There will be many more chapters written as Americans come to terms with the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. In addition to the many ramifications of the incident and events following the grand jury’s decision, the government, law enforcement and public relations mistakes made surrounding this tragedy have been many. One of these may be a decision by Wilson to be interviewed on ABC in the midst of rioting that followed the grand jury announcement.
We often study the PR mistakes made during tragic situations. Sometimes they occur when someone in charge uses the wrong words. BP CEO Tony Hayward told a reporter, “I’d like my life back” after a 2010 rig explosion caused several workers’ deaths and the Gulf of Mexico to be overcome with crude oil. This was an example of a leader who was unprepared and inappropriate when pushed into the media spotlight.
During a hauntingly similar incident in 1989, Exxon CEO Lawrence Rawl was loudly criticized when he waited a week to react to a major oil spill in Alaska, leading The New York Times to correctly predict “…the Exxon Valdez episode will become a textbook example of what not to do when an unexpected crisis thrusts a company into the limelight.” Among its many errors, leadership waited too long to respond and blamed others for the spill and slow clean-up efforts, creating the impression that they were uncaring and callous.
Inappropriate words and poor timing can elevate a crisis. Why no one stopped Officer Wilson from being interviewed as demonstrations turned violent made little sense. His comments during the TV appearance (“The reason I have a clean conscience is that I know I did my job right”) only served to inflame the anger as did his on-air description of Brown’s last moments.
Wilson should have been advised–maybe even ordered–to stay quiet last week. What purpose was served by going public, especially as public disdain was boiling over? Was it a poor judgement? Bad PR? Your thoughts?
P.S. Just prior to this posting it was learned that Officer Darren Wilson resigned from the Ferguson Police Department.