Communication During a Crisis: Words Matter

Crisis Communications: Words Matter

To say the crisis unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri is one of communication would be a stunning oversimplification. Yet there is no escaping the fundamental truth that the methods and words used to communicate about the tragedy are direct contributors to the unrelenting trauma. From the moment of initial contact between the police officer and the victim, to the continuing dialogue with the media and the community, nothing has been said to defuse or prevent anger, resentment and, sadly, hostility.

Media accounts of the first words exchanged between the officer and the victim indicate the policeman used an obscenity in giving the young man instructions to get out of the middle of the street. Instantly, the situation was inflamed. Imagine if the instruction given had been “Up on the sidewalk, Gentlemen.” Such a statement could be delivered forcefully and clearly intending a lawful order, but the absence of the vulgarity and the replacement with an honorific might have changed the entire dynamic.

The spasm of reaction that followed the shooting produced chants of “Kill the police.” Again, words put everyone on edge. Perhaps police interpreted that as a call to action necessitating an overwhelming response. That reaction and the optics of an assault force mobilization only served to further inflame the situation. Then, when police department spokespersons talked primarily about “preserving the integrity of the investigation” rather than expressing compassion and sympathy, the underlying message appeared to be one of lack of concern for the victim and the community.  By now, things were spiraling from horrible to hateful.

It would be supercilious to suggest that some formulaic approach to communication could have prevented this awful sequence of events. Still, we live in an environment where technology and the instantaneous nature of communication makes it essential to consider how and what we say when bad things happen. If police departments and community leaders can find a way to use Ferguson as an object lesson, future disasters of this kind might be averted.

Four options for consideration:

Learn From This

It is not the first time a situation of this nature has occurred. Businesses rely on case study learning. Some police departments do also. But if as much money as is spent on military-style equipment was spent on conflict avoidance training, then, to state the obvious, conflict might actually be avoided. A term of art for consideration in such training is “Special Vulnerabilities.” This refers to the specific situations and circumstances that have some reasonable probability of occurring.  In Special Vulnerability considerations, one uses a highly specific and detailed scenario to test response and prevention techniques and strategies. When productive approaches are identified, personnel can be taught how to use them as a means for both accomplishing their goals, but also mitigating the potential for dispute.  It is unclear to a casual observer what kind of training the young police officer involved may have received.  If he and his colleagues understood there was an alternative to an obscenity laced directive, perhaps we would not be here today.

Communication Begins Before Crisis

The Mayor of Baltimore appeared on “Meet the Press” this week talking about the way urban police departments can foster dialogue with the local community. She said — and she could not be more right — that there is a “sacred bond that the police have with the community.” While there often is distrust of authority within disadvantaged communities, such communities depend intensely upon law enforcement for protection on a constant basis. The “sacred bond” therefore originates with a collaborative dialogue that must occur before any crisis erupts. Dialogue includes listening. Reasoned leaders among the local clergy or community service groups exist in every city. Rather than a one-off meeting in a town hall forum, a monthly sequence of engagement and conversation can occur. Coupled with walking tours by community leaders and law enforcement professionals, a perception of the police departments as genuinely concerned about local issues and determined to root out problems can emerge. Local residents know where the problems exist in their communities. They can act as a resource for police, even as the police adopt a community partnership methodology.  It won’t prevent every contingency, but it may at least bridge a measure of distrust and build the “sacred bond” that enables constructive dialogue.

The Media Are Allies

It is unlikely there is anyone who can point to even a single instance of sound media relations since this tragedy occurred. Cops have been on high alert. Tensions have run high. The media may be seen as an inflammatory influence on the community and surely the news reports prominently feature the worst behaviors. The police have fed the news cycle with made for TV equipment, battle gear and tactics, imagery that has become a story in itself. In truth, however, reporters are doing their jobs. They are “news” reporters and surely the story of Ferguson is news in all its sad detail.  If this basic understanding can be established before crisis grips the community, the interaction between officials and journalists can be far more productive.  As with community dialogue, this can and must begin with discussions between officials and local news outlets as a matter of routine. News directors, editors and producers can provide perspective, even recommendations, about press conference coordination, something that has been sorely lacking in this case. They can offer insight into production and editorial schedules and the imperative of the timing of statements. I have even seen them offer suggestions on the staging of news encounters to facilitate organized and equitable news gatherings. Even if none of this is done, at a bare minimum, police department spokespersons and department heads must undergo spokesperson training, not so they have rote answers to questions, but so they are sensitive to the handling of press conferences and mindful of the impact of their words.

Compassion Counts

There is more than enough anger and emotion when a tragedy occurs. These passions are inflamed if the first concerns expressed by authorities are for the “integrity of the investigation.” There are innumerable and genuine ways to express compassion for grieving families, concern for communities, and commitment to restore an essential foundation of trust. In this, the words matter most. The means matter also. If this sincere empathy can be articulated with tangible evidence of outreach to community leaders and engagement of them in the process of resolving the situation, tempers might be somewhat less likely to flare.

Recognizing how quickly things spun out of control in Ferguson should indicate the importance of taking communication seriously before crises occur. And when they inevitably do, getting the words and the delivery right can have profound and lasting value.

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