Help A Reader: Should I Use One Spokesperson Or Many?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 21, 2015 – 5:06 am

A reader dealing with some changes within her organization recently wrote in with the following concern:

“Up until now, when we received a media inquiry, designated staff members would decide who would be the ‘spokesperson’ based on the type of inquiry and availability of spokespersons. If it was a general or simple inquiry, we might be the best spokesperson. If it was a complex or technical inquiry, a subject matter expert might be a better choice. Of course, we would choose a trained, capable spokesperson and provide additional coaching if needed. All this would be done on a case-by-case basis.

Now, leadership wants there to be one spokesperson for the agency. There could be a backup if that person is unavailable, but the push is to designate [that person] as the agency spokesperson. Subject matter experts will no longer be able to do interviews…

We have a crisis and non-crisis mode. It seems our leadership wants this new model to be used in both instances. I have advised them that it would be difficult to respond to multiple media inquiries when you have only one spokesperson, whether you are in a crisis or it’s business as usual. Also, that one spokesperson may not be knowledgeable enough to respond to reporters who require more background or technical expertise. Their response? They feel it is more important for the public to know, when they see that designated spokesperson, they know he/she is speaking for this agency.”

cut off excess

Your management is right that having a single spokesperson can lead to an increase in brand recognition, and some companies that have or have had a single spokesperson (e.g. Steve Jobs, Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, chicken magnate Frank Purdue) benefitted from an immediate connection between spokesperson and brand. I understand the appeal of providing the public with a sense of continuity, a single person who gains credibility with an audience over time by becoming a more familiar (and hopefully trustworthy) face.

But the image I selected to illustrate this story (above) tells you what I think of this idea. In my experience, it’s unnecessarily risky, will frustrate reporters, and could lead to a more flat-footed response.

What happens when your organization, which placed so much of its public identification into the hands of one person, loses that employee? Much of that brand-building disappears with that person’s resignation (or firing). What happens if that spokesperson handles a situation badly and loses credibility with the public or press? Or has a personal scandal that embarrasses the agency?

Here are a couple more questions: What happens if the spokesperson goes on long-term medical or bereavement leave? Or is overwhelmed with media calls on several different topics during a particularly busy period?

Eggs in Basket iStockPhoto PPT

This sounds like a bad idea that places too many of the agency’s eggs in a single basket.

I know many people who are the lead spokesperson for their agencies. Most of them are good at their jobs, and many are very knowledgeable. But they’re not subject matter experts, and they happily defer to those who are (assuming, as you stated, that they’ve received media training). Trying to suddenly become a subject matter expert on a variety of topics every time a reporter calls is impractical and destined to fail.

Plus, there’s another important consideration: I can’t imagine that reporters will like this. For straightforward questions, a lead spokesperson is appropriate. But a reporter who needs subject matter expertise and is forced to speak to a spokesperson who plays the role of intermediary for every detailed follow-up question will quickly become resentful.

Two solutions might help, at least in part:

  1. 1. Use this spokesperson as much as possible, but pair him or her with the proper subject matter expert in cases for which such expertise is necessary.
  2. 2. Use this spokesperson as the primary face for on-camera briefings, but provide reporters with access to subject matter experts behind the scenes. 

It’s entirely possible that your management knows something I don’t and/or that I’m missing something here, so I’d like to ask readers to weigh in. Do you agree with me that this is a bad idea, or is this reader’s management seeing something that I’m not?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Media Relations And The Seven Deadly Sins

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 26, 2015 – 6:02 am

This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry.

For centuries, the Catholic Church has used the teaching of vice as a guide to help people live a virtuous life.

Today, those ancient lessons have spread throughout much of western society and popular culture. They form the subplots of movies, books, and theater. Smart reporters even use the seven deadly sins to provide a narrative depth to news stories. Media relations practitioners take notice.

Recently, Sun Life Financial found itself subtly cast less-than-favorably in a news story in which a policyholder with dementia took an action that had a near-disastrous financial consequence for his family. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Bruce Gabriel was a policyholder who suffers from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia:

“…as his mind was slipping, in 2010, he called up his insurance agent — when his wife was away at work — to cancel his two policies.

He had paid more than $17,000 in premiums since 1983 and cashed in for less than $2,000 on policies that would have paid his family $140,000 when he dies.”

Seven dealdy sins signpost

Upon discovery, Bruce’s wife Debbie tried to have the situation reversed. After four years of pleas, the company remained steadfast. It then wanted Bruce to undergo extensive tests and still did not reverse course, budging only after media inquired about the standoff. This can be characterized as sloth.

Other characterizations in the story are more damning. The CBC writes that Sun Life “repeatedly refused to undo the damage” to the family’s finances and labeled letters denying coverage as “rejections.” Unable to get other coverage, Debbie said the experience left them feeling “very powerless in the face of big business,” and that she and her family felt “vulnerable … and we had no recourse.” She added the family felt “robbed” of a sense of security and Bruce Gabriel said they felt “stolen from.” Enter the second “sin,” malice.

Sun Life’s own words can be viewed as adding to this narrative. In letters to Debbie, it concludes the tests it ordered “do not provide any new evidence that your husband was incompetent and therefore, incapable of making the decision he made.” Later, when reversing course and reinstating the policy, a spokesperson said, “We are making an exception on compassionate grounds in this unique case,” as though the company was begrudgingly doing the family a favor. The lack of support to the family, combined with sometimes harsh language used by the company and others, underscores a narrative of pride.

I have sympathy for Sun Life. The perception of slothful behavior is difficult for many companies to avoid: they must do their utmost to investigate all situations thoroughly to protect policyholders and investors. To make hasty decisions is financially irresponsible, precedent-setting, and could cause harm to others depending on them.

Eraser deleting the word Sloth

“Sloth” could also be a deliberate strategy. The company could truly view this situation as exceedingly unique and may be making an exception after rigorous investigation. Of course, this strategy is fraught with risk and an accusation of sloth is often the first domino that starts the narrative chain reaction.

Media relations practitioners must decide: Which strategy will you choose—and are you prepared for that plan’s related baggage?

A Better Approach

In an alternative conclusion to this matter, the company could have written:

“As our population ages, we suspect there will be more families who will find themselves in a similar unthinkable situation. Many companies, including ours, need to train front-line personnel to be better prepared to identify and at least try to take preemptive action to avoid them. No company can avoid all of them—but we can work harder to reduce such situations, and we will.”

The CBC article referenced another constructive approach by quoting a representative of the Alzheimer’s Society of Ontario, who argued for contractual cooling off periods for people struggling with dementia. Working with such an organization could generate better protocols and provide a powerful balanced third party, thereby reducing the number of sins—real or perceived—being cast upon Sun Life.

Ted Flitton is a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

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Is “Blame The Media” A Good PR Strategy?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on March 4, 2015 – 9:18 am

This post was written by Christina Mozaffari, vice president of Phillips Media Relations and a former NBC News producer. 

I’ve always bristled at the “blame the media” public relations strategy.

Plenty of politicians and public figures have used the strategy, sometimes with great success (here’s President Obama, Bill Cosby, and Chris Christie). It’s also probably fair to say my dislike for the strategy is largely due to my own bias as a former reporter.

That said, Frank Bruni’s column in The New York Times last weekend addressing the successes and failures in political reporting—including so-called “gotcha” questions—was spot-on. In it, he admitted the media have some significant faults in covering politics, but that politicians still have a lot of responsibility for the coverage they receive. His last line perfectly summed up the issue:

“…when candidates bemoan and disparage the media’s omnipresence and hypervigilance… remember this, too: When they’re harping about our shortcomings, they’re first and foremost trying to cover up their own.”

Cameras at Press Conference

As an example, Wisconsin governor and potential presidential candidate Scott Walker recently criticized the media after punting on fairly easy and unsurprising questions surrounding his beliefs on evolution and President Obama’s religion. While Walker’s strategy may help him in the primaries with conservatives who distrust the mainstream media, it’s not enough to work in a general election in which you have to win voters in the middle. The actual questions didn’t get Walker into trouble; rather, it was his refusal to answer them in a straightforward manner.

The media are far from perfect. There are certainly many mainstream outlets with clear biases on both sides. However, when the coverage goes wrong, more often than not, the blame lies with the public figure.

Scott Walker Obama Christina

So, when faced with biased reporters, what should you do? These rules of thumb may not apply to the most aggressive cases, but tend to serve most spokesperson well.

  1. 1. Know your “enemy.” It’s your responsibility to know, as best you can, the reporter’s work and point of view. All it typically takes is a quick Google search and a few minutes to read the reporter’s previous work. If you know what you’re walking into, you’ll be better equipped to handle it.
  2. 2. Be the bigger person. It’s your job to stay cool. Let your audience decide on the bias of the reporter, particularly if it’s a live audience and the audience can see the full exchange. If the audience believes you’re being bullied and you manage to handle the reporter’s biased questions with openness and class, you will come off looking better.
  3. 3. Ask yourself if you really need to do this interview. In general, participating in interviews when you know a story is going to be written about you or your organization is smart. Having your voice in a story, even if it’s an aggressive story, keeps you present in your own coverage and helps to avoid that damaging line, “We reached out to Organization X and they had no comment.” That said, if you truly believe you have no chance at getting fair treatment in an interview, there’s no rule that says you have to do it.

What do you think? Is blaming the media a lame cover-up or smart strategy? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Should One Person Really Be The Face Of Your Brand?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 17, 2015 – 4:02 am

Ted Flitton Headshot 2This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Many questions have been raised from the Brian Williams fiasco, mostly from the perspective of journalism and corporate ethics.

But there’s a question that’s been mostly overlooked: Is it really a good idea for one person to be the primary public face of a brand, as Brian Williams was for NBC News? 

Building a brand around a single face comes with significant benefits—but, as the past week has once again proven, also significant risks.

Williams had a zest for the spotlight, and no doubt his superiors encouraged him to market himself and his newscast. He starred in an advertising campaign commemorating his ratings-winning decade commanding the show. He was a semi-regular on the late night talk show circuit, he made cameos in movies and TV shows, and even granted plenty of interviews to the tiniest of small town newspapers.

Hopefully NBC executives are now plotting ways to build their corporate brand without relying so heavily on a single, fallible human. With Lester Holt firmly in the anchor seat until summer, the execs have time to consider the role they played in setting the NBC brand on fire.

 

The Perks of a Primary Public Face

Companies big and small have tied their fortunes to high profile names for years, and for good reason. It’s impossible to think about Apple without thinking about Steve Jobs, Virgin without Richard Branson, or, until his death, Wendy’s without founder Dave Thomas.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 02:  Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin Group founder, Sir Richard Branson bring Business Speed Dating to Wall Street on October 2, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Craig Barritt/WireImage)

Dynamic people build corporate brands by:

  1. 1. Providing a quick template for building brand values, raising consumer awareness, and signaling expected employee behaviors
  2. 2. Creating excitement and gaining employee buy-in
  3. 3. Adding star power to employee town hall meetings or community outreach events

 

The Downsides of Being Too Closely Associated With One Person

As Williams has proven, though, people make disastrous mistakes. Sometimes they go completely rogue. Depending on the scenario, not to mention how the fallout is handled, the downsides of a brand relationship involving a public figure include:

  1. 1. Tarnishing, if not severely damaging, a brand
  2. 2. Causing difficulty in separating the rogue person from the brand
  3. 3. Giving less-contented employees reason to thumb their nose at company culture
  4. 4. Pushing the company into crisis mode and hijacking priorities

Brian Williams Promo

On the last point, the Williams fiasco has consumed a great deal of time for a growing number of NBC executives. In fact, the storm is swirling around the upper tier at NBC Universal. As The Washington Post reports, Williams’s suspension:

“…was the culmination of a long period of internal concerns. NBC officials had been warned for some time about Williams’s exaggerations and self-aggrandizement, the network official said.

People were sending up red flags about a year ago, the official said.

What started out as eye-rolling escalated into genuine concern, but no one took action earlier because the statements that drew attention of staffers were not aired on the news broadcast.”

At the very least, decoupling from a rogue brand face is messy and all-consuming. Brian Stelter’s excellent 2009 New York Times article highlights the massive “Tiger-proofing” campaign Accenture officials immediately launched once golfer Tiger Woods’s serial infidelities were exposed.

Inc. Magazine chronicled the financial and human resources toll cyclist Lance Armstrong’s doping admission took on his charity Livestrong. Doug Ulman, CEO of the charity, openly wrestled for months with the existential knowledge that Armstrong’s deceit was the key ingredient for immense fundraising success.

Lance Armstrong iStockPhoto

 

What companies considering a conscious coupling should do:

  1. 1. Fully vet the person first. Once finished, vet again
  2. 2. Consider the tightness of the bond. Ask: “Is this a person who shares some of our values that we can casually reference in speeches or will we implore audiences to “Be a Tiger?”
  3. 3. Run the tie-in as a campaign with a sunset clause
  4. 4. (If you proceed) Monitor the person’s behavior and public statements and address problems the moment they surface
  5. 5. Prepare for the “go-rogue scenario” with a decoupling plan and standby statements and have your spokesperson briefed

Another tactic could include highlighting a team of individuals who espouse noble virtues. Imagine a TV commercial featuring the many faces of NBC journalists including Holt, the flawless Andrea Mitchell, Chuck Todd, and Richard Engel as the words ‘trust’ and ‘integrity’ fade in and out. If one person trips up, the piece can be edited. One rotten apple shouldn’t spoil the bunch. But this tactic isn’t foolproof; just ask the U.S. Postal Service about its sponsorship of the men’s cycling team.

Ted Flitton is a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

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Reader Email: Is It Ethical To Circumvent A Reporter?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 3, 2015 – 3:02 am

A reader from South Africa recently asked:

“I wish to check with you on the ethics of publishing a media response to more than the persons that enquired. This is in a case of apparent collusion between members of the political opposition and the media.”

My answer is yes, absolutely. Based on your question, I’d say that “ethics” aren’t a factor here. If you were refusing to speak to any reporters, particularly about matters that concern the public interest, you might be entering into an unethical situation—but speaking to more reporters is different.  

That said, I still wouldn’t go down that path, at least not as a first step.

Mean Interviewer

The goal of media relations is to try to establish positive (or at least not negative) relationships with reporters. So the first question I’d ask you is whether you’ve done everything in your power to build a better relationship with the news organization? For example, have you taken these seven steps? Or, if you’re being falsely accused of something you haven’t done, have you considered these three options?

If you have—and you have strong reason to believe that the news organization is “colluding” with the political opposition—then yes, it is an acceptable practice to issue a response to numerous news outlets simultaneously and/or through your own websites and social media sites.

If the news organization complains, you can explain your rationale for circumventing them. Doing so may give you another opportunity to heal your relationship with them (you can offer to respond to their answers directly in the future in return for fairer coverage). Notice that I said “fairer” coverage, not “favorable” coverage. You still may not like all of the stories published by the media outlet—a reporter’s job isn’t to make you happy—but if their reporting is reasonably accurate, it may represent a meaningful improvement upon your current situation.

Of course, circumventing an individual reporter by responding to everyone at once could make your current relationship with that journalist even worse, which can lead to more hostile coverage against you. That’s why you should think carefully about whether you’ve truly done everything you can to improve your relationship with them.

