Why PR leaders failed in everything to do with Ferguson

Communications professionals never seem to miss an opportunity to weigh in on social issues, so why is this situation different?

As the world stood by awaiting the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury’s decision on whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, I stood by amazed by the hush that fell over the always outspoken and opinionated PR community.

Communications professionals never seem to miss an opportunity to weigh in on social issues, so why is this situation different?

I suspect Ferguson is one of those gut issues that just doesn’t feel comfortable being discussed in "mixed company." I also assume that based on my experience in the big agency world, due to the lack of diversity, and quite frankly because the minorities who do have a seat at the table do not want to be cast into the role of solely being the voice of their people every day, all the time, race is still not an issue that is addressed.

As agencies guide their clients through how to handle crisis communications, the very hot-button issue of race is rarely spoken about in any meaningful way. And because of this, issues regarding race are almost always mishandled. A great example of this communications fail is how the grand jury’s announcement was presented Monday night.

As I watched the events of the night unfold on TV and online, I questioned whether St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch had the benefit of seasoned and diverse counsel on his team. I assumed not because if he had, perhaps he would have known that blaming social media as essentially being the match that started the firestorm of anger, frustration, and misinformation was not only misguided and inappropriate but also in and of itself misinformed.

Had he had the benefit of the aforementioned counsel, he would have understood that it is because of a mistrust of traditional media that social media has increasingly become one of Black America’s most trusted forums for receiving and disseminating information. It is perceived as the best place to receive fair and balanced news from friends, on-the-ground eyewitnesses, and traditional media reporters that they know and who communicate with them a little differently online than they do on TV.

Had the traditional media that was reporting on the emotional and in some cases, violent responses to the grand jury’s decision had the benefit of diverse staff and good counsel, perhaps their directive would have been to give context to the images and stories they reported on. Perhaps their in-house PR leadership would have stressed the explosiveness of this issue and might have suggested that they be more selective with the adjectives they used and to simmer down on the equal measure of exuberance and disgust they demonstrated as they were deployed to report on the tragic events of the evening.

Had brands had the benefit of senior and diverse counsel, as the grand jury’s decision was announced and as black families were reeling and taking to social media to commensurate about their pain, perhaps someone would have told them to hold the tweets about their Black Friday deals, maybe just for an hour or so.

In the 100 days or so it took to make this announcement, someone should have advised the mayor’s office that whichever way the grand jury’s decision went, there would inevitably be long-lasting effects on the country. That while this decision had everything to do with the life of Michael Brown, it would be about so much more than Michael Brown. A holistic community-engagement strategy should have been implemented months ago but instead it feels like everything was on hold until Monday night. While the decision was exceptionally disappointing to many, the truth is, it was not a surprise to most.

If nothing else, the grand jury’s decision and the PR community’s relative silence demonstrates that the divide in America has never been more present and the disconnect has never been so palpable. There is however, still much left unsaid and countless opportunities for dialogue. Being a communicator who has developed communications and community-engagement programs for years, but even more importantly being the mother of two black sons,

I would offer the following counsel to the powers-that-be in Ferguson, Missouri, to leaders in PR agencies, traditional newsrooms, and to those in the board rooms charged with community engagement and even consumer marketing.

  1. Speak to the heart and the hopes of a mother, and in some cases, demonstrate the sensitivity to know when to stop talking.
  2. Stop thinking if we don’t talk about race, then we are post-racial. We are not. There needs to be solution-oriented community based conversations.
  3. Understand the specific roles faith, civic, and legacy organization, social influencers, and celebrities play in the black society and integrate them all into a holistic community-engagement program, but be mindful of leveraging them appropriately.
  4. Acknowledge the bigger issues: poverty, incarceration, police and community relations, and joblessness.

Terri Bradley is principal of Playground Public Relations.

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