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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Crisis (mis)Communications Ferguson Police Style

I still can't figure out the thought process behind the people leading communications for the law enforcement authorities in the Ferguson area. 

My latest post dealt with the wrong tone adopted by the St Louis County PD AFTER the crisis had subsided somewhat. And, today, things got worse when the Chief of the Ferguson PD issued an apology to Michael Brown's family via video ... 

Let's dissect this latest misstep ... the "art of the apology" (you can listen to a podcast on what makes a good apology here) is something hard to master and I guess we could give some leeway to the Chief ... However, his department and others in the St Louis area have shown so much incompetence throughout this whole ordeal ...I'm not really inclined to cut them any slack. 

Let's get started ... 

First, the apology comes weeks too late (you can view the whole video here) ... it's something almost universally noted by PR pros and news organizations

Second, if you're going to apologize to a victim's family ...I'd suggest you do it IN PERSON ... not through a video ... seems like the family hasn't seen it ... Now, if you want to apologize to a community ... MAYBE a video is a good idea ... not sure in this case.

Third, the style of the video is wrong ... not sure about the appearance of sincerity ... very slick production ... which might detract from the sentiment ... a little more of the PD and a little less of the PR firm's grip on this would have been better ...

Fourth, although some might disagree, Chief Tom Jackson SHOULD HAVE WORN HIS UNIFORM in the video ... Here's my reasoning ... in the hours/days that followed the Michael Brown shooting and when the victim's reputation was being attacked ... the Chief WAS IN UNIFORM ... conveying the full authority of his function ... 

To apologize in civilian clothes minimizes the importance of the apology (and perhaps positions the apology as a personal act as opposed to an official one ...)

The Ferguson PD and the town are now relying on two PR firms to advise them ... one to handle the media ... the other to come up with the strategic comms to help them get over the crisis. That's even now part of the overall story ... and as the video illustrates ... maybe not for the better ...

My take? Things are not getting better ... the public's perception of law enforcement in the Ferguson area is not being helped by things like the bracelet worn by officers.

In the greater scheme of things though ... an apology however late it might be or too PR-slick ... is still better than shooting rubber bullets at the media ... bombarding civilians with tear gas or just plain intimidating people ... So, a good step.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

After the crisis, good communications practices are still a must

The "keystone kops awards" for incompetence in the categories of operational screw ups and communications failures ( I just created this "recognition") go to the police agencies involved in the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. I've written a couple of blog posts on the total lack of crisis/incident communications foresight and good practices throughout the protests and police operations.

You would think now, that after some reflection ( I wish ! ) and much criticism from all corners (including police organizations/leaders), that communications after the protests would improve. But no, apparently, the St Louis County PD thinks it's a beacon of solid crisis comms. Judge for yourself:

How can they get the tone so wrong? Not very far from making the whole Michael Brown incident and its aftermath a comical footnote ... Shows a complete lack of respect for the community.

Besides, from a comms professional point of view, it stinks of a long dead approach to media ...something out of the 1980s ... where reporters could be "handled" ... "corralled" ... and should always be treated with scorn or at least some antipathy ...

The outlook on media relations and how the St Louis County PD position their "media training" is blatantly outdated and borders on the plain stupid. Their misstep has not gone unnoticed.  My good friend Gerald Baron has also noted the disrespectful undertone (if not outright racism) of the whole initiative.

Truth is ... legacy media can be a powerful ally when treated as a partner ... Modern police chiefs get that ... 

Also, how can you take seriously any law enforcement organization, one that has just gone through such an intense period of scrutiny from the public and the media and one that DOES NOT mention social networks and the role they now play in incident communications?

It's the whole "head in the sand" strategy ... Twitter and Instagram, Livestream and Ustream are all going away ... right ?

There are just no words ... And frankly, what can an organization that treats media, protesters and its own citizens so poorly in front of the whole world ... possibly have anything to teach anyone ?

Maybe, they're going for a whole new way of dealing with the media ...
First, try to limit their ability to do their job .... shoot them with rubber bullets and gas them if that fails:

Second, just ignore the media ... especially when you're parading like some conquering hero down the streets you're "clearing" of the riffraff ... and if they persist (won't they learn ? ) ... just arrest them (because being asked questions when you're posturing is so annoying ... and a threat to public safety):

The third element of this new media relations strategy by police in the Ferguson area is ... if you're not sure who's media ...or just a blogger ... or some guy live tweeting or streaming your actions to safeguard democracy in the heart of America ... just threaten to shoot them ... and them tell to "eff off" when challenged on that:

The only media relations training these bozos are able to provide is " do the exact opposite of what we do and say ..."

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The day ISIS thugs walk into your town's shopping mall ... a crisis comms What If and How to ...

Recent events (Ferguson protests, Napa earthquake) have once more illustrated the impact of social convergence on crisis communications. Still, many don't fully realize that the mobile and social phenomenon has forever changed how we must prepare for crises. Time is no longer a luxury ... a response must be immediate. Read this piece from my good friend Bill Boyd (@chiefb2) on the subject.

So, now, a scenario. An unlikely one (maybe) ... but certainly not impossible ... to go by recent news that would suggest Canada and the US are threatened by ISIS (the Middle Eastern terror group overrunning Iraq and Syria).

A group of terrorists ... or even a single suicide bomber ... walks into your town/city's shopping mall ... bad things start happening ... chaos ensues.

Let's look at the scenario through the lens of something I've talked about often in the past: the four imperatives of incident communications in the social convergence era:

  1. alert your audiences using mobile devices and social networks
  2. understand that your response will be scrutinized by the public/media in real-time
  3. monitor social media during all phases of the crisis 
  4. engage/maintain a dialogue with your audiences
Let's start: 


H hour: ... an explosion at the Mall of Malls ... huge blast ... many injuries ... possibly deaths ... reaction is immediate online ...why? because people have phones and share what they see ... case in point: a few seconds after a terrorist bomb explodes at an airport in Moscow:

And that's video .... posted on youtube ... it's even faster to upload a vine on Twitter (such as this one of the explosion at the Boston Marathon) ... or just upload a picture (same event). One can also live tweet events as they happen (either in Abbottabad in Pakistan during the raid that led to capture of Bin Laden or in Boston ... see below).

View image on Twitter
A tweet from Boston moments after the first explosion

Truth is: the story is now told in real time on social networks ...meaning if you're going to alert your audiences about what's going on and what you're doing about the incident, YOU BETTER DO IT FAST! As in, within minutes ...

What you do:
H hour + no more than 5 minutes:
  • start using whatever mass notification platform you may have at your disposal(as long as it's accessible via mobile devices) .. or even your Twitter account to let people know  you're aware of what's going on ... something like:



 A simple enough step that will buy you some time, show you're on the ball ... perhaps even draw more people to you as a trusted source of info. Here are the basics to be able to achieve that:

  • verify the info with relevant first responders/authority (don't fall victim of a hoax)
  • have a plan in place with some basic pre-written tweets 
  • have the authority under the plan to issue them fast
  • have a twitter account ! 
This first step is really in the domain of the first responders or a municipal EOC. If you're in a state/provincial/national EOC, your first tweets are going to be a little more strategic (but they still need to be informative and relevant = quick after the fact):

H Hour + no more than 15 minutes

So, you let your audiences know what's going on ... as best as you can:
There has been a confirmed shooting at the Columbia mall. a PIO will be on scene shortly. No updates or new details yet.

A good example above, here, from Howard County PD ... but it implies that the PIO will go on scene ... as if the main audience is still the media ... but is that right? You've got to talk to the reporters, of course, but social convergence allow you to tell  your own story, without intermediaries ... to become your own broadcasters. Multi-channels for multi-audiences .... 


Folks are attracted to unusual events ... flashing lights, equipment and personnel being rushed to the scene ... and guess what? They'll film it and send it out ... they might even live stream your response (think of the Ferguson protests ... and the pressures it put on police ...) Are you prepared for that? Is your staff trained to be under the spotlight? If they wear your uniform or your company logo, carry your badge or ID ... THEY ARE YOUR SPOKESPERSONS/REPRESENTATIVES ... to the media ... the public ...the world really.

Now, the crowd might even record and live tweet or live stream your tactical movements and even the moment you move in.

