Develop communications strategies that match the unfolding situation and the variety of interested media.
The course of the conflict may depend in part on the media/communications strategy developed in the first hours after leaders first become aware of the problems. The first interview clip may be played again and again, potentially exciting negative emotions each time. As CRS Director Grande Lum has observed, “How the information is explained and made public has a great impact on reducing the potential for community disruption.”
Every aspect of de-escalating a conflict and moving to positive solutions depends on an effective media/communications strategy. That strategy will affect whether people know that their concerns will be addressed through a process, their levels of emotion, their trust in their leaders, their confidence in law enforcement, and their ability to work together as a community in the future. Thus, the group that develops the media/communications strategy should take into account these aspects in their strategy.
The protocols need to avoid confusion among local officials. Sanford, Florida’s City Manager Norton Bonaparte, reflecting on the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting, said, “We need to not only get the story out accurately, but we also need to determine who is the appropriate person to get the story out. Find out who has the information, who can distill that information, and who should be the one to disseminate it. It’s important that everyone has the same story and understands the city’s position and legal obligations so that you are prepared whenever the media stops you on the street.”
Communications by others may also affect the course of the conflict. Leaders can develop a strategy for dealing with them, though they do not control them. Many of these persons care about averting violence, for example, and, if reminded, will be open to including admonitions about peaceful responses in their statements. The communications strategy might also include plans for events at which people express emotions and listen to each other. Increasingly, the strategy must incorporate ways to deal with social media and with national media outlets. The perception broadcast by national media may not fit how local residents experience the conflict. In Baltimore, for example, in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, one national media outlet featured an evening-long countdown to the implementation of a city-wide curfew, though the Baltimore streets were largely empty and local media had moved on to other stories.
RESOURCES FOR DEVELOPING COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES
- Public Conversations Project, Constructive Conversations About Challenging Times: A Guide to Community Dialogue, Public Conversations Project (Sept. 1, 2011).
- Maggie Herzig & Laura Chasin, Fostering Dialogue Across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide From the Public Conversations Project, Public Conversations Project (Jan. 1 2006).
- Immediately convene a media/communications strategy meeting. It should include communications professionals (including those accustomed to dealing with the national media), those who understand the sensitivities regarding the conflict, those who have experience in other such community-wide conflicts (perhaps the intervenor), and key public officials, including law enforcement. Questions for this group include:
- Who should speak to the media and in other settings?
- How can the communications convey that the public official understands the importance of the situation
- Should law enforcement have a separate spokesperson from the other local government spokesperson?
- Who decides what will be said?
- What additional resources will be needed if national media become interested?
- How can each audience be reached (social media, websites, faith leaders, for example)?
- How should local leaders stay in touch with each regional or national advocacy group that may become involved?
- What should be done to learn about and control false rumors?
- Develop events and meetings that allow people to express emotions positively and also help people listen and learn.
- A carefully planned event, such as a memorial service or peaceful demonstration, allows people to express their emotions safely. Absent such events, people may choose unproductive ways to vent emotions. “When people become angry, the natural response is to do something aggressive: punch something, kick something, say something mean,” said Brad Bushman, Professor of Communication and Psychology, The Ohio State University. “And after venting, about 75 percent of people say they feel better, which is right – they do. But what they don’t realize is that the good feeling is fleeting and reinforces the destructive behavior.”
- Town hall events may be productive or destructive for similar reasons. Thus, it may be helpful to seek an intervenor’s help to arrange a productive dialogue that offers those who participate the opportunity to:
- Listen and be listened to so that all speakers can be heard
- Speak and be spoken to in a respectful manner
- Develop or deepen mutual understanding
- Learn about the perspectives of others and reflect on one’s own views
Thomas Battles, CRS Conciliator and Regional Director, suggests being creative in setting up such events: “Tap nontraditional resources. Get Radio DJ’s, athletes, corner leaders and others to control the crowd and give them a chance to talk the language and give everyone a chance to voice their concerns.”
- To increase public confidence, public officials may decide to become more aggressively open in decision-making and in explanations about decisions.
- Social media offer new challenges in the midst of civil unrest. Thus, public officials may want to establish ways to monitor social media, as well as to communicate through social media and websites.
- Be precise in describing those committing unlawful actions that occur in the context of civil unrest. Painting with too broad a brush the actions of individuals that violate the law (“These protestors are criminals.”) can alienate and embitter law-abiding residents with the same views.
- It may be feasible to develop messages that most leaders and involved parties can subscribe to even if they disagree regarding the desired outcome of the conflict and promote dissemination of these messages. Gwen Whiting of Everyday Democracy, a nonprofit that sometimes helps with community conflict, explains it this way: “There needs to be a unifying voice of all parties. Not necessarily a unity of message (one message will not work for all people) but a unity of voice.”
- Develop an inter-faith task force and other task forces of people trusted by diverse stakeholders within the community. These task force members can be briefed thoroughly and then asked to communicate with their audiences.
- Determine the “flash points” that can raise tensions, and develop communication strategies to deal with them. For example, CRS Director Grande Lum summarized CRS views of predictable points of tension in conflict precipitated by police use of force: “1) initial incident, 2) initial law enforcement response, 3) media coverage, 4) protests, rallies and marches, 5) investigations, 6) results of investigations, 7) youth response, 8) collateral incidents, 9) trial or court decisions, 10) anniversaries.”
- When there are issues involving race, consider how leaders should discuss them. Hilary Shelton, Senior Vice President for Advocacy, NAACP, offers this advice: “People are sometimes afraid to take on the issue of race and racial tension even though we know it exists and must be addressed. For city and town officials, it is key not to hesitate and to deal with these crucial issues from the outset. Our officials must work to understand how to best manage these extremely important conversations. A major issue in bringing solutions to these challenges is preparing in advance for these instances.”
The 2015 murders of a prominent AfricanAmerican minister and state representative and eight other African-American individuals attending a Bible study group at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, brought to the consciousness of many that some segments of society continue to harbor racial hatred. Almost immediately, the President, South Carolina Governor, and Charleston Mayor held press conferences in which each expressed grief about the deaths and their understandings that the murders raised broader concerns about racism in society that must be addressed. Congress and South Carolina legislators held prayer vigils. Thus, media coverage included these statements that framed the issue broadly and expressed compassion. Officials expedited investigations and communications. The police chief held a news conference within 30 minutes of arresting the prime suspect. The U.S. Attorney General held a press conference to announce a federal investigation as well.
A memorial service at Emanuel AME Church, addressed by the President and covered by the media, provided a prominent event for expression of emotions. The South Carolina legislature expedited legislation to remove the Confederate flag, taking one clear first step responsive to these broader concerns.
In an interview with PBS, U.S. Representative James Clyburn, an African-American active in civil rights throughout his career, reiterated the larger issue of racism by some that remains to be addressed by the nation, but also reflected that that the sanctuary was racially diverse during the memorial service and expressed his belief that it evidenced a community coalescing, a joint approach that would serve the nation well as it addresses issues of racism in the future.
Sanford, Florida “hired a public relations firm so that the city could respond to media requests in a timely way…. Sanford [also] needed a means to control rumors. By the time Zimmerman’s trial occurred in 2013, the local clergy had formed an association, Sanford Pastors Connecting, that met regularly, and the Sanford Police Department, CRS, and the County Sheriff’s Office reserved seats in the courtroom that could be rotated among members of that association. The pastors could provide information to members that would be trusted….”
– Andrew Thomas in N. Rogers, When Conflicts Polarize Communities, 30 Ohio St. J. on Disp. Resol. 173 (2015).