Florida city works to rebuild trust after Martin tragedy

SANFORD, FL: In the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, the city of Sanford, FL, has teamed with Massey Communications to work to restore trust in the community's police department.

SANFORD, FL: In the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, the city of Sanford, FL, has teamed with Massey Communications to work to restore trust in the community's police department.

“There is a history of distrust between the citizens and the police department, and changes will be needed if that is to change,” Susan Vernon-Devlin, director of PR services at Massey Communications, told PRWeek.

The city is stressing that it is a unified community of many races, creeds, colors, and religions, “which has experienced an immense tragedy, but is seeking to heal and move forward while allowing the legal system to run its course,” she said.

The city of Sanford hired the firm on March 21, nearly a month after Martin was allegedly shot to death on February 26 by George Zimmerman in what he says was self-defense. Rallies have since been held around the country calling for Zimmerman's arrest.

As part of its contract with the city, Massey is providing crisis consultations for the Martin case, said Lisa Mosca, administrative coordinator for Sanford. The scope of work also includes PR and media relations strategy, copywriting of press releases, talking points, and prepared statements, and spokesperson preparation.  

“Vernon-Devlin was highly recommended by the Seminole County Office of Emergency Management,” Mosca said, noting that Vernon-Devlin is certified in use of National Incident Management Systems and Incident Command Systems. Both are used by government agencies and private corporations to manage crisis situations.

The city has not hired any other PR agencies, Vernon-Devlin said. To get its message across, the firm is conducting outreach to various radio, TV, and print outlets, and it is helping Sanford bolster its digital presence despite the fact that most of its government entities do not use Facebook pages or blogs.

Since hiring Massey, the city has placed video of news conferences held about the Martin case on its website and posted press releases and police reports about the case.

“Previously, information on the case was a small item on the website, with a barely visible link from the homepage,” Vernon-Devlin said. She added that media coverage in the last few weeks has been a mixed bag, ranging from factual to sensationalistic.

Moving forward, the city will not release further information or comment on the investigation because the case is in the hands of the state attorney's office, she said.

The city did not disclose Massey's budget, but Mosca said it has not paid the firm any money yet.

“My only concern is that the city will also have the additional foresight to appropriate a budget sufficient to adequately address the current situation and the emerging issues confronting their beautiful, small city,” said Lori Booker, CEO of Orlando, FL-based CBR Public Relations.

Evan Nierman, founder of Florida crisis PR firm Red Banyan Group, said the city has done a good job of making sure its senior officials, such as its mayor, have been available for comment.

“There is the expectation that when you're at the wrong end of a lot of critical coverage, you pull the turtle move and go into lockdown…but the mayor has done a pretty good job putting himself out there and engaging reporters,” Nierman said.

However, others found flaws in the strategy used by Sanford and Massey. A few days ago, the firm reportedly put out a press release threatening to arrest reporters if they asked city employees questions about the Martin case after hours. The threat was rescinded after members of the media protested.

The best way to stop reporters from questioning officials after hours is to have frank conversations with them behind the scenes, not through press releases, said Todd Templin, EVP of Executive Boardroom Communications.

“Threats don't work, and I think the press release sent the wrong message,” he said. “As a former member of the media, I can tell you, when they receive a threat it emboldens them.”

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