Crisis pops up in an instant with an unfiltered comment


Mecklenburg County commissioner Kim Ratliff found herself in a crisis in late June for an undiplomatic comment. In private, probably no big deal. In public, in the South, involving race: Kaboom.

As the Charlotte Observer reported July 2, courtesy of my EMA partner Rick Lyke, her words caused an uproar. Why?

Mecklenburg County commissioner Kim Ratliff apologized Tuesday night to the public and her colleagues for saying she preferred that the next county manager not be a white man.

Ratliff, the board’s vice chair who is a Democrat and black, said in a brief statement at the board’s regular meeting that she regrets making the statement.

“My comments were meant to encourage all candidates to apply for the position and not meant to exclude anyone,” she said. “I realize now my comments may not have been appropriate, and I regret making them.”

The weight of words increases proportionately to the emotion of the topic they reveal. A black woman cannot say without consequences that she doesn’t want [another] white male to run the county any more than a white male can say he doesn’t want a black woman to. Fair as fair.

She realized that and apologized and a quick search would seem to indicate that ended the controversy — probably with the help of the Fourth of July long weekend. It might re-emerge when the commissioners meet again.

But the lessons here are twofold. We have different standards for what we say in private and what is for public consumption. Ratliff’s same comment to friends or even in private to the same colleagues probably would not have rippled the fabric of their expectations. In public? Big trouble.

Secondly, a crisis occurs with the snap of the fingers. It happens when it’s least expected and there is virtually no control over it. Paula Deen didn’t know her court depositions about making racist comments would be made public; she didn’t know that those original comments would ever make it to court.

This does more than reinforce the notion that no one can say much of anything that won’t come back to bite them. Mitt Romney’s 47 percent, said in private, but videoed. There are many other sexts, hooker calls and recorded rants out there that we don’t need to detail here.

But it reinforces what EMA teaches: A crisis will hit you or someone close to you or your company. Murphy’s Law shows that it will strike at the worst-possible time. And the best defense is a good offense — by planning for a crisis in advance when all is calm. You need to train and plan for it well in advance. Today is not too soon.

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 at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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