Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The worst crisis scenario?

Update: 1:50 p.m. see below
Disasters occur daily, but the worst involve death.

Perhaps the worst crisis communications scenario for death is an officer-involved shooting (OIS in police lingo).

Yet, many police departments are limited in how they can communicate a response.

Consider an OIS shooting this week in Long Beach. A man is shot dead by police after the man pointed at them what they thought was a real gun. It turns out the man was holding a garden hose nozzle.

Here is the official news statement. The news reports, while factual, are highlighting the obvious. The reactions from family, the general public..are predictable. See video for more. This is not the first time someone was killed by police for pointing something that "looked" like a weapon.

Public relations professionals prepare countless clients for the worst, including death. Potential litigation prevents some information from being revealed right away. If a situation turns into a crime scene or police investigation, a company's communication options are further limited.

In the corporate world, PR pros many times tussle with attorneys about what can be disclosed and when.

Now, consider the greater frustrations for a communicator within a police department.

The investigation will take a while. With a long absence of updates and details, the outcries can get louder and the speculation more rampant. Our PR training and experience frequently counsel clients to provide regular updates as quickly as possible - to fill the void and not let a situation get out of control.

An investigation will conclude the shooting and officers' conduct were justified - or not. A lawsuit will follow. The tragedy will be publicized many more times. The department's reputation will be battered for weeks, perhaps months, maybe years.

As unfortunate as this is, there are many predictable cycles to this crisis situation.

Some police departments have responded well to these type of incidents. In some cases, policies need changing or improved training is required. The public can more readily accept these steps because they have the appearance of contrition, accepting blame and responsibility and a desire to perform better. However, if a shooting falls within department policy, many will still demand change and the time to rebuild trust and reputation will take much longer.

Unlike most other crisis situations (like an oil spill or bank failure), an "OIS" holds a special place in the minds of the public - because we "see" them weekly on TV shows. The plethora of TV crime shows has, in effect, infused the public with a perception about what happens on the streets. This has given rise to "arm chair quarterbacking" and second-guessing. Add in the number of shows that portray "bad cops" and, well, the public is now more inclined to assume the worst when real-life police shootings occur. Sure, there are real-life incidents of wrongful deaths and "bad cops" but statistics show there are fewer and fewer of these. And, as police departments will tell you, there are also cases when an officer hesitated and was killed.

So what additional PR steps can police departments take?

Community meetings are known to help, because these settings permit police leaders to explain things outside the immediate emotions of the latest incident. Ride-alongs with reporters used to work when more people read newspapers, and were able to get a more in-depth look at the risks, dangers and split-second decisions that cops make daily. There are balances to be struck between seeking sympathy and simply wanting greater understanding.

And, I'm sure, there are plenty more options for departments. Branding? Yes, police department associations have examined this, as well as other measures to improve their overall public image.

But in the case of an OIS resulting in death, it would seem departments would - at a minimum - need to develop a specific strategy that includes multiple objectives and tactics.


No comments: