The shooting of an un-armed black man by a white Ferguson, MO police officer stayed a local crisis for about 10 seconds.
The incompetent crisis management by the town police chief made it a regional and then a statewide crisis in minutes. Hours after that, it became a national crisis. Today, news came that Michael Brown, 18, was shot six times. President Obama will be briefed at the White House and a federal autopsy was ordered.
Police Chief Thomas Jackson’s efforts in the wake of Brown’s killing Aug. 9 only worsened matters. These included failure to publicly identify the officer involved [giving way to charges of unequal treatment, favoritism and cover up]; the release of an edited video snippet of Brown in a store prior to the tragic incident [made worse when it was revealed that the officer who shot Brown was unaware of the prior incident, making the video irrelevant]; and the military-level response to initial peaceful demonstrations.
Gov. Jay Nixon [for an older generation a name rich in irony, given the context] tried to make things better. He inserted state and county police ahead of the locals — where only three of 53 sworn personnel are black, in a city that is 60 percent African-American.
Now he’s resorted — as failure after failure and one incompetent decision after another followed — to calling out the National Guard.
The legality, criminality and right and wrong of this tragic situation is for others to decide. Surely poor race relations over decades is part of the context. That this crisis needed far, far better decision-making and actions is clear. It got so bad that The New York Times did a side-by-side comparison story about the images from 2014 Ferguson and 1964 Birmingham and Selma.
What would better crisis management look like?
One person needed to be in charge — governor, chief or mayor. That person needed to apologize for the shooting, take responsibility on behalf of the town and release all the facts as soon as possible and promise to get out those he or she did not yet have. This authority needed to immediately communicate internally — in this case to town leaders, pastors, council members and the general public. He or she needed to initiate and implement a complete investigation as soon as possible, suspend the officer and recover his weapon, pending that investigation.
A community meeting should have been held immediately, so people in the community could not only vent their anger and criticism, but push the authorities for change and progress.
And that’s just the beginning. There are no guarantees that these strategies and tactics would have diffused decades of distrust or the ensuing violent demonstrations. But American citizens peacefully assembling should not immediately face riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets backed by snipers. These are provocations, not crisis management.
Jackson reacted defensively and over-reacted tactically, making the crisis worse.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.