By Michael Sale
Yesterday, Sanford, Fla., Police Chief Bill Lee submitted his letter of resignation, 57 days after his department declined to arrest neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. However, city commissioners rejected the resignation, sayin it’s a result of political pressure. The chief “temporarily” stepped aside on March 22 amid international condemnation of his refusal to arrest Zimmerman. During this entire fiasco, I couldn’t help but think back to my years handling crises as a public affairs officer with the largest municipal police force in Canada. (Read more about the debate over whether or not neighborhood watches help police agencies.)
Unfortunately, it’s become all too commonplace for law enforcement agencies to face major public and media scrutiny about their actions or inactions (albeit perhaps not as frenzied as the Sanford, Fla. case). I can recall a time in my career when it seemed like we were running from crisis to crisis, always trying to catch up and always trying to improve on a situation that was going from bad to worse, much worse, with each passing hour.
I learned to manage crises the hard way, through trial and error, and by watching others crash and burn. Occasionally, someone would pull a rabbit out of a hat and emerge from their struggle in better condition than when it began. But it was few and far between.
When faced with a crisis, or scandal, that threatens the reputation and public confidence held by an organization like the police, it is not uncommon for the wagons to circle and a state of paralysis to set in. This paralysis begins with the passage of time. Time is an organization’s biggest ally, but, by letting time slip by, it can also kill any opportunity to convey messages that may resolve, or mitigate, a critical issue.
When rocked with allegations of misconduct, many police departments have elected to remain silent, claiming that the matter is “under investigation” or “before the courts,” making it inappropriate for any comment or explanation. In the meantime, the news media and the public at large are free to expand on a damaging discourse that may distort the original version of the story and build a one-sided point of view that may be impossible to manage at a later time.
So, what can a police department do when caught up in a scandal, with an outcome that is yet to be determined? In my experience, organizational crises and/or scandals can be prepared for in advance and then, when something “blows up,” a series of quick responses can be delivered to acknowledge the issue, reassure the public and restore confidence in the organization and its people.
Building effective, trustworthy, relationships with key supporters, the news media, critics and internal partners will open lines of communication that can be utilized during times of organizational stress. These relationships must be established in advance, in good faith, and at a time or in an environment free from the stresses that routinely accompany a crisis. These relationships can pay off when a crisis strikes.
Developing key messages that demonstrate the organization is in good control, concerned about the issue and committed to doing the right thing make it possible to connect with stakeholders early, and before damaging rumors and speculation begin to circulate. Identifying key spokespeople to stand in for senior executives is always a good idea, especially at the beginning of a crisis. If the spokesperson fumbles, the chief or CEO can always step in later to clarify or correct the situation. This is not so easy to do when the person at the top is offered up early when the risk of error is greatest. Better still, access to social media has made it possible for communications teams to publish early and connect with supporters and critics more effectively than ever before.
Ready access to social media may improve efficiency in the delivery of important information, but these networks remain mere enhancements to traditional values and relationships. Strategic alliances and personal interaction with key influencers are still very important when establishing credibility and trust.
The way an organizational crisis, or scandal, is managed can still yield opportunities for reinforcing or enhancing a reputation and public confidence. For today’s communications team, it is imperative that current social media systems be employed to maintain an effective dialogue with all audiences, both internally and externally.
~Michael Sale served with the (Metropolitan) Toronto Police for thirty years, retiring as an Inspector after many years in public affairs and event management. He is a graduate of the 169th Session of the FBI National Academy. Mike has worked as a manager of emergency planning for the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and as a justice studies program coordinator for Humber College. He is currently a law enforcement education coordinator with American Military University and serves as the university’s representative in Canada.