The heart-rending pictures of Michael Brown’s family mourning at his funeral yesterday say much more about life and death than anything worth recording here.
But after three weeks that shook America, made its moral superiority suspect to much of the world and started a debate over police militarization that reached the White House, what have we learned? Many, many things that sociologists, politicians and historians will parse for years.
But what have we learned, from the point of view of this niche, about crisis management?
Here’s an incomplete list:
1. Defiance and defensiveness should be the last reaction, not the first. Police commanders in Ferguson, MO vastly overreacted. Their show of military force was an affront to the citizens they’re sworn to protect and the nation’s freedoms. Instead of transparency, communications and understanding, they used force to mask their potential complicity and guilt.
2. Facts are crucial. When emotions run high on both sides in a crisis, facts are always in dispute. Nailing down the simplest facts as quickly as possible must occur or the consequences can be hugely negative. When police act defensively, their facts won’t be trusted, even if they are accurate. When a community feels victimized, members tend to minimize criticism as irrelevant in the face of the ultimate wrong.
3. Every crisis must have an effective, authoritative leader. Communication is a basic tool in any crisis and the smart organization will plan and practice before a crisis hits. Multiple police agencies floundered around in the first days after Brown’s killing. The Ferguson police chief only made the situation worse. It wasn’t until State Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson came on scene a few days into the crisis that the authorities’ credibility got back to zero. He the raised credibility. As a black police officer, he came with the benefit of the doubt from both sides. But he earned it in the days that followed, with frank, honest, transparent comments and directions. If any one individual turned around this mess, he did.
As The New York Times wrote Monday — in the lesser, but best, of three profiles on the case it published that day — “He is Capt. Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, who, in many days of working to restore calm here in Ferguson, has redefined leadership in crisis: equal parts police official, preacher, mediator and neighbor, unafraid to convey his inner conflict, unafraid to cry.”
4. It’s never too early to plan for a crisis. Ferguson, like thousands of other towns across this nation, was a fault line grinding toward an earthquake. A suburb that is 67 percent black with a police force that is 6 percent black is dry forest waiting for a spark. To compound matters, this was an aggressive police force.
“Data from municipal courts across Missouri show that in 2013, the city of Ferguson had the highest number of warrants issued in the state relative to its size. Arrest warrants are often served by municipal courts when someone fails to appear in court to pay fines for a traffic or other violation, like shoplifting, assault or disturbance of peace. The high rate could reflect more crime as well as heavier prosecution, and it could be indicative of a fraught relationship between law enforcement and citizens,” the Times reported yesterday.
Lack of effective community outreach, affirmative and diverse hiring and community policing were surely contributing factors in why this crisis went red hot in minutes.
5. Companies, organizations, municipalities must learn how to deal with media. Sitting down with a reporter planning to write or broadcast a positive report about you or your organization can induce sweaty palms. Facing a media horde of microphones and cameras, shouted questions and angry retorts can be downright scary. People need to train for this. Handling routine crime stories with the hometown media is a lot different than network and top cable reporters. Get media trained.
There are undoubtedly more takeaways. And none of these approach the level of what the nation still has to learn about race relations and criminal justice. But they are lessons w
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.
orth noting, nonetheless.