Representing Ferguson, MO

Ferguson hired a PR firm after the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager. Now the issue is whether Ferguson officials will own what happened and tell the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, about what happened.People who dislike confrontation should avoid crisis communication. It is all about confrontation, often with your own client.

Denise Bentele, CEO of Common Ground, the PR firm hired by Ferguson, Missouri, which has been rocked by protests and commentary following the shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager by a white police officer.

Bentele and her St. Louis-based PR team face a tough job. Michael Brown, the shooting victim, died from six gunshot wounds, two to the head. His bleeding body was left uncovered on the street where he was shot for an uncomfortably long time. The police chief refused at first to disclose the name of the officer who shot Brown. Police responded to protests by brandishing military-style armor and weapons. Businesses in Ferguson were looted. Journalists covering the protests were arrested. Scenes flashed across national TV news broadcasts of bedlam in the streets.

It would be fair to say life in this St. Louis suburb pretty much has changed forever. Scrutiny will be intense in a place that has a black majority, an all-white city council and just a handful of black police officers.

Providing crisis communications to Ferguson would be daunting for anyone. Bentele discovered daunting included negative public and professional reaction to her hiring. In addition to the typical rants about hiring a PR spin machine, Common Ground was assailed for the ethnic makeup of its staff.

Bentele defended her firm's involvement, saying she and her team were brought in to help Ferguson field "the overwhelming number of media inquiries" the city received daily. Bentele also said she recommended Ferguson hire The Devin James Group, a black-owned firm, to assist on community engagement.

Helping handle media phone calls is fine. But the real work of crisis response is answering the calls. In this case, getting Ferguson officials to own what happened. 

You don't have to believe Brown was an angel or Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him, is a devil to realize there are a lot of unanswered questions in this case. The crisis PR pro's job is to impress on clients the importance of telling the truth, and telling it as soon as possible. There is nothing worse than dribbling out news, especially bad news.

Criticizing Bentele and Common Ground for being hired or the ethnicity of its team is misplaced. She should be evaluated on whether she helps Ferguson officials come to grips with a shooting in its streets, which on its face seems inexplicable and excessive. It's likely, the story to be told won't be pretty and will make a lot of people uncomfortable, but it must be told — and soon.

Lawyers who think in terms of courtroom liability may have to be nudged aside to allow the real, complete story to come out. There is much more at stake here than how much a future settlement costs.

The situation in Ferguson is not untypical. Something bad happens and the public wants to know why and by whom. Imagining you can stonewall this civic curiosity is naive and, worse still, damaging to the reputations of the person or entity involved.

My friendly advice to Bentele is do more than answer the phone. Get your client in a room and wrestle them to the ground, if necessary, to take responsibility for what happened and to undertake steps to prevent it ever from happening again in Ferguson. That will give you something interesting and useful to say when you pick up the phone.