Kimberly N. Alleyne
The civil eruption in #Ferguson (Missouri) has quelled since the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer though the conflict that’s tearing an already divided community rages on, if silently.
Varying accounts of what actually precipitated the fatal shooting of the unarmed recent high school graduate still mottle accounts offered in print, broadcast and cyber media: Brown attacked Darren Wilson (the officer who shot Brown); Brown was fleeing; Brown had his hands up begging Wilson not to shoot him; Brown didn’t have his hands up…the truth will eventually manifest during the trial.
Despite the calm that is now reclining on the St. Louis County town, a emotional unrest persists among the residents and there is a notable chasm-like void in the City of Ferguson’s public relations approach — to date, it’s been near indiscernible. Here are reasons why the strategy, whatever it is, has been ineffective.
1. Late to the game — By the time the City of Ferguson retained an agency of record (Common Ground PR), civil unrest on both sides had exploded; the shrapnel bred additional crises, such as Michael Brown’s autopsy report, that compounded the situation. The City failed to get in front of those crises–or to respond quickly enough.
2. Lack of community engagement — There are deep divides in the public opinion, primarily along racial/ethnic and socioeconomic lines. A smart strategy would be to focus on engaging the community via town halls and listening tours. You cannot communicate with an audience if you don’t know what they’ll respond to. Lack of engagement–and understanding–blows targeted messaging out of the water.
3. Insertion of personal opinion — The City of Ferguson announced that Common Ground PR would assist with crisis management by “fielding media inquiries,” and soon after, the racial/ethnicity composition of the firm’s staff was questioned (Not unreasonable since they’re handling an intensely racially-charged situation). Denise Bentele responded, umm sort of, to the criticism in a statement in which she shared her dismay about negative online comments. What?! … Why? Regardless of what the public thinks, Bentele should have never offered personal commentary. And coming on the defensive about the racial make-up of her staff actually heightened suspicion about the firm’s capabilities. The crisis is not about her, and her opinion adds no substance to the public dialogue.
4. Not responding on social media – So it looks like Common Ground is not very social. Despite the plethora opportunities to engage media and community members online and on social, the PR agency has also been criticized for not engaging on social, Twitter in particular. Not a tweet out of them so far.
5. No clear spokesperson (s) — Who’s running the show? A spokesperson has yet to emerge. There are too many people talking in this situation. The airwaves are far too crowded with opinionated voices soapboxing boxing about the tragic incident, and not one of those voices includes a City of Ferguson spokesperson. What gives? An essential, and basic, PR strategy is to establish a spokesperson and to equip she or he with a substantive message. That’s not happening in Ferguson. Fielding media inquiries is a back-burner priority in relation to this.
6. Missed storytelling opportunities –In the face of the widely circulated images of an incensed community standing against police/military, rallies for Michael Brown, and rallies for the Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, there have also been displays of unity that transcend zip code, income, race and ethnicity. The City of Ferguson and Common Ground PR should seize those storytelling opportunities to flip the frame and show another view of the picture.
Also, a PR agency should be an extension of and a complement to a brand, more like a silent partner, not a replacement of its voice.
Common Ground PR should revisit its approach — the nation is watching.