In my last blog, I spoke about the court of public opinion and how your constitutional rights tend to vanish when you're in the limelight. We're seeing another case study being played out in the recent shooting incident in Florida.
The public concern here is that the shooting was racially motivated and that the local police seem to be giving the shooter a pass under Florida's self-defense law. Since the suspect is not being tried in a court of law, he is now being tried in the court of public opinion.
What makes this interesting from a crisis management perspective is the way social media has been used to fuel public outrage. I first heard of the incident not on the news but on Facebook and each day brings more information about what people are doing to express their concern for justice. It is a reminder of the power of social media to mobilize communities and a reminder that you need to counter a social media campaign immediately.
Unfortunately, the facts of the case as reported in the media are not as straight forward as these various groups would have you believe. There is physical evidence and several eyewitnesses that suggest that an altercation might have taken place. It may well be the case that there are insufficient grounds to prosecute the shooter, who is, of course, innocent until proven guilty.
However, constitutional rights are irrelevant here. The local police were unable to convince the public that they had done a thorough investigation and that there was insufficient evidence to charge the shooter thereby sparking the social media campaign. The use of the hoodie provides a strong visual image that is resonating across the country.
The court of public opinion has already decided that the shooter must stand trial, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. This public outcry has already sparked two separate investigations and we may yet see the shooter brought to trial.
It will be interesting to see what happens if the investigations reach the same conclusions as the local police.
"Your lawyers may be giving you sensible advice, to stay quiet and not make a move. That will work in court. But it will kill you with the public."
This quote is from a recent article by my former boss, Willie L. Brown, Jr., who is, among his many other talents, a weekly columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Mayor Brown was speaking in reference to the case of our recently-elected Sheriff who has pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment and now faces removal from office. Brown's point is that if you're in the public eye, the rules are different. Brown reminds us, "when...you stand accused in the court of public opinion, all your constitutional rights go out the window."
Willie Brown is no stranger to controversy, having served for eighteen years in our State legislature and as Mayor of San Francisco for two four-year terms. One of the many lessons I learned from him as his Director of Emergency Services is that you have to counter controversy immediately and truthfully. If you screwed up, you will be found out and the story will no longer be about the screw up but about your attempts to cover it up. You're always better off coming clean immediately by providing the facts and what you plan to do to correct the problem. This is counter to the advice you usually get from your attorney.
When you're dealing with crisis, the rules are different and what normally works for you in court or in public information briefings may not work in crisis situations. All the more reason to have a crisis communications plan that pre-identifies your team of advisers. You're going to need them.
We spend a lot of time trying to define the differences between emergencies, disasters and catastrophes and with good reason. We know that there are qualitative differences between events that influence how we respond. But that's the big picture - the strategic level. It's easy to forget that at the victim level, disasters are relative. It's all about how it affects me, the victim.
I was reminded of this yesterday. We had a couple of minor earthquakes in the Bay Area along the very active Hayward fault. The temblors occurred early in the morning and only minor damage was reported. I slept through most of it.
Later that evening, we had a minor power interruption in San Francisco that affected 6000+ customers for an hour. Which do you think had the most impact on those people in the outage zone? Everyone was talking about the earthquake but this minor outage probably affected more people directly.
So the point to remember is that there are no "minor" emergencies from the victim's perspective. We need to watch how we refer to events and make sure that our response is driven by need and not just magnitude.