That's why, sometimes, police send out these kinds of messages:
Shooter near Pinehurst subdivision - #Codiac #RCMPNB ask public to not give out information on police operation/location over social media.
: WARNING - Do Not Compromise Officer Safety/Tactics by Broadcasting Live Video of Officers While Approaching Search Locations

It's simple really ... if the bad guys are doing it ... why aren't you?

You monitor social networks for 5 key reasons during an incident: 
  1. ensure your messaging is being acted upon
  2. detect rumours/false info that could threaten public safety/health
  3. isolate/route calls for help through right channels 
  4. identify reputational threats that could impede your ability to respond
  5. gather additional situational awareness
Yes, people will call for help on SM ... they might even be encouraged to do so.

If you CAN'T get through to 911 please send a message to us through Facebook or Twitter.

So listening, is an operational necessity.
A greatly improved tool to conduct instant monitoring when incidents occur is Geofeedia:

In the not too distant future, first responders and emergency managers will have devices with them that will allow for instant and ongoing monitoring capability. It's another tool in the tool belt to help make the best decision in allocating resources during incidents.

This ongoing social listening activity lasts as long as the incident does all its phases.

One of the reason you should monitor SM during an incident goes back to the 2nd imperative: do you know what's being said/shared about your response OP-SEC compromised ? 

To find out ... you need to be listening ! 

it's great to alert, respond and monitor ... but if all of a sudden you stop communicating, your audiences won't flock to you as a trusted source of info. Going dark is NEVER a good idea. You at least have to say WHY you can't reveal much.

When you keep up the dialogue ... good things happen ... as is revealed by a recent report from the JFK School of Government at Harvard on the Boston PD response to the Marathon bombing:

"BPD successfully used Twitter to keep the public informed about the status of the investigation, to calm nerves and request assistance, to correct mistaken information reported by the press, and to ask for public restraint in the tweeting of information from police scanners," the report's introduction read.
A bit of a timeline here to illustrate the point: 

  • from the first few moments: 

Boston Police confirming explosion at marathon finish line with injuries. via @CherylFiandaca

  •  To the immediate aftermath: 

Updates to follow. Please clear area around marathon finish line via @CherylFiandaca

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A shooting in Missouri ... part 2

This whole #ferguson mess is an ongoing crisis communications "how not to" ... 

My first post on this focused on the crisis comms (or lack thereof) during the protests that followed the Michael Brown shooting. 

I also put a Storify relating police actions (as they were experienced by protesters) during the protests ... Quite a narrative. Many say that protesters get what they deserve. They're agitators, rabble ... even communists ! (another image from the 50s and 60s ... another reason why this whole situation echoes of the Civil Rights movement).

But can we really dismiss all the calls for police restraints as overreactions from bleeding heart liberals? I don't think you can when you see this: 

So, people ask questions ... but they remain largely unanswered. Prosecutors do their thing (which seems like foot dragging ....), the situation about the investigation into the shooting remains murky (is there a police report? or not ? ) ... And when reporters want to know ...when they question police actions .... especially during protests .... here's what often happens ... journalists are apparently the enemy for Ferguson authorities.

That's one of the stupidest things I've ever seen. The incident commander (Capt. Johnson) walking along ... surrounded by officers in full tac gear. On the outer ring, reporters asking all sorts of questions ... normal right? To be expected in a tense situation, right? 

Was the police prepared? No. Where was the PIO (public info officer) to help handle the media ... potentially diffuse the situation? Nowhere to be seen.

It's that type of situation ... lack of transparency and openness that has a lot of people questioning everything ... from the shooting itself, to what happened in the minutes/hours that followed, in the ongoing investigation and the protests.

And people are surprised that trust is gone? 

The thing is, social convergence puts everyone in the public eye ... there are cameras everywhere ... smartphones ...people videoing ... tweeting ... 

