Within minutes of yesterday’s tragic shooting in Arizona, my Twitter feed filled up with dozens of Tweets blaming the mad act on Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs” target list, the Tea Party, and gun rights advocates.
To be sure, Ms. Palin’s crosshairs chart and the violent undercurrent witnessed at numerous town hall meetings contributed to an ever-coarsening political culture. But in the first moments of yesterday’s crisis, we had no idea whether any of those things had anything to do with what motivated the shooter.
Sure, the shooter might have been encouraged by Ms. Palin’s crosshairs list or been egged on by a bombastic talk show host. But he just as reasonably could have been a mentally ill 20-something experiencing a psychotic break. Speculating about his motives before his very identity was even known seems imprudent, if not irresponsible.
Regardless, the public’s rush to judgment is typical of a crisis. The public doesn’t wait for all of the facts to emerge before making up its mind. Few people refuse to form an opinion before they’ve heard from both sides. And even fewer analyze a post-incident report to consider whether there was more to the story than they originally thought.
Yesterday’s rush to judgment is instructive for companies, organizations, and public figures in the early moments of a crisis. The public tends to assign roles to players in a crisis (“good guy” or “bad guy”) almost immediately. Therefore, it’s critical for those in crisis to begin communicating the right messages instantly. Once a company, organization, or public figure is cast in the “bad guy” role, it’s nearly impossible to reverse the narrative.
Sarah Palin has already failed at this. The head of her Political Action Committee appeared on the radio yesterday, claiming that the targets in the “crosshairs” ad were not actually targets (this, despite Ms. Palin personally referring to them as “bulls-eyes”). Her spokesperson went on to suggest the shooter was actually a liberal.
There was only one thing Ms. Palin – or her spokesperson – should have said yesterday: That public figures have an obligation to use responsible language, and that all of us in the public arena need to do a better job of making sure we don’t cross any lines.
On a personal note, I lived in Tucson for several years during the early-mid 1990s, and extend my deepest sympathies to my former neighbors and friends who lost loved ones yesterday. May those still hanging on make a full recovery, and may we all have the chance to cheer when Rep. Giffords makes her triumphant return to the House floor.