Crisis Management: A Sniper: Now What Do You Say?: Crisis Communications
During that frightening sniper case in Maryland in late 2002, one look into the anguished face of then Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose told you how daunting communications were during the hunt for the Washington area snipers. How could he reassure the public and still protect the manhunt? The three-week balancing act was just beginning to take serious heat from press and public when officers abruptly caught the suspects. For everyone, and especially residents, thankfully, it ended.
Such high-profile cases give us insights into communicating under pressure, and this episode surely pegged the stress meter. Grueling stuff.
I see two overriding lessons evidently followed by authorities:
1. It’s a team thing –Round up a cadre of your best minds to decide what to do. Don’t assume that any one person has all wisdom. I recommend a minimum of 5 or 6 people. While typical crisis communications teams usually have only three (usually COO, legal, and PR), even they rely upon technical input from inside experts for decision-making guidance. More is better.
2. Each crisis is unique – Principles should guide you, but rarely is there a magic answer since life and crises come in shades of gray. Tactics and strategies should be a blend of your best guidelines. One size does not fit all. Improvising is essential.
Speaking of principles and guidelines, here are some that applied during the reign of the sniper. Note that they sometimes contradict. That’s why you need a team to balance competing points of view.
Reassure – People want to know whether they and their loved ones are safe. Your mission is to reassure them that they are. But how do you convey security when the situation is out of your control as when the sniper was at large? The best compromise may be to regularly explain your efforts to protect people without revealing investigation-damaging information.
Don’t over-reassure – Beware of promises you can’t keep. Chief Moose meant well when he said the schools were safe only to be proved tragically wrong by the sniper’s wounding of a 13-year old arriving for classes. Avoid getting carried away with reassurance.
Tell it all and tell it now – Ordinarily, this is a good crisis motto for “getting it over with” and “not making it worse,” but it can be almost impossible to implement in complicated circumstances that require secrecy such as the sniper attack. Nevertheless, when in doubt, err toward openness rather than concealment especially if the information will almost inevitably surface later and beyond your ability to control context.
Don’t let the media drive your strategy – The public’s right to know may have to take a back seat to confidentiality and safety requirements even though the lack of disclosure may frustrate reporters. Be sure the secrecy is for the greater good and not to protect your reputation. Withholding embarrassing information will look much worse when it eventually appears. Why did you keep people in the dark? You will lose the public trust. Your rationale for secrecy must be genuine, not self-serving.
Keep all stakeholders in the loop and use the media when public safety is at stake – Stakeholder usually means an insider with a vested interest, but in cases like the sniper hunt, the public had the biggest stake of all. Give people as much as possible. I believe the decision to withhold the sniper’s notes from the public while giving them to certain local officials was a close call. Conversely, using the media to talk to the sniper, and ultimately publicize the information that triggered the almost instantaneous arrest, was vital.
Empower the public – Tell the public what they can do to protect themselves. Whether a public safety threat or a faulty product on the shelves, all of us like to know what we can do to safeguard our loved ones.
So much advice. So much to weigh. So difficult to decide. So easy to fail. My hat’s off to Chief Moose, his enforcement partners, and the news media. They pierced the veil of conflicting interests and stopped the bloodshed.