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.