Finally, you might also approach a competing news organization or media ombudsman-type to pitch the idea of running a story about their competitor’s inaccurate reporting. Some news organizations relish the idea of fact checking a competitor; here in the U.S., for example, it’s common to see Fox News questioning reporting on MSNBC, and vice versa.

Thanks for your email, and good luck in managing this situation!

Do you have a question you’d like to see answered on the blog? Please send an email to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.


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Six Ways To Guard Against The “Fat Cat Backlash”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 13, 2015 – 4:01 am

Ted Flitton Headshot 2This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

I take no comfort in the escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea stemming from the hack attack on Sony Pictures, which resulted in the unauthorized release of sensitive information, reams of personal emails, and movie scripts. This crime has been described as one of the worst cases of cyber-hacking against an American company ever.

But at least now the story appears to be refocusing on the central issue of cybercrime.

Since late November, much of the media and public chose to focus on a different issue—illegally obtained leaked information—and demonized a Sony executive and a Hollywood bigwig who dished on celebrities and engaged in inappropriate racially-tinged banter. Both eventually issued apologies as people called for their heads.

Why is Sony the bad guy here? Why did so much of the public choose to attack a company which itself was a victim of a crime?

Sony Under Attack

Call it schadenfreude, a “fat cat backlash,” hating the one percenters; there’s no snazzy title. But it’s clear society often shows a warped sense of morality when large organizations face crises. This misplaced outrage makes it hard for issues managers to gain control of the story and preserve corporate reputation.

Take Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Video from a hotel elevator showed him knocking his then-fiancée unconscious with a single punch. People quibbled over his then-two-game suspension while demanding the commissioner of the National Football League be fired for mishandling the situation. There appeared to be fewer appeals for Rice to lose his job than the Commissioner, although eventually the Ravens did let him go. Clearly, to the sporting public, lax leadership is a sin greater than domestic abuse.

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Don’t get me wrong. Both the NFL and Sony deserve harsh criticism for their actions (or inactions). Some level of the outrage is warranted when companies allow bad situations to fester. But the issue is balance. Let’s be outraged by criminal acts while we wring our hands over failed leadership or executive arrogance.

More important, let’s use these incidents to spur crucial social change. The Rice incident made the important subject of domestic violence part of a national conversation, but sadly, only for a few days.

Public relations practitioners need to preserve corporate reputations. But we can and must shape important societal conversations where possible. So how can we guard against the fat cat backlash and maintain balance in emerging issues? A few thoughts:

  1. 1. Be prepared for the inevitable. Technology experts say corporations should expect they will be victimized by cyberthieves. All entities that collect and store the personal information of customers or employees need to do a better job of protecting this information and planning for disasters.
  2. 2. Take responsibility. The NFL rewards men for tough, physical play. This aggression should cease the moment the whistle blows, yet until recently, the league has been reluctant to admit that some men may have trouble differentiating between the locker room and the bedroom. Players do receive some domestic assault education, but many women say it’s not enough. The league should show leadership and really help families. 
  3. Ray Rice
  4. 3. Form thoughtful, pro-active and all-embracing partnerships. The NFL is proud to help women fight breast cancer by partnering with Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The league recently launched an anti-domestic abuse campaign. That’s a positive move, but considering that pro sports leagues are largely built on the selfless contributions of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and wives, surely, these multi-billion dollar businesses can do more to truly honor all women.
  5. 4. Conduct company audits and address gaps. Rice’s two-game suspension rankled another player who received a stiffer punishment for off-season marijuana use. Imagine the goodwill generated had the NFL spotted this injustice and quietly worked to rectify it before the Rice incident.
  6. 5. Empower employees. Build a respectful corporate culture. Colleagues who admonish others for poisonous workplace behavior and blue chatter should be praised.
  7. 6. Generate goodwill. Thank supporters and engage with detractors. Return reporters’ calls and help them report stories, even if they are negative.

Taken together, these actions can help a company embroiled in full on crisis, but I fear in an age of uberoutrage their help is marginal. I turn this over to you, faithful readers of the Mr. Media Training blog. Have you experienced the fat cat backlash? How have you regained narrative balance during a corporate storm? 

Ted Flitton is a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

 


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Elected Official: I’ll Sue You If You Publish My Name

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 6, 2015 – 8:38 am

If you’re a reporter and want to write about an elected official, do you need to obtain permission from the politician in advance to include their name in your news story? 

Of course not. You could imagine the chilling effect on journalism if people elected to positions of power could shut down media inquiries they didn’t like by denying the reporter permission to write about them.

Kirby Delauter, a county council member in Frederick County, Maryland, doesn’t appear to agree. He took to his Facebook page yesterday to denounce a local reporter, Bethany Rodgers of The Frederick News-Post, because he “did not authorize any use of my name.” He also included this rather menacing line: “You need to know who you’re dealing with.”

To cap off his post, Mr. Delauter threatened to sue her: “Use my name again unauthorized and you’ll be paying for an attorney.”

Kirby Delauter

I’d like to give Mr. Delauter the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible that he doesn’t have a lot of media experience and truly believes that he has the right to prevent a journalist from using his name without his authorization. Therefore, I want to use this post to write something productive.

Sir, you have no legal standing on which to sue a journalist for using your name without authorization. In order for a public figure to prove libel, you would need to show that Ms. Rodgers knew her statements to be false or had a reckless disregard for the truth. That’s a legal standard that’s extremely difficult to meet.

As you’ve seen from the reaction to your Facebook post (which appears to have been deleted), you only helped to attract more attention to Ms. Rodgers’ original article; among others, The Washington Post has now helped to make this a national story. 

Kirby Delauter Photo

But you’re not without rights.

First, if Ms. Rodgers (or any other journalist) is going to write a story about you with or without your participation in it, you might consider granting her an interview—or at least providing her with a short written statement. Although it might seem paradoxical to exert control by speaking to a reporter you view as unfair, it may not be. The reason for that is something I call “The Rule of Thirds.” I made a video about that here.

If Ms. Rodgers is being unfair, as you assert, this post offers you seven things you can do to respond to a negative news story. To protect yourself, you can insist on only communicating in writing (so you can maintain a paper trail) or recording your interviews (some states require two-party notification before recording, so just tell her you’re recording). You can even call into question her fairness as a reporter by offering evidence that proves she has “lied,” as you stated she did. What you can’t do—at least not credibly—is threaten to sue her for mentioning your name.

There’s one other thing I’d ask you to consider. Whether you like it or not, The Frederick News-Post is going to continue to cover you. Therefore, think about what’s going to serve your interests over the months and years to come. It might be that reducing the antagonism between you and the newspaper serves you best; if so, you might consider requesting a meeting with Ms. Rodgers and her editor to discuss your complaints with the paper’s coverage, point out any inaccuracies, and establish a more productive future working relationship.

The point is that you do have some control here—but it needs to be exercised the right way to be effective. Good luck.

Facebook screenshot via Kai Hagen; photo from Kirby Delauter’s public campaign page.

UPDATE: JANUARY 7, 2015, 10PM

Mr. Delauter issued the following apology today to The Frederick News-Post. It strikes the right tone, appears authentic, and reflects an appropriate amount of self-awareness. It should help put this issue behind him.

“The first amendment is alive and well in Frederick County. As a public figure working to maintain and improve the county, it can be very frustrating to feel misrepresented or misinterpreted by a local media outlet.

Over my career I have fired off my fair share of angry e-mails, which in hindsight I wish I hadn’t.  I can’t think of one that had a positive effect.  Usually, they only served to escalate the conflict.  I thought I had long ago learned the lesson of waiting 24 hours before I hit the send key, but apparently I didn’t learn that lesson as well as I should have. 

