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Spicer Resigns – What Should the Face of Crisis Look Like?

With breaking news of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigning today allegedly due, in part, to the newly announced White House Communications Director not having communications experience, we thought it might be appropriate to share a chapter of “The Art of Crisis Leadership” (Weinhold & Cowherd, 2016).

When You’re the Face of Crisis

You know them as spokespeople, press secretaries, public affairs reps, flacks and spin-doctors—that last term evoking the same warm and fuzzy feeling with the American public as “ambulance-chaser” and “wife-beater.”

When a crisis engulfs their company, corporation or governmental agency, they stand in front of a bank of microphones and, with white-hot TV lights winking on and cameras rolling, they stare out into a sea of skeptical media faces and attempt to deliver a timely and coherent response on behalf of their employer.

I’ve learned from so many incredible communicators who are able to perform spectacularly under duress. It is an art, not a science. Like wine, one gets better with age; there is no substitute for real experience. The best spokespeople I know are obsessive about each syllable they utter, each piece of clothing they wear and each message point they deliver. They call reporters back, treat them all fairly and never, ever compromise their integrity – they understand what reporters need and make themselves relevant to those who have editorial control.

The best learn how to steer clear of organizational jargon, are detail-oriented and compassionately deliver the news in a conversational way that quickly and emotionally connects with those who consume their words. They are analytical, well-timed and process loads of information, almost instantaneously. And, they are never too high or too low – they have a steady hand under pressure no matter the gravity of the situation or tightness of deadline.

And, in the event they run into a “loose-cannon” reporter, they’re able to manage the situation with the grace and humility of a verbal judo artist. And with a Peyton Manning-like approach, the best are incredibly prepared, informed and always find a way to hone their craft. You want them on your team as they understand the big picture – it’s what they do best – see the whole room.

It can be a thankless job. Yet, it is an absolutely vital one. As a spokesperson, you are the generally the most frequent ambassador of your company’s brand. You are the reputational gate-keeper for your bosses and colleagues and stakeholders.

Bottom line: you better not screw it up, as you can lose your job with one syllable.

The pressure can be enormous, particularly with the 24-hour news cycle of today’s world.

At no time was this lesson driven home to me more vividly than in the hot summer of 1997. At the tender age of 31, I was the newly-appointed public affairs director for the Baltimore Police Department when the sensational case of Charles M. Smothers II unfolded.

I was returning from a vacation in Ocean City on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, when another of the department’s spokespersons called.

The spokesperson had urgent news. There had been a police-involved shooting at Lexington Market, the historic indoor market downtown. An officer had shot a man with a knife. The scene was now extremely chaotic. Angry crowds were milling about.

“What should I do?” the spokesperson asked in the midst of a brewing public safety crisis.

“Describe what limited amount of information you have to the news media—we have to have wiggle room, as facts will evolve with each minute,” I said. “Describe what happened as some type of interaction between the responding officers and the suspect. Say that detectives are going to comprehensively investigate and interview witnesses. We need to find out more before we can talk specifically about what happened.”

My modus operandi and firm teaching point is to ask as many people as possible about the facts in an evolving case, knowing there could be varying accounts. Then, when the factual stars begin to align with consistency, you know you have a solid foundation with which to stand publicly. Credibility is key.

I was about to hang up when another thought occurred to me.

“Whatever you do,” I said, “avoid action-oriented terms like ‘lunge’ or ‘acted aggressively’ to describe what the suspect did.”

Again, what experience taught me is that very early on in police-shooting investigations, Public Information Officers, or PIOs, should never box themselves into a set of facts or circumstances that will almost always change.

I wasn’t being some kind of schoolmarm-ish stickler for grammar here. I just knew we didn’t have all the facts. Characterizing the encounter without knowing exactly what took place would be irresponsible. Plus, it could potentially blow up in our faces if we used what would later prove to be the wrong words.

The department spokesperson called back a short time later.  She informed me that she’d done some preliminary interviews with the media. In a sheepish voice, she added: “I kind of got tripped up. And I used the word ‘lunged.’”

Hearing this, I winced.

“OK,” I said. “But let’s not use it anymore. And we’ll see what else transpires here.”

The last thing I wanted to do was erode her confidence, as she had been the point of contact prior to me arriving back in town.

I still had one more day of vacation left, so my wife and I attended a friend’s house party that evening. At some point, I learned that the officer involved in the shooting was Charles Smothers and that the man with the knife had been identified as James Quarles, now lying mortally-wounded in a hospital.

But the party would hardly be a festive, care-free time for me. At a few minutes before the 11 p.m. newscast, I received an urgent call from an assignment editor at WBAL-TV (the NBC affiliate) who was about to go live.

“Rob,” he said, “we have video of the Lexington Market shooting.”

I was stunned. For the first time in memory, we had a police shooting caught on tape. This was in the days before cell phones, when video was not the omnipresent phenomenon that it is today. (Later, I would learn that the station had paid a stringer fee of $500 to the man who had videotaped the incident with his camera.)

My first question to the WBAL editor, whom I had a relationship with, was direct: did he lunge? The man with the knife—did he lunge at the officer as our spokesperson first reported?

“It looks like he didn’t,” the editor said. “It looks like he was shot for no reason.”

Now I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. The TV station wanted a statement right away. They wanted to run it, along with their story of the shooting, at the top of their newscast just moments away.

Obviously, I had still not seen the video. I only knew what I had been told about the incident – I had to trust the judgment of media member. And I knew what my instincts told me from my years on the streets as a patrol officer, which certainly helped now in my role as the department’s chief spokesperson.

“This is a search for the truth,” began the statement I quickly crafted. “The department encourages anyone who either witnessed or has information about the shooting to come forward and provide those facts to detectives to ensure that a very credible and thorough investigation occurs.”

When the shooting story finally aired that night, everyone at the party gathered around the TV, watching intently. At the sight of the video, I nearly dropped my red Solo cup!

The assignment editor had been right: there was no lunge by the man with the knife. Instead, as he had seemingly attempted to put down the knife, the officer had fired his weapon. While I knew the suspect with the knife still posed a law enforcement threat, people at home watching would have a different point of view. Right or wrong, the video was certain to provoke a reaction.

It looked bad for Smothers. Bad for the police. Bad for Baltimore.

I looked at my wife and only half-jokingly said: “Vacation’s over, pack it up!”

That night I called Clinton Coleman, press secretary to then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke, and briefed him on the incident.

“This is going to blow up,” I warned. “It’s not a small issue. We need to mobilize the faith and community-based leaders and all of our key ambassadors while urging the public to ask for patience—this is how riots start. We’ve seen that before. We’ve got a real flashpoint here. People are upset.”

Over the course of the next few days, WBAL would run the videotape of the Smothers shooting some 200 times, according to sources at the station. The story gained more and more momentum.

The media was scrambling relentlessly to interview Smothers or his family. The family of the dead man, Quarles, was being similarly besieged. And I knew reporters would soon start asking about police policies and procedures and begin questioning the personnel background of Smothers, looking for clues to his actions on that fateful day at the market.

In my briefing of the police department’s command staff, I cautioned that a community firestorm could be averted only if citizens had confidence and trust that the department would conduct an honest, transparent investigation of the shooting and arrive at the right conclusion, whatever that turned out to be.

In the meantime, however, my mantra that “No bad story ever gets better before it gets worse,” was again proven true. Because lo and behold, with every corner I turned on this case, the case got worse.

First the department was hit with a bombshell revelation: Charles Smothers shouldn’t have even been on the street in a police uniform at the time of the shooting.

Two years earlier, he faced domestic violence charges for firing his service weapon at his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, a Baltimore County police officer. Smothers had apparently claimed his weapon had discharged accidentally after it had fallen from his holster during a scuffle with the county cop. But the court hadn’t believed that explanation.

Yet, even though he’d been convicted and sentenced to probation, as well as a mandatory administrative hearing, Smothers had somehow been allowed to keep his badge and gun and return to the force, directly contravening the department’s policies on officer domestic-abuse cases.

So now the question internally became: do we tell the news media all of this?

A lot of the commanders said no. But my position was: we should absolutely give the details to the media.

I felt this way because another of my mantras is this: “always shovel shit by the shovel, not by the teaspoon.” Meaning: get all the bad news out right away. Don’t let it come out in dribs and drabs, at which point it looks like you’re lying, or at the very least, covering-up or stonewalling the investigation.