That's why a crisis comms response has to be immediate, consistent, transparent and open ... it revolves around the following four imperatives: 

  1. alert/notify those who should be made aware (for their safety, they're stakeholders, for public info ...) be proactive ... occupy the public space with a quick notification ... that's going to give you time for more detailed messaging later
  2. understand your response is going to be scrutinized, analyzed, dissected on social networks and even live streamed across the world via mobile devices ... How's that for training your people not to pull an "officer go f*ck yourself" ? 
  3. monitor social networks ...what's being said about your response? who's shaping public opinion ? Are they relaying/amplifying your messaging? or have your comms being usurped by other more vocal and MORE PRESENT voices ? 
  4. keep the dialogue open and ongoing ... don't revert to the old days of relying on a daily media briefing ... keep on social networks ... engage on your online friends to retell YOUR story ... going dark is a path to comms oblivion ! 
Maybe, one day, we'll know what really happened ... in the meantime, the police in Ferguson is a victim of its own ineptitude ... because nothing they say now can be taken at face value ...there's just too much doubt ...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A shooting in Missouri

Okay folks ... this post won't be about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It won't even be about the nature of the police operational response on the first couple of nights of disorder in the St Louis suburb (however misguided it was ... although I must say I have no sympathy for looters who continue to take advantage of the situation ...despite a shift in the police response ... ) 

The police are really between a rock and a hard place as the situation continues to flare up ....

This post is really about communicating during a crisis and how social media has changed how it's done. It's really simple .... it's something I've written about before. To stay relevant you have to do four things all at one: 

  1. alert: let people know what's going as soon as you can using mobile and social media
    1. okay ... besides a bullhorn and riffles ? any other comms tools at your disposal?
    2. Hey, that nice LRAD (long-range acoustic device) mounted on that nice      tank-like APC ... you can talk through that right ? Not just send out ear-piercing noises ...
    3. You've heard of Twitter maybe ? (not a key tool for the St Louis County Police Department (which was heavily involved in the "muscular" police response)
  2. respond ... that won't change but be conscious you're on camera ... media and public scrutiny is heightened a million-fold because of social convergence
    1. What works better to diffuse a situation when the world is watching: a line of geared-up cops ready for a patrol in Afghanistan or Iraq ... or officers in the day-to-day uniforms ...engaging with the community? 
    2. It's not really cool to go after reporters ... not usually a sign of transparency and openness ...
  3. Monitor ... listen on social networks to see how people/key stakeholder are reacting and gain a better understanding of the situation 
    1. If social media is transforming a local issue into a national or even a global story ... YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT IT ! 
    2. You could even gather some actual investigative intel out of listening ! 
    3. But mostly, it's a good idea to see how your response is being perceived in real time ... especially by people who you'd think would understand ... like veterans.
    4. And, if you have anything even remotely to do with the crisis ... DON'T IGNORE IT ! It's something that could be damaging.
  4. engage ... dialogue ... maintain effective comms channels with key stakeholders and the public ...
    1. dialogue is the only sure avenue toward building trust ... a hard thing to do when pointing a gun a protestors ... and even harder after blaming the victim (even if you later say it had nothing to do with the deadly encounter ...)
    2. That need for dialogue is something the Governor of Missouri recognizes ... 
    3. You have to find a way of explaining your actions ... keeping the public informed while maintaining operational security of course ... they are not opposing principles.
In other words: OCCUPY THE PUBLIC SPACE ... and do it quickly before someone does it for you ... tells your story ... don't let others set the agenda ... sounds simple ? right ? 

You simply cannot rely on the legacy media anymore ... on the daily news conference or scrum ... to tell your side ... things move at light speed ... not at 24 frames per second ! 

Organizations (municipalities, politicians, first responders, EM agencies) must become their own social broadcasters. All sorts of tools exist to allow that ... direct channels to audiences. 

Besides, relying on an 80s strategy (daily media briefings), is dangerous if your spokesperson isn't trained or prepared to to it. It can actually make things worse (ring a bell for the folks in Ferguson ? )  If you send the chief to do this ... his answers should be a bit stronger than " I dunno ! " 

Also, in a tense situation, is it really a good idea to do a scrum in the street ? where you have little control of the environment ? Why not do a more formal media conference in a location of your choice ... moderated ... with a clear strategy and not improvised messaging? 

So, is this easy ? By no means ... I only wish we can all be as ready as we can to communicate when all hell breaks loose and our organizations are in the spotlight! 

Good luck !