Of course, as I am an elected official, the Frederick News-Post has the right to use my name in any article related to the running of the county — that comes with the job.  So yes, my statement to the Frederick News-Post regarding the use of my name was wrong and inappropriate. I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. 

I got elected to serve all the citizens of northern Frederick County, Democrats as well as Republicans.  I look forward to the local papers covering my effort in that regard.”

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Good PR: Nashville Police Chief’s Brilliant Response

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 5, 2015 – 6:01 am

In my home state of New York, tensions between many local residents and the New York City Police Department are running higher than they have in a long time. We’re far from alone: similar antagonisms exist in cities as far-flung as Ferguson, Oakland, and Boston.

Given that backdrop, the timing was particularly right for a tone-perfect communication between a police chief and the community he serves.

Nashville Chief of Police Steve Anderson had no way of knowing that a letter he wrote in reply to an upset resident would go viral (he included the letter in a Christmas message to his department). The resident, upset about local protestors who had shut down the Interstate, challenged the police department’s response. Chief Anderson responded to him directly in a letter that was direct, challenging, and occasionally confrontational—but also thoughtful, substantive, and polite. 

His letter serves as a good reminder that everything you write has the potential to spread. That can work against you, as we’ve seen in so many “social media fails,” but as the image below demonstrates, it can also represent you beautifully. If you missed this story during the holiday break, you’ll find the full message below.

 

Nashvilles Police Chief Great

 

Email Received

Chief Anderson,

I wanted to send you this email to express my frustration and outrage at how the situation of these protesters is being handled in Nashville. The first night protesters marched here after the incidents in Ferguson they never should have been allowed to shut down the interstate. Instead of at least threatening to arrest them, they were served coffee and hot chocolate. I don’t feel that is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. It sends a message that they can do whatever they want and will be rewarded. Then, this past week, more protesters march around downtown for 3 or more hours and once again, no arrests, and it took THP to keep them from getting on the interstate again. Saturday night, marching and “die ins” at Opry Mills mall. How long are we going to allow these people to disrupt our city?

I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks “Why are the police allowing this?” I wouldn’t have a good answer. If any other group of people wanted to march around the streets they would have to get a permit weeks or months in advance, and I know it’s not possible to get a permit to obstruct traffic and walk on the interstate.

Please understand I am not trying to disrespect you or your department, I just want myself and my family to feel that our city is safe, and right now we don’t feel that way. Is this going to be allowed to continue until someone gets hurt? Protection of the city should be coming from MNPD, not THP. I also understand that you get direction from the mayor’s office, but these actions are putting the department at disharmony from the majority of the citizens. At some point you are going to have to answer this question to yourself – “Am I following or giving orders that help or hurt the community?” In closing, if these recent actions have been due to pressure from the mayor’s office, please reach out to the people of Nashville, there are many who will gladly contact the mayor’s office as well.

Sincerely, ________   __________

 

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson

 

Reply to Email

Mr. _____________

While I certainly appreciate your offer to intercede on my behalf with our Mayor, you should know that the Mayor has not issued any order, directive or instruction on the matter with which you take issue.  All decisions concerning the police department’s reaction to the recent demonstrations have been made within the police department and approved by me.  Therefore, any reasons or rationale supporting your proposal as what would be the best approach for all of Nashville, and not just a method of utilizing the police department to enforce a personal agenda, should be directed to me.

In that your thoughts deserve consideration, I will attempt to address some of the issues you have raised:

• “Has consideration been given as to whether the response of the police department “help or hurt the community.”

It is our view that every decision made within the police department should be made with the community in mind.  Obviously, there are some matters in which we have no discretion.  On matters in which we do have discretion, careful consideration is given as to the best course of action, always with the welfare of the general public in mind.

That has been the consideration on this issue.  Certainly, in comparing the outcome here in Nashville with what has occurred in some other cities, the results speak for themselves.  I stand on the decisions that have been made.

• “These actions are putting the department at disharmony from the majority of the citizens.”