Yes, the department letting Smothers return to the street was terribly embarrassing. Yes, someone had made an egregious mistake. But we could find out how that had happened later. Whoever had screwed up could be disciplined, if warranted. And we could ensure that something like that never happened again.

But right now, we were more concerned about the reputation of the department and the need to do everything possible to quell any brewing unrest over the shooting while being sensitive to the family who just lost a loved one. We needed the public to know we were looking into the case with the utmost transparency, honesty and integrity.

Fortunately, my commander teammates listened to me. We released everything we knew about Smothers’ crime. Predictably, it created a huge media firestorm.

As I was quickly reminded, dealing with crisis is exhausting. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job, and the search for more details never stops. By now, the story of the rogue Baltimore cop who probably shouldn’t have ever been allowed back on the street—and who’d gunned down a man who appeared to be surrendering his weapon—had gone international.

The media were playing hardball with the story, too. Many questions, few answers. Investigations take time but everyone wants answers yesterday.

A day later, as I worked in my office on the first floor of police headquarters, the door was suddenly flung open. I looked up and there was a light shining in my face, a TV camera rolling and someone holding a big fuzzy boom mike above my head.

A woman with a foreign accent barked: “We’re looking for Robert Vine-holt!”

The reporter and her camera crew were from “Hard Copy,” the tabloid news show that was often paired with “Entertainment Tonight” back then. They had ambushed me for comments on the whole Smothers’ mess.

When I told the reporter that I’d be more than happy to do the interview, but that I needed a few moments to gather my thoughts and get ready, she said: “OK, but we’re not leaving until you talk to us.”

When I finally did the interview a half-hour later, the first question was this: “Aren’t you embarrassed to be associated with a police department like this?”

You’ll be shocked to know the questions went downhill from there. I was prepared for the haymaker out of the gate – in this profession, that’s not unusual at all.

When the media couldn’t find Smothers to get his side of the story, they staked out his mother’s house. One particularly aggressive reporter knocked on the door and quickly got into an argument with the mom, who was understandably upset that her son was now receiving death threats and being hounded by reporters.

The next time a reporter knocked, the woman who answered opened the door and threw lye in the reporter’s face. The reporter went down and was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital. Luckily, she suffered no permanent damage. I felt sorry for the reporter, one of the nicest in town. She simply fell victim to a situation best described by the old truism: “The one who stirs the hornet’s nest is rarely the one who gets stung.”

After that incident, I gathered the media, repeated that tensions were high and recommended they stay away from the mother’s house. “The next thing that could happen might involve gunshots,” I told them.

Yet in the end, the department’s strategy of transparency and communicating openly with those in the community who were most upset paid off.

No riots or civil unrest broke out in Baltimore in the wake of the Smothers shooting, despite it being on video. People took a step back. Peace prevailed. I really began to appreciate the critical role a public affairs director for a big-city police department could play for the men and women in blue and the jurisdictions they serve, when crisis occurs.

There would be many other difficult times when I would be out front as the voice and face of the Baltimore PD, learning all the other skills of an effective public affairs director.

When an officer was killed in a traffic accident, and days later another officer went down in a helicopter crash, I went from the grave site of a police funeral to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Shock Trauma unit, where the second officer was clinging to life. (He would die shortly after.)

At a hastily-called news conference, Jennifer Gilbert, a veteran reporter for FOX-45, said: “Rob, this is unimaginable. Can you describe the feeling of the department right now?”

What an immense responsibility that was! To be asked, off the top of your head, to define how 3,000 or 4,000 men and women would feel in the wake of such a devastating loss. It was a question I wish I never had to answer—it was the closest I ever came to shedding tears on camera. All I could think about were the families of the officers and the horrible news they’d just received. I quickly snapped out of it, as many depended on me to capture the moment, not cry on camera.

Yet, I would be asked to do something similar many times, to provide perspective to people who didn’t live in the police world or understand life on the street, to bridge the gap between the tragic reality of whatever crisis was occurring and people’s perceptions of it. That’s what an effective public affairs director can do: take the complex or unbelievable and make it easily consumable for others to understand, no matter how grim.

