The events which took place on August 9th 2014 in Ferguson Missouri will become a textbook case of how not to conduct PR after a tragic and unfortunate incident. The incident, which involved a police officer shooting an unarmed 18 year old to death without probable cause, has sparked nights of protest mainly because of the poor handling of the situation.
From the beginning, the situation was irresponsibly allowed to escalate immediately after the shooting. Numerous people were able to witness the lifeless body of the boy lying dead in the street and then comment about it on social media. Just from the Twitter timeline of eyewitnesses, one can see a lapse of at least 3 hours, while the boy lay in the street. In this digital age, news like this can be duplicated instantly without the gateway of the media to filter it out.
Workplace continuity strategy should have long prepared every police department on how to handle the eventual unjustified death of a citizen at the hands of one of their officers. The infraction is too often an occurrence to not be made part of a comprehensive risk strategy. In areas with such a great racial disparity of the community to police ethnic ratios, it should have been especially important to have a PR strategy in place. By leaving the boy, Michael Brown, in the street, the Ferguson Police Department made their first huge PR blunder.
The days of symbolic interactionism where, “the media presents constructs of reality that offer information from limited sources, resulting in individual and collective creations of reality (Newsom, 2012),” have changed. People create their own reality and share information with sources outside of the traditional media. Even though reports of the teen laying in the street for hours have not been confirmed by media outlets, people have already seen the screen captures of someone Tweeting about it online with the time stamp on each message that authenticate the claims.
Transparency has become a value benefit for some companies and a value demand from some consumers. Instead of transparency, the Ferguson police decided to use illicit silence by withholding the offending officer’s name, the incident report, the autopsy or any statement from the officer as to why he killed the boy who was reported by eyewitnesses to have had his hands raised in surrender. In response, protesters showed a blatant disregard for the supposed authority the department represented and marched through the streets for the past week. At first, the protests were met by police; with dogs, sniper rifles and military transport vehicles, using rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds and arresting a number of journalists in the meantime. This over-the-top response to citizens expressing their Constitutional right to assemble was met with even more outrage from the community, who began to demand for an arrest of the officer, who appears to be guilty of murder. The fact that any other person would have been arrested and given a bail, or kept in jail without bond pending a trial, for the crime of shooting a person in the head while they posed no threat, is obvious. Only the police seem to have the authority to conduct themselves with such behavior, and it is because of the complicity of the media and persuasion tools of propaganda that allow people to agree with their actions.
In conservative media outlets, the perpetuation of the “black” man as the scary, and violent, ghetto thug is a constant staple, so their response to subversive rhetoric, glittering generalities and name calling was a forgone conclusion even before video surfaced of what appears to be Michael Brown, shoplifting cigars from a convenience store and intimidating the clerk as he leaves. Afterward, the emotional stereotypes of the “ghetto thug” allowed some to reason that somehow the execution of Brown in the street was justified. Though the incident was unrelated to why the officer, Darren Wilson, stopped and eventually killed Michael 3- 4 minutes later, it was during the release of the video tape by police, that they decided to finally release the name of the officer. This is known as card-stacking which “involves selecting facts that represent one point of view, while obscuring other facts. The result is distortion or misrepresentation (Newsom, 2012).”
The indiscriminate nature in which the officer took Michael Brown’s life is reminiscent of incidents that have become too familiar in the United States. The police department because of their knee-jerk response to rally around any officer who is accused of breaking the law and the mass media which tries to excuse their illicit behavior, has no familiarity and trust in the eyes of the community in these cases. Too often, community members have felt that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. “People are unwilling to accept ideas from sources they don’t trust (Newsom, 2012).” People also identify with the victim in these cases as they witness the abuse of power and apparent militarization of local police forces to a level they have never seen before. Getting killed in the street after an apparent confrontation with police for walking in the street, plays on the “hopes, fears, desires or aspirations (Newsom, 2012)” of many others who empathize with the situation. To the protestors and many who support them, the message is clear. Police should not gun down unarmed teenagers in the street, even if they shoplifted a handful of cigars. Police shouldn’t respond to a peaceful protest armed for a military conflict either.
The fact that people are only willing to follow authority that they feel is legitimate is why during the week, the Missouri Governor transferred control of the police action in Ferguson to a Highway Patrol Captain Johnson, who is from the area. Johnson was welcomed by protestors as he chose to walk with the crowd and speak to them dressed only in his normal uniform instead of military garb.
The social validation associated with looting can be understood through the social machinations of the mob mentality. All it would take is for one person to break and window and another to run in and take something before others in the mob may be compelled to do the same thing. However, in this situation it’s interesting to note that at certain times it was local youth who stopped provocateurs from destroying property.
The PR campaign for this situation is still brewing as the police continue to delay the release of the incident report and their version of the autopsy. After witnessing what was an apparent smear campaign tactic in the release of the unrelated video, the lawyers for the family of Michael Brown released the findings of their own independent autopsy. The report suggests that as witnesses said, Brown might have been shot while holding his hands raised in surrender while kneeling. A particular set of wounds to the top of his head and above his eye which later went through his jaw suggest his head was pitched forward. Since Brown is about 6’4”, this may have only been possible if he was either bowing forward or somewhere lower to the ground with the top of his head exposed.
Some bandwagon riders, who follow the talking points of outlets like Fox, suggest that he may have been charging the police officer who was shooting at him, after first running away from the same officer, to justify the incident in favor of the police. This they say could have put the policeman in fear for his life. This scenario defies all common sense and logic however and probably represents some deep-seated bias against “black” youth that has been cultivated by a continuous smear campaign that dates back to the Constitution’s 3/5ths of a man clause.
Newsom, Turk, Kruckenberg, This is PR – The Realities of Public Relations, 11th Ed., Wadsworth Cengage, 2012