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Essay: The Anatomy of a Communications Crisis in Baltimore

Once again, the nation hurts as we watch one of our great cities burn and decades of social and civil injustice in Baltimore erupts in civil unrest. There are a number of things that should have been done long ago to lessen the systemic social and economic challenges of “the other Baltimore.” However, there is more that could have been done in the immediate aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death—another unarmed black man killed while in the grips of police officers sworn to protect us.

Officials should have communicated swiftly guided by the principles of honesty, candor and transparency rather than delay, deflect, and denial. Said another way? Tell it all, and tell it all right now.

In moments of crisis, there is a mantra that says we should engage in “maximum disclosure with minimum delay.” This means sharing all that we are legally allowed to disclose in order to inform and reassure the public that everything is being done to resolve the issue, whether it’s a plane crash, a data breach, or yet another apparent incident of officers bringing undue harm to a citizen.

“Maximum disclosure” isn’t just about what we know. It’s also about what we don’t know, why we don’t know it, and the process being used to fill in the blanks and get answers.

Unfortunately, the record provides us with too many recent episodes that serve as case studies for the right way and the wrong way to communicate in the immediate aftermath of these types of events.

On one end, we have the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, where the officer responsible for his death was kept in hiding, and no information on the incident was released for weeks concerning the moment in which Brown lost his life.

Every bit of this episode in Ferguson was handled inappropriately, and only after the Justice Department intervened did we begin to get real answers.

The reaction: weeks of peaceful protests, but also violent civil unrest in the streets of Ferguson. Darren Wilson, the officer who pulled the trigger, walked away with no indictment, and the community continues to ask why and how this happened.

We have eerily similar circumstances in the Eric Garner case in Staten Island, New York. Despite the presence of video footage of Garner being choked to death by a police officer, the investigation is carried out in secrecy, just as in Ferguson, hidden behind the veil of a grand jury investigation. The officer goes into hiding, the city and the police department says nothing of substance, and the offending officer walks away.

The reaction: fortunately in this case, weeks of peaceful protests with no violence, but still the profound concern that the people were grossly disrespected due to a lack of candor and disclosure from authorities.

Baltimore Mayor: 'We Will Get Justice For Freddie Gray' 3:04

Communicating effectively in these moments is more reflex than planning, and if that muscle has rarely been used, the response will be weak and ineffective.

Among those that got it right include North Charleston, South Carolina where Walter Scott, while running away from an officer after a minor traffic stop, was shot nine times in the back; and Cleveland, Ohio, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice, playing with a toy BB gun in a park, was killed within three seconds of police arriving on the scene.

Both were African American males. Both killings were ruled as a homicide or murder. Both officers were fired from the force, and a broader investigation was launched by higher authorities.

In each case, swift action was taken by authorities against the officers, and the findings and actions taken were immediately communicated to the public. The goals met in each case were getting to justice while also maintaining the public trust. That is rarely accomplished when done in secret.

And then there is Baltimore where nearly a month after the death of Freddie Gray, we still wait for answers. We’re also told that once the findings in this case are turned over to state investigators, information might be delayed even further.

This is a communications crisis that could lead to more chaos.

Because of the rampant social and economic injustice that occupies West Baltimore, we will never know if the events of this week could have been avoided. However, what we do know is that more could have been done to disclose what we know about the death of Freddie Gray. “Maximum disclosure” isn’t just about what we know. It’s also about what we don’t know, why we don’t know it, and the process being used to fill in the blanks and get answers.

This is a communications crisis that could lead to more chaos.

Baltimore has seen a number of these types of events in recent years and has paid out multi-million dollar settlements to the wounded and afflicted. Rarely if ever have officials felt the need to communicate proactively about the facts in these cases, the conduct of the investigations, or the terms of their settlements. Communicating effectively in these moments is more reflex based on solid planning, and if that muscle has rarely been used, the response will be weak and ineffective.

I’m tired of seeing our black men being killed by “peace officers” across this country. I’m tired of seeing our cities burn. I’m tired of the question, “What now?” and the limp immediate response, or worse, deafening silence that follows.

However, our officials and leaders could do better in the moment to allow the principles of honesty, candor and transparency, rather than secrecy and obfuscation, guide their responses. Our broader community would be the better for it.