When police Lt. Owen Sweeny was shot through a door and killed just months before his retirement; when a two-year-old named Asia Nichols was shot in the head by her father, who was in the midst of a domestic dispute; when Walter E. Loch, a retired Johns Hopkins physician, and his wife, Mary, were beaten to death with a baseball bat as they slept in their home (their grandson would eventually confess to the crime)—in all of those senseless, high-profile crimes, I was the face of delivering horrific news to the public.

I had to deliver it in a credible, professional, articulate way, while also being the voice of reason and humanizing the events so people not only understood the facts, but also how it impacted the community within the context of larger public policy discussions and debates.

A good spokesperson, I learned, is not just someone who regurgitates facts. It’s someone who pays attention in his or her remarks to delivery, cadence and voice inflection—someone who can think on his or her feet, who can take something technical and break it down so that the message is understood. In short, they tell a story in the most conversational of tones.

If the story is understood, truly understood no matter how painful or joyful the news, then the spokesperson has done their job.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Never erode your integrity. Misinformation breeds distrust. As a spokesperson there is, at times, an immense pressure to make your organization look good. Do not cave in to others who would like you to lie, distort the truth or leave vital facts behind which alter messaging and perception—this is tantamount to a lie. Once lost, you will never fully restore your integrity.
  2. Be relevant. As the art of press relations evolves within a changing worldwide media landscape, I hear about more and more spokespeople not returning reporter calls, delaying the release of information, and simply refusing to feed the “media monster.” However, the “monster” will eat! And, as long as the “monster” eats, media reps will need access and information in order to tell their stories effectively. If you, as a press contact, choose to stick your head in the sand and not respond, you make yourself quickly irrelevant and ineffective. As an executive who depends on the advice of your communications expert, understand this principle and make yourself available. Remember the mantra, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. And, when someone else tells your story, it certainly won’t be the story you want told.”
  3. Know the facts. A common mistake of many who speak publicly is not fully preparing and gaining a sound understanding of the facts before the interview. Too many times, I have seen professionals jump out on camera with either no substantive information to deliver or relying solely on the old fallbacks “I can’t comment on that” or “I don’t have that information.” This drives consumers of the news berserk. Not knowing the facts or relying on the “no comment” phrase will quickly make you irrelevant to everyone – it is unacceptable.  A spokesperson is expected to – and paid to — know the facts. While you may feel you have done your job by surviving the interview or press conference, you have done nothing to inform the audience and lend the perspective so sorely needed during life’s most critical times. Sometimes spokespeople cave into media requests (“I just need something on camera”), organizational pressure or self-imposed deadlines. Bottom line: if you decide to step up to the podium have something important to say!
  4. Be predictive. When preparing to go on camera or prepping another, be certain to plan for every question and eventuality. There is often a tendency for folks to want to go on camera without fully preparing, because they are used to speaking publicly or know the organization very well—chief executives are good for this. Push back and demand ample preparation. List questions, answers, follow-ups and counters – it is a mental chess game. Train on camera, relentlessly. Failing to plan is planning to fail. An eight to fifteen second sound bite can ruin your career—just ask BP’s former chief executive Tony Hayward, who recklessly uttered in 2010 “I want my life back” after an explosion and one of the world’s most damaging oil spills killed 11 people and spilled some 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Don’t wing it, prepare for every interview no matter how mundane or harmless it may seem.
  5. Build relationships with those who have editorial control. Know those who tell your story. I want to get the benefit of the doubt when the reporter tells his or her story—I don’t want an unfair advantage, simply balance. Gather intelligence from reporters and news organizations—ask them what angle they plan to with their story. Yes, they are under no obligation to tell you. But you’d be amazed at what they will tell you, particularly if there is an existing relationship or future mutual need.
  6. Video doesn’t tell the whole story. In the Smothers case, the video account of what happened did not tell many things: what each party said, body language from all angles, what transpired before and after the footage. In today’s digital world, everyone is a journalist with an opinion. More is recorded and shared than at any other point in history. Make no mistake about it, the emergence of video has changed all professions. But be very careful when making a judgment or decision based solely on what video has to offer. There are many more aggravating and mitigating circumstances to consider. Treat video for what it is: another tool in the search for the truth.

To learn more about crisis management, “The Art of Crisis Leadership” is available for purchase on Amazon.