While I don’t doubt that you sincerely believe that your thoughts represent the majority of citizens, I would ask you to consider the following before you chisel those thoughts in stone.

As imperfect humans, we have a tendency to limit our association with other persons to those persons who are most like us.  Unfortunately, there is even more of a human tendency to stay within our comfort zone by further narrowing those associations to those persons who share our thoughts and opinions.  By doing this we can avoid giving consideration to thoughts and ideas different than our own.  This would make us uncomfortable.  By considering only the thoughts and ideas we are in agreement with, we stay in our comfort zone.  Our own biases get reinforced and reflected back at us leaving no room for any opinion but our own.  By doing this, we often convince ourselves that the majority of the world shares opinion and that anyone with another opinion is, obviously, wrong. 

It is only when we go outside that comfort zone, and subject ourselves to the discomfort of considering thoughts we don’t agree with, that we can make an informed judgment on any matter.  We can still disagree and maintain our opinions, but we can now do so knowing that the issue has been given consideration from all four sides.  Or, if we truly give fair consideration to all points of view, we may need to swallow our pride and amend our original thoughts.

And, it is only by giving consideration to the thoughts of all persons, even those that disagree with us, that we can have an understanding as to what constitutes a majority.

• “I just want myself and my family to feel that our city is safe, and right now we don’t feel that way.”

I have to admit, I am somewhat puzzled by this announcement.  None of the demonstrators in this city have in any way exhibited any propensity for violence or indicated, even verbally, that they would harm anyone.  I can understand how you may feel that your ideologies have been questioned but I am not aware of any occurrence that would give reason for someone to feel physically threatened.

• “I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks “Why are the police allowing this?” I wouldn’t have a good answer.”

It is somewhat perplexing when children are injected into the conversation as an attempt to bolster a position or as an attempt to thwart the position of another.  While this is not the type of conversation I ordinarily engage in, here are some thoughts you may find useful as you talk with your son.

First, it is laudable that you are teaching your son respect for the police and other authority figures.  However, a better lesson might be that it is the government the police serve that should be respected.  The police are merely a representative of a government formed by the people for the people—for all people.  Being respectful of the government would mean being respectful of all persons, no matter what their views.

Later, it might be good to point out that the government needs to be, and is, somewhat flexible, especially in situations where there are minor violations of law.  A government that had zero tolerance for even minor infractions would prove unworkable in short order.

Although this is unlikely, given your zero tolerance stance, suppose that, by accident or perhaps inattention, you found yourself going 40 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour zone and that you were stopped by a police officer.  Then, after making assurances that licenses were in order and that there were no outstanding warrants, the officer asked you not to speed again and did not issue a citation, but merely sent you on your way.

As you have suggested, a question may come to you from the back seat, “How can I respect the police if they will not enforce the law?”  In the event this does occur, here are some facts that might help you answer that question.

In the year 2013, our officers made over four hundred thousand vehicle stops, mostly for traffic violations.  A citation was issued in only about one in six of those stops.  Five of the six received warnings.  This is the police exercising discretion for minor violations of the law.  Few, if any, persons would argue that the police should have no discretion.

This is an explanation you might give your son.  Take into account, however, that the innocence of children can produce the most profound and probing questions.  They often see the world in a very clear and precise manner, their eyes unclouded by the biases life gives us.  This could produce the next question.  “If you believe that the police should enforce the law at all times, why didn’t you insist that the officer write you a ticket?”

I don’t have a suggestion as to how that should be answered.

I do know, however, that this is a very diverse city.  Nashville, and all of America, will be even more diverse when your son becomes an adult.  Certainly, tolerance, respect and consideration for the views of all persons would be valuable attributes for him to take into adulthood.

Mr. ______, thank you for taking the time to express your position on this matter.  I assure that your thoughts will be given all due consideration.  We will continue, however, to make decisions, on this and all matters, that take into account what is best for all of Nashville.

Steve Anderson
Chief of Police

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