Crisis comms: Saying nothing is the worst strategy

An enduring lesson for public safety leadership in recent years is that the public wants and expects accurate information, transparency


It has been more than a week since mass protests and riots erupted in dozens of cities in the U.S. in response to the death of George Floyd.

In the days that followed, public safety leaders expressed their grief for Floyd, condemnation of the four former officers, and discussed their department’s commitment to justice, fairness and service on all available channels.

The “Police Chief Letter to the Community” on Facebook was so ubiquitous I cynically suspected an organized crisis communications effort. My cynicism was tempered by the sincerity of the letters, the conciliatory tone that we must do better and the universal contempt for the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck and is now facing second-degree murder charges.

Police officers take a knee alongside protesters who took over the elevated Interstate 10 during a march in New Orleans, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Police officers take a knee alongside protesters who took over the elevated Interstate 10 during a march in New Orleans, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Honestly, I was taken aback by how quickly and widely public safety leaders – especially chiefs, sheriffs and front-line personnel – issued statements condemning the officers, explaining how the arrest violated use-of-force standards and inviting cops to “turn in their badge” if they saw nothing wrong in the video. I was also taken to task, fairly, in comments and emails for my tiptoeing around the cause of Floyd’s death.

Who we are and what we believe

I have read many chiefs’ letters to the community posted to social media channels in the last week. I have yet to find a statement that struck me as tone-deaf or disrespectful. Many of the statements led me through a wave of emotions from grief to somberness to inspiration. Amid two global crises, I see in these leaders a conviction and sincerity I aspire to as a leader.

Perhaps the worst strategy for any department in the past 10 days is to say nothing and do nothing. An enduring lesson for public safety leadership in recent years is that the public wants and expects accurate information, transparency and assurance specific actions will be taken.

There is a formula or recipe for these significant event statements:

  • What happened in a high-profile incident
  • Who we are as a department (and that incident is not who we are)
  • What we believe in as a department (our values and mission)
  • How we hire, train, supervise and discipline our members
  • Why hiring, training and beliefs define our culture (without culture we can’t accomplish our mission)
  • What the consequences are for policy and culture violations (disrespecting the culture compromises the ability to deliver the mission)

Its perfectly acceptable to follow a formula in crisis communication, as long as the words are sincere and reflect the department’s actions and the community’s perceptions of the department’s personnel.

Walk the talk

Actions must match words. The only thing worse than a department chief making no statement is a statement misaligned with the department’s record of service.

Actions always inform perception. The actions, whether in the field, in training or in the station by leaders and personnel, are for multiple stakeholders, including:

  • Peers
  • Subordinates
  • Citizens
  • Policymakers

Many leaders, especially in law enforcement, have been recognized (and excoriated) for kneeling, embracing, walking, praying or talking with protestors. In my opinion, you’ve got to walk the talk. Great leaders don’t hide from engagement with their stakeholders, but they also don’t preen. Humility, calmness and openness to others are admirable and contagious.

Impactful actions

Our society is facing enormous challenges and I can neither capture those problems in a list nor do I know the solutions. But I do know these actions are always impactful.

  • Show you care about the people you serve and serve with.
  • Welcome connections with others outside of your circle.
  • Take pride in your actions, words and appearance.
  • Express gratitude for the people who help you or lift you up.
  • Ensure the person next to you, behind you, across from you or under you gets to go home.

The continuing loss of life

I am disgusted, grieving and largely without words for the mass violence in the days since Floyd’s death. The seriously injured public safety personnel who have been attacked by rioters trouble me deeply. Though, in the face of danger and hostility, my admiration rises for everyone in a public safety uniform who is doing their absolute best to bring order to chaos, care for their neighbors and serve with honor.

NEXT: What police should & should not be doing on social media right NOW

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