A Crisis Unfolds. The Media Circles. What Do You Do?

Imagine it was your client, 73-year-old volunteer police officer Robert Bates, who shot and killed unarmed Eric Harris because he apparently confused his Smith & Wesson revolver with his taser. Facing manslaughter, do you let him talk to the media or not?

Big questions remain about Mr. Bates’ training and how he got the job, but the facts of the shooting are largely not in dispute. Mr. Bates’ attorney was faced with how best to gain public sympathy (read: leniency), even as he conceded the main facts of the unjustified shooting.

Many crisis experts would not allow an interview for fear of making a bad problem worse. In this case, Robert Bates’ attorney gambled and put his client on the “Today Show.” Was it the right call? While there are many best practices and even more opinions, the truth is there are few hard and fast rules and you need to evaluate each situation on its own. Weighing the pros/cons is what communications professionals must decide when facing a crisis.

A “no comment” would not generate favorable opinion and is often heard by the public as “guilty.” Though safe, a written comment would not engender much sympathy either. The attorney also could have done the interview himself to protect his client from making a legally damaging gaffe.

Mr. Bates quickly apologized, but went right to saying the shooting was “the second-worst thing that’s ever happened to me … {after} cancer.” To me, it came off as insensitive and callous by focusing on his own problems instead of the problems he caused for others. It brings to mind BP CEO Tony Hayward griping, “I’d like my life back,” after his company’s mistakes caused devastating damage to the environment and took the life of 11 BP employees.

As the interview progressed, however, the dynamic changed. Flanked by his visibly distraught daughters and wife, Mr. Bates appeared to hold back tears as he talked about his fatal mistake. I suspect the attorney gave “Today” the exclusive in return for insisting Mr. Bates be allowed to appear alongside his family. He looked remorseful and vulnerable. It was hard not to have at least some empathy watching this made-for-TV stagecraft.

What NBC viewers did not see during the interview was Mr. Harris’ family or their grief. They only saw replays of video showing a man running from the police and appearing to resist arrest before the fatal shots. In contrast to a remorseful looking Mr. Bates, the late Mr. Harris was reduced to a one-dimensional caricature who broke the law. So if Mr. Bates’ attorney wanted to change some of the narrative and make his client appear more sympathetic, I believe he succeeded in that instance. Far less clear is whether media coverage will have any bearing on sentencing.

So what’s the crisis communications lesson here? Every crisis situation is unique and high stakes interviews offer real risks and potential rewards. Once cameras are rolling anything can happen. While I tend to be on the more proactive and aggressive side with wanting my clients to tell their own stories (pre-empting others from filling a void), the real answer about what to do in a future crisis is … it depends.

John F. Fitzpatrick co-manages Stratacomm and offers clients crisis and media relations counsel among other services.

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