The ongoing nightmare in Ferguson, Mo. is a tragedy first and foremost for the young man who was killed and the family who mourns him.
Beyond that human tragedy of Ferguson, Mo., lies a nightmare of bad judgments and wrong decisions that hold PR lessons for any public official who finds him/herself enmeshed in a similar cauldron.
In a PR sense, there are few winners and many losers coming out of Ferguson. PR counselors and their clients can learn from all of them, including:
· Ferguson Police Department
The biggest loser in the Ferguson tragedy is the city’s police force. Rarely in recent memory have so many wrong-headed PR blunders been committed in such a short period of time.
From the moment of Michael Brown’s shooting, the Ferguson PD proved unable to get out of its own way. With only three black police officers on a force of 53, the Ferguson PD had to anticipate that skeptics would be ready to pounce if reports of the investigation were perceived as not being transparent.
The clear PR counsel called for making known what was known about the shooting as quickly as possible, including releasing information on the circumstances surrounding the 18-year-old’s shooting, the convenience store robbery of which he was suspected, and the identity and background of the officer who shot him. In such an escalating crisis, where social media rumors spread and cable reporters run with them, speed is of the essence and hesitation or withholding is interpreted adversely.
In this case, with St. Louis County and City officials ducking for cover, it was left to an incapable and unprepared Ferguson Police Department to fend off the onslaught. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t up to the test.
It hid the shooter’s identity, hesitated to release the Brown robbery allegation, and fumbled every explanation of what happened and why. Meanwhile, what it did achieve was arming its officers for WWIII, while journalists were arrested.
Mercifully – but too late – the proceedings were turned over to the Missouri Highway Patrol by another big-time Ferguson loser………..
· Gov. Jay Nixon
Despite his fellow Democrat Barack Obama’s defense, Missouri’s governor was a no-show in Ferguson, just when he should have taken charge. A governor’s responsibility – as New York’s Andrew Cuomo showed last month in helping avert a Long Island Rail Road strike and Ohio’s John Kasich showed this month when Toledo’s water became contaminated – a governor’s primary responsibility is to be there at Ground Zero when crisis hits.
Nixon wasn’t, and outraged residents noticed. His subsequent call for a curfew to stop nighttime rioting was disastrous. Not only did protestors scream at being denied their rights, but the looting got worse. As camera’s filmed giddy criminals breaking down store fronts and stealing whatever they could carry, the gendarmes – both state and local – were nowhere in sight. A day later, a mortified Gov. Nixon called off the curfew and called in the National Guard.
The only thing Nixon got right and the only real “winner” in this tragedy was the man the governor put in charge…..
· Capt. Ron Johnson
The Missouri Highway Patrol captain, a lifelong resident of the St. Louis area and 27-year veteran of the Highway Patrol, was mercifully chosen by the governor to coordinate law enforcement agencies after the Ferguson PD proved so wanting.
Every crisis needs a compassionate, decisive and approachable leader, and Johnson fit the bill. He ordered the military armaments taken down, waded into the midst of the protestors, spoke sympathetically, and presented a human face to the community.
Capt. Johnson – who is destined to emerge from the Ferguson riots as a strong and popular political figure – clearly understood what other officials didn’t; that symbolism and compassion and humanity in a crisis is often as critical as proper action. Indeed, Capt. Johnson might singlehandedly have turned the tide in Ferguson had the national news media not insisted on fanning the flames of the legitimate protestors and illegitimate criminals. The most shameful Ferguson media culprit was clearly…….
The liberal cable network turned itself over hook, line and sinker to a participant in the Ferguson drama, the ever-rabble rousing/race-baiting/flame-throwing reverend, Al Sharpton. Not only did MSNBC allow incendiary Al to use his daily broadcast hour to castigate the authorities and foment further Ferguson tension, it encouraged him to pop in as a guest on other programs throughout broadcast day. Wall-to-wall inflammable Al.
By this time, of course, MSNBC has made no bones about shedding most of the standards of news and objectivity that helped earn its NBC parent a reputation for quality journalism. In the face of right-wing Fox News, MSNBC has staked its claim to speak for the left. And no doubt with Rev. Al at full, unhelpful bellow in Ferguson, the network’s ratings likely rose and management was happy.
But somewhere the esteemed reporters who helped build the network’s now-tattered reputation for journalistic integrity – Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, John Chancellor, Tom Brokaw and even David Gregory – were shaking their heads ruefully.