01 December 2014

Ferguson: communication and credibility

2011 Stanley Cup Finals
Sometimes it's important to listen before jumping to conclusions about important issues - to let things play out a little bit, get some facts, and share some insights that maybe haven't been shared.  That's what I've tried to do with what has happened in Ferguson.

I've built a career in politics and communications, and I understand crisis management.  I know how political systems are set up and how some people can leverage that system to evade or deflect accountability, especially in a crisis.  I understand what builds and what destroys credibility with an audience.
As far as the system is concerned, we can all see the obvious.  Darren Wilson was Michael Brown's judge, jury and executioner. As far as the system is concerned, the only thing that truly matters is if Darren Wilson was "reasonably" scared, and it's his word against a corpse.  This is true because Darren Wilson's allies removed the remaining safeguards in the system that could have challenged the notion he was scared.

Darren Wilson's co-workers on the police force allowed him to handle evidence before it was processed.  They let him wash his hands twice before testing them for anything such as another person's blood or gunshot residue.   They didn't take the required pictures at the crime scene, despite letting Michael Brown's dead body lay uncovered in the street for four and a half hours.

Prosecutors let Wilson's statements to a grand jury go unchallenged, while eyewitness accounts received repeated scrutiny.  They even misinformed the grand jury on applicable law.  The people who specialize in collecting evidence and grilling suspects instead chose to destroy evidence and grill witnesses. They gave Darren Wilson the benefit of every doubt, even if it meant breaking their own rules to do so.

I can understand the desire to protect one of your own.  But these seem to me like the actions of people who feel no accountability to the people they're sworn to serve.
2014 World Series

The prosecutor's statement - given at night for some ridiculous and irresponsible reason - was beyond tone deaf.  It was the culmination of a cynical, even spiteful exercise in political cover. Any PR flack or political hack can see this.

The mayor's press conference the next day - ostensibly to announce an update in Darren Wilson's employment status - was instead an opportunity for the mayor to complain the Governor hadn't acted quickly enough to bring in more resources from the National Guard.  When it came to addressing the concerns of residents, the mayor quickly faded to the background and brought in a parade of African-American clergy.  The mayor offered no updates on Wilson.

This follows the sustained cowardice and dishonesty from Ferguson's police chief, who cited non-existent FOIA requests to conduct a character assassination, let his officers arrest and detain journalists in violation of the law, and seemed to confuse a St. Louis suburb with a war zone.

2014 Keene NH Pumpkin Festival
As rubber bullets and tear gas canisters were fired into crowds of unarmed demonstrators and as reporters were taken away from the scene by force, Ferguson's leaders were nowhere to be found.

The mayor, police chief, and prosecutor act as though they are fully aware they have no credibility with residents, and they really don't care.

After all, the people of Ferguson do nothing to hold them accountable.  They don't vote. Sadly, many of the people who have spoken out loudest in support of Darren Wilson are also largely behind the efforts to pass "voter ID" laws that would make it harder for the people of Ferguson to vote.  These proposed laws are supposedly designed to fix a non-existent problem in the United States: voter fraud. (Other things that don't exist: Darren Wilson's broken eyesocket.)

Crisis communications professionals are trained to see the opportunity in every crisis and lay out a plan of action to improve an organization or person's standing with an audience.   If you consider the residents of Ferguson to be the key audience here, consider this an opportunity wasted.

As for whether the situation in Ferguson is about a larger issue of race in America, just listen to Jay Smooth.

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