Agree on a Concrete Plan for Communication and Outreach During the First Hours and Days of Civil Unrest
- Identify potential intervenors (depending on the conflict) with conflict resolution expertise and experience in volatile community conflicts to advise the management team and begin discussions with stakeholders on a process for solving underlying problems (not just the incident illuminating these problems). Calling the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service may be a first step when the crisis seems near but it also helps to compile a list of names of local intervenors to draw on for expanding CRS capacity and staying on after CRS conciliators must move on to the next community crisis.
- Create a list of groups/segments of the community that might have a stake in a conflict or can be a resource for resolving it, identify the decision-makers for these groups, and set up a process so that these persons are engaged with public officials and each other. This list should include not only likely protagonists in a future conflict but also bridge-builders such as inter-faith leaders, civic, business and bar leaders, and youth leaders.
- Train key public officials to employ effective communication and action strategies in the midst of a potentially polarizing situation so as to maintain public trust. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service might be a source for this training. The training points might include how to:
- Demonstrate an understanding of the needs and concerns of all of those involved;
- Characterize the problem in a way that gets to the heart of the problem, not just the most recent incident;
- Show the involvement of a diverse group of people in the decision-making;
- Explain decisions more clearly than usual and convey the information in ways that reach all parts of the community;
- Expedite investigations and decisions to respond to the urgency that is felt by segments of the community; and
- Avoid communications that further polarize, such as generalizing behaviors of some individuals to an entire group.
- Encourage public officials to develop a protocol between law enforcement and other leaders for on-going consultation and decision-making during civil unrest. Police officers must react quickly in the midst of civil unrest and must have discretion to deal with ongoing challenges, but planning beforehand can put all city officials on the same page in terms of approach. For example, if a demand concerns adequate provision for the homeless, and a number of homeless people are camping out on a city property, city officials dealing with social services for the homeless might meet with code enforcement and police counterparts and decide to delay code enforcement and ejection procedures for 60 days to create a window for the social services officials to relocate those living in make-shift structures. Or recreations officials might agree that police officers will offer recreational services, such as a youth basketball league, as a means of enhancing police-community relations during a tense period.
- Set up a media/communications strategy for civil unrest.
- A working group should be identified that will include communications professionals (including those accustomed to dealing with the national media and social media), those who understand the sensitivities regarding the conflict, those who have experience in other such community-wide conflicts (drawing on the experience of the intervenor), and key public officials, including law enforcement
- Build necessary relationships among the public agencies that will be involved – police fire, mayor, etc. – for sharing information and coordinating responses.
- Build the necessary relationships between community leaders who have the potential to help defuse the conflict by speaking with their own constituencies.
- Create a key stakeholders group that can set up avenues of continuing communications and agree on disseminating a single message regarding how the community will resolve its differences.
- Consider how to reach each audience effectively in order to:
- Maintain/enhance community trust in public officials.
- Help the public understand the issues and the reasons for differing views on them.
- Offer a message that all segments of the community can embrace and that reaffirms community values.
- Identify spokespersons, considering whether the spokespersons reflect the diversity of the community.
- Identify public officials who can work to re-establish patterns of normalcy, such a regular traffic and bus operations and trash pickup, as much as possible for the residents of the community.
- Identify persons who can take the lead on developing plans and spaces for allowing residents to air grievances peacefully.
- Identify how public officials can locate and hire intervenors who can manage long-term discussions to develop plans for dealing with the concerns that led to the unrest.
WHY TAKE THIS STEP?
Public officials make crucial decisions during the first few hours of civil unrest. Each week that follows also involves decision-making that affects the long range outcomes. Planning ahead with respect to each of the items above can result in maintaining public trust, beginning a process for dealing effectively with underlying concerns, engaging the right people from the start, establishing a consistent approach among law enforcement, community relations officials and others, and communicating accurately, clearly, and effectively through regular as well as social media rather than leaving communications to the rumor mill. Prepared and effective local leaders also reinforce the expectations of the public that their community can deal with community divisions without becoming destructive, violent, or polarized. This, in turn, feeds the positive community problem-solving practices discussed in Planning Step 6.
RESOURCES FOR DEVELOPING CONCRETE PLANS
- Divided Community Project, Key Considerations for Community Leaders Facing Civil Unrest: Effective Problem-Solving Strategies That Have Been Used in Other Communities (Ohio State University Moritz College of Law 2016).
- Kitchen Table Democracy (fka National Policy Consensus Center).
- Practical Guide to Consensus.
- Community Science.
- Civil Rights Mediation Oral History Project.
- Susan L. Carpenter & W.J.D. Kennedy, Managing Public Disputes: A Practical Guide for Government, Business, and Citizens’ Groups (2001).
MORE DETAIL ON THESE STRATEGIES
Even in the first days following civil unrest, public officials need, in addition to dealing with the immediate concerns, to begin the efforts to deal with the underlying problems, often by bringing in an intervenor who can institute a collaborative process. The Divided Community Project has written a separate document, Key Considerations for Community Leaders Facing Civil Unrest (2016), that counsels in more depth how leaders should deal with civil unrest after it occurs.