After the shooting of Trayvon Martin in late February, the public was in an uproar as to how the case was being handled. Crisis communications executives with public relations firms from South Florida and across the nation shuddered at the seemingly bungled events that followed, whether by the Sanford (Florida) Police Department or the local district attorney. From TV news shows to social media outlets, the case continues to be watched closely.
For business owners and executives, it offers a valuable lesson in crisis communications management.
After seven weeks, George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who shot Martin, 17, was charged with second degree murder. Yet, from a public relations standpoint, the reputation of the Sanford Police Department suffered. Many believe the department could have done more to avoid the public scrutiny it faces today.
From the beginning, Chief Bill Lee appeared dismissive when asked about the investigation. He could have released statements that focus on what his department was doing to help with the investigation; instead he focused on how there was nothing to rebut Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense.
Then, on March 22, Lee “temporarily” stepped down from his post.
His lack of communication with the media and the public may have potentially lost him his job.
Less than a week later, the department released a statement warning members of the media to “refrain from approaching, phoning or emailing city employees when they are in their roles as private citizens…Law enforcement officials will not hesitate to make an arrest for stalking.” Crisis communication professionals balked. Threatening the media with arrest, except in situations where their presence could cause harm, generally is ill-advised. Sure enough, a day later, Sanford Police issued another statement rescinding the previous statement.
But the Sanford Police Department did manage to do one thing right. When a group of local students demonstrated outside the department, the police made no arrests. Instead of adding fuel to the fire, the police allowed the public to exercise its First Amendment rights. In the end, the students got their message across, and the police department earned some credibility for treating them respectfully.
Much remains to be done before the Trayvon Martin case comes to the close. From this point forward, though, it’s advisable for the Sanford Police Department to be responsive and transparent, to stick to the facts, and never to dismiss the chance to communicate openly and honestly with the media and the public. Such an approach certainly would have saved face for the department, and could well have saved one chief’s job.