I was commissioned by CommPRO.biz, a blog for public relations professionals, to give my opinion on what went wrong with the PR effort in Baltimore related to the civil unrest there. A link to the original article appears at the bottom.
By Bob Mentzinger
As in any crisis, planning is best done beforehand.
Leaving aside basic operational questions about the way the city of Baltimore does business (“Why didn’t police or city leaders anticipate and plan to react to violence after the funeral of a black man who died in police custody in an overwhelmingly black city at a time when such incidents seem to be on the rise?”), officials seem to have lacked or else did not operationalize a crisis communications plan that could have reduced tensions, first and foremost, by exhibiting control.
In today’s instantaneous news cycle where events often outpace institutions’ ability to react, any crisis PR manager will tell you the city needed to be active on social media and in the traditional press within 15 minutes of emerging events, to allay the fears of the public and communicate a sense that city leaders were aware of the situation and were mobilizing. Doing this might have discouraged some of the more opportunistic people from joining the violence. But operative agencies were not as nimble in their messaging as they should have been. Not until well after rioting had begun in full force was there an announcement that police were mobilizing. By then, the situation had already escalated beyond the city’s ability to control.
The communications failure probably began much earlier than the first moments of the violence. Some reports indicate rioters had been communicating violent intent as early as a day prior to the worst of the rioting. Pre-emptive warnings from the police or the mayor would have helped discourage destructive elements from coalescing. These do not appear to be communicated.
When the incident began, official messaging did not communicate the sense that things were, if not under control, inevitably going in that direction. Useful information would have included what police resources were being marshaled, which areas the public should avoid, as well as the consequences for those who chose violence. A public appeal to clergy, peace activists and community leaders to rein in the worst actors – perhaps with a promise to meet later to discuss the underlying issues – would also have helped gain allies and grab the upper hand with citizens.
The mayor’s first statements on the matter – “we tried to make sure that (protesters) were protected … we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well,” – exhibited a horrible grasp of language while seeming to side against law enforcement. Use of the word “destroy” in an apparently positive light was a particularly poor choice that did nothing to exhibit control.
In what appeared to be the first public news conference on the violence, the city once again, perhaps finally, lost control of the messaging, allowing Baltimore police Capt. Eric Kowalczyk, who is white, to represent the department on TV instead of Police Chief Anthony Batts, who is black.
Kowalczyk used the news conference to describe attacks on police and referred to “criminals who violently and without provocation attacked our police officers.” He said officers displaying “remarkable restraint” would respond with tear gas and pepper balls, a message that was mixed at best, confrontational at worst. While it was reassuring to have a public safety official on air talking about restoring order, the racial optics, invisibility of top leaders, and poor word choices were all unfortunate and likely led to a hardening of positions on either side.
In conclusion, by not acting quickly enough in the media to exhibit control, provide information and execute authority, city officials lost the ability to de-escalate the situation and ended up playing catch-up beneath the weight of events in Baltimore.