PR lessons learned from BART

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 14:  Oakland Police offi...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Could the Bay Area Rapid Transit have found a better way to manage the public relations disaster that was the shooting of an unarmed black man? This is up for debate—BART says no, PR professionals interviewed for the Contra Costa Times say yes—but thanks to the proliferation of shooting footage on YouTube, the question bears examination.

What the PR pros say

The first press release took BART 2 ½ hours after the shooting to produce. This was enough, argue the PR pros, to make community members think a cover-up was going on. Why? Because they’d already seen the video on YouTube. Posted multiple times within minutes of the incident, the video showed all its viewers felt they needed to know.

BART was also, the pros noted, too slow to disclose that Officer Johannes Mehserle had declined to be interviewed the night of the incident. A faster response and better details were two strategies they felt should have been employed.

In its own defense, BART argued that the information they were receiving was constantly changing. Furthermore, just one media relations officer was on call that morning (they have since revised policy to make it two). And, they pointed out, legal issues made it difficult to comment on an ongoing investigation.

Viral vs. chain of command

The PR pros seemed certain that BART had acted with no strategy on how to deal with a crisis incident, but I wonder whether this is true. Government hierarchy—chain of command—is how most police departments deal with emergencies.

The alternative is to “empower” shift commanders and supervisors, even media relations personnel, to provide information themselves. Who wants to take responsibility for wrong information, or worse, for jeopardizing a criminal investigation?

Yet the fact remains that 2 ½ hours was just long enough for community members to start believing that BART was “stonewalling.” Police leaders therefore need to figure out a better strategy than relying on chain of command in critical incidents. Trust those lower on the chain to get information out there that is both accurate and appropriate? Prevent communication breakdowns altogether by developing strong long-term relationships with community members? Some combination of the two?

Most important is to keep the goal in mind: adapt to the increasing public expectation for on-demand information and dialogue.

Enhanced by Zemanta

9 thoughts on “PR lessons learned from BART

  1. SpartanCops

    I am no expert at media relations for the police department but I have attended a few open discussions about managing the media after a major incident. It appears that like corporations, police departments are still behind the curve when it comes to the speed that information can travel and backlash can build with current technology. Most public information officers are used to dealing with the traditional media and are familiar with how to manage them. The game has changed and the old rules don’t apply anymore. This incident is a perfect example.

    I don’t have a great solution but trial and error. If it doesn’t work, don’t try it again. Copy those that have success. Ask for advice from those with experience in this environment. This website is a perfect start.

  2. Christa Miller Post author

    Thanks for coming by. Your insight, “Most public information officers are used to dealing with the traditional media and are familiar with how to manage them” is a good one – there are “rules of engagement” between the two, which create some tension. The best PIOs and reporters build a relationship to the extent that they can respect each other’s jobs.

    In the 2.0 environment, it’s still about relationship-building, only now the PIO or community relations officer needs to think about how to build them with the people who used to be only the reporter’s audience. In fact, in a true 2.0 environment, more than one officer would be involved… though I suspect this is a ways off for most departments.

    All in all, I wonder if the cornerstone needs to be “relationship” rather than “information” or control thereof. Thoughts?

  3. SpartanCops

    Excellent point that this issue revolves around relationships. I believe that in this situation the PIO could not stem the wave of anger or the disorder that followed. It did not matter how quickly he put out a press release or how much information he disclosed because he was not credible in their eyes.

    Web 2.0 sells itself on genuine dialogue that builds stronger relationships. Relationships that go deeper than the point man for the department, the PIO. Time and experience will show which aspects of 2.0 work and which don’t.

    By the way, I thought the PIO for BART, Linton Johnson, was excellent. I saw him in several news shows and he did an excellent job passing on the department message and explaining that this was a tragedy for both Grant’s family and the Mehserle’s family.

    I wrote a post on our blog,, that gives the facts and shows videos of the shooting. You can watch the PIO in the second video from the top. I keep this post updated with new information as it occurs.

    One thing the BART PIO might have tried was to post some video responses to the YouTube videos. Since most people were getting their information from that source, they should have put their message out in that same format.

  4. Christa Miller Post author

    That begs the question, how much can relationship-building with more community members than the press actually head off misunderstandings? Obviously there will always be protest over how the police do things, but I wonder if it is possible to at least get to the point where most people will trust the PD to do the right thing?

  5. Spartan Cops

    I believe that building relationships with the influencial stakeholders in the community will often help defuse or contain many situations. Those relationships should be in place before the powder keg blows up.

    People don’t trust the PD or government or any entity. They can only trust the individual people in them.

  6. Pingback: Cops 2.0 » Blog Archive » Information or relationship?

  7. philosophicalcop

    I think the BART incident is not the best example of what you are trying to say here. I think the public information release was remarkably expedient, given the nature of the incident. I work for a fairly large department, and I can assure you that 2.5 hours is impressive(ly fast)!

    Also, recall that a small percentage of the population is truly concerned about an incident like this one. The rest of the “protests” are actually manifestations of decades of frustration with the police, not this one occurrence. There is no PR strategy for this larger problem. Groups that have generational hatred of the police, for whatever reason (a separate sociological discussion, to be sure) will not be quieted by the perfect PR strategy in ANY one incident.

  8. Christa Miller Post author

    Philosophical, I agree with you that for a PD, 2.5 hours is fast. And that there are deeper social problems between police and some groups than PR will ever solve.

    But the fact that people today (especially young people) expect news faster than 2.5 hours is critical to PDs’ future success. Police have the opportunity to at least start to repair those social problems by talking to young people on their wavelength–social media–in the timeframe and the manner that other organizations do. If they don’t adapt, they will quickly lose ground.

    I see Gen Y genuinely wanting to make a difference in the world. They believe in the power of social media to help them do it. Maybe they can’t change their parents’ or grandparents’ attitude toward police. But they can, and want to, change their own. (Just look at Barack Obama’s success using new media. Whether or not you like him, his message of change transmitted across these new wires struck a very deep chord in people. They’re tired of business as usual. They want communication.)

    With BART, you could look at young people’s protesting as just “more of the same.” Or… you could look at it in the context of their protests against other things. They are asking for information. They want to understand. They want to fix what’s wrong. They seek collaboration with authority to do it. That’s a striking counterpoint to their parents, the boomers, who protested *against* authority in all forms. These kids know that didn’t work. So now they want to make it better.

    Police really do have a unique opportunity here. Will they take it?

  9. Pingback: Cops 2.0 » Blog Archive » What Gen Y means to law enforcement

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge