How outdated police media strategy lost the Twitter-verse in Ferguson

By the time the police were able to use their pre-Twitter media relations protocol the storytelling battle was already lost

Officer Darren Wilson reacted within seconds to the threat he perceived shortly after noon on Saturday, August 9th. 

Almost a full day after the incident — at 1000 hours the next morning — Chief Jon Belmar of the St. Louis County Police Department held a press conference. Belmar explained that a Ferguson officer’s gun led to Michael Brown’s death. He said that Brown physically assaulted the officer, and during a struggle between the two, Brown reached for the officer’s gun. One shot was fired in the car followed by other gunshots outside of the car.

That would have been a classically appropriate press strategy in 1994. In 2014, everything Belmar said that Sunday morning was already irrelevant. 

Welcome to 21st Century Media Relations
Twitter — and all of its digital cousins — had already framed the story of an unarmed black teen with his hands up in surrender shot by an angry racist cop. 

The truth of the morning-after press release may be lost to history. 

It was certainly lost to the rioting crowd that evening. 

Just as Ferguson PD called in assisting agencies, there were groups waiting in the wings with fill-in-the-blank racist cop story templates that spoke to their constituents long before the voice of Chief Belmar. 

By the time the police were able to use their pre-Twitter media relations protocol, the storytelling battle was already lost. 

What price are we now willing to pay to stick to our investigative and media relations protocol? Our public not only demands information, but rejects any rational arguments we might make for delaying. 

The fear of releasing too much information too early has been replaced by the fear of having your story silenced by the kinds of tortured narrative that framed the Michael Brown story, not only for the angry crowds, but by the reporters from the mainstream media as well. 

Our PIO (public information officer) positions must be staffed or supported not just by the congenial face of Officer Friendly, but by the digital skills of Officer Nerd. 

Deep involvement by decision-makers must be shared by the crowd-sourced media experts who are shaping and monitoring the digital dialog. That online “story” sometimes springs forth within seconds of an incident. 

I didn’t say “critical incident” there,  because a police activity that a law enforcement professional would consider quite normal can be framed by someone else as “another case of misconduct.”

Police leaders need to revisit the old media relations principles of personal contact, respecting news cycles, ensuring accuracy, and pleas for patience and trust to the public. That works for CNN, but that’s not where Ferguson rioters got their information. 

Media relations in the era of Twitter and other social media all but demands that even a mid-sized department of 50 or so officers needs to have at least one person involved in the process who understands and can help navigate those online outlets. If you don’t, the job will be done for you. And you won’t like the results. 

About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults

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