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Ferguson & The Power Of An Effective Spokesman in Crisis Management

Author: Mike Kuczkowski

The events in Ferguson, Mo., last week have not been a proud moment for America.

On Aug. 9, a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old. Since then, the world has seen pictures of protests, looting, and confrontations with police. The police — armed with military-grade rifles, body armor, and mine-resistant vehicles — have been criticized for a ‘militarized’ response. Disputes hang over the details of the shooting itself. (Vox has a good summary.) Debates about the state of race and justice in our country have become front-page news, yet again.

Against this backdrop, Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, has given a master class in what it means to be an effective spokesperson when managing a crisis.

In our experience, being an effective spokesperson is a combination of art and science. There are elements that can be evaluated objectively, such as the use of key messages and proof points, taking questions, and maintaining credibility as a voice and source of authority. There are also things like tone, style, and body language that contribute strongly to one’s effectiveness, and are harder to quantify. In a way, giving the press briefing in a crisis situation is a performance art.

We reviewed the press conferences held Friday by Ferguson Mo. Police Chief Tom Jackson, whose officer was involved in the fatal shooting, and Johnson, who was dispatched to Ferguson by Gov. Jay Nixon to maintain order in Ferguson.

Key Dimensions of an Effective Crisis Management Spokesperson

Here’s a breakdown of how they did on what we believe are key dimensions of effective spokesperson-ship:

                                  Missouri State Highway Patrol
Capt. Ronald S. Johnson
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson
Demeanor Calm Calm
Body language Stands with confidence at podium, shoulders square Dons reading glasses, holds paper at a distance
First comment “Good afternoon. If you can’t hear me, I’ll step out into the crowd a little bit.” “I brought some notes this time, so I’d get it right.”
Engagement Invites community to come closer, takes questions, listens Says he will not take questions
Messaging Has key messages, the goal of maintaining people’s right to free speech while maintaining peace. Offers proof points to bolster argument that things are going well. No key messages, says he is responding to information requests, creates confusion by releasing name of officer involved in shooting and tape of robbery simultaneously
Accessibility 39:56 minute press conference, takes questions 4:30 minute press conference, no questions
Tone Clear, accessible, candid Technical, language pulled from police reports
Control Shares control of briefing with other leaders and with protestors Maintains firm control throughout

SOURCE: Orangefiery analysis

Johnson is a voice of calm in an extremely tense situation. He listens. He uses effective messaging. He is patient. He doesn’t hide his own concerns or dissatisfaction. He’s real.

The irony is, by ceding control of the flow of the press briefing, Johnson establishes himself as the person most in control of the conversation.

Both in front of and away from the podium, Johnson has used symbolism to his advantage. He has walked amid protestors, cameras in tow, earning their trust. At his Friday press briefing, when asked what people should do, he related a story he told his daughter about Jesus and Peter in the New Testament, urging people to have faith.

He’s also disarmingly candid. At Chief Jackson’s press conference, where he released the name of the police officer involved in the shooting along with a 19-page police report about a robbery in which the victim was apparently a suspect — a move that mixed two unrelated issues — Johnson said “I would have liked to have been consulted.”

He didn’t have to be that honest. In fact, there’s risk in him doing so. If he’s not being consulted, how can he have any real influence? Yet by highlighting an area where things did not go as he expected, he showed he could handle the situation calmly and rationally without turning angry.

This realness makes Johnson credible and trustworthy, which is exactly what the community of Ferguson needs at this moment — a credible, trustworthy leader with a badge. It’s telling to note that Johnson is originally from the Ferguson area, and his knowledge and empathy for the people there is evident. The fact that Johnson, like the victim and many of the protestors, is African-American may be a comfort to some locally. Any critics who point to his race as a source of his authority and effectiveness are simply wrong.

Johnson has managed to increase trust with the community and reduce tensions. He’s earned widespread praise by media organizations, including a piece in The New York Times.

The Impact of a Crisis Management Spokesperson

A good spokesperson isn’t going to make a crisis go away, and outcomes in Ferguson are still uncertain. But an effective spokesperson in a crisis can improve communication, increase information flow, ease tensions, and bring clarity to situations where confusion could be a spark for violence. More importantly, by executing the role of a spokesperson well, Johnson is bringing a level of calm to a volatile situation. He’s giving the people of Ferguson evidence that a person in uniform will listen, at a moment when people feel at odds with the police.

Ferguson is still in a state of unrest, and it’s impossible to predict how things will resolve themselves. Sunday, Johnson had to backpedal on his open stance, as a 5-hour curfew was imposed. Still, by maintaining a posture of firmness, empathy, and engagement, he greatly increases the odds that things in Ferguson will improve, something the whole world would like to see.

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