plan written on a sunny day can guide you through the decision making process to both manage a crisis and to communicate during a crisis.
It is clear in this case that failure to communicate facts in a timely manner have made matters worse.