Second guessing and outsmarting ourselves has become a booming industry. Consultants and crisis communications specialists have become indispensable weapons in the war to sway public opinion. In many instances, however, efforts to manage crises actually make the situation worse. A clear example of this is the disastrous handling of the tragic events in Ferguson, MO.
In a perverse attempt to operationalize Col. Nathan Jessep's (played by actor Jack Nicholson) famous admonition in the movie A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth" has become the standard principle of crisis management, when in fact what spokespersons are really saying is that they cannot actually handle the truth. If Watergate taught us nothing else, it showed that the cover up is as deadly as the crime. And in the public communications business perception is as potent as reality. In Ferguson, what has literally happened is that the perception of a cover up has poisoned already fragile community relations. The resulting slow-motion train wreck is painful to watch.
Yet night after night we see the trains heading towards each other. Attempts to portray the victim as villain, the shooter acting in self-defense, and the unsavory game of political whack a mole between the Governor and the elected prosecutor over whether or not this case can literally be handled in house only serve to exacerbate racial tensions that obviously lay just beneath the surface.
It should come as no shock or surprise that perception and experiences within the black community with respect to the relationship between a virtually all-white police force and themselves bordered somewhere between harassment and distrust. This is true in many communities of color throughout the country. Knee-jerk reaction or a strategic decision to immediately defend the authority figures only served to reinforce those negative perceptions and experiences.
Rather than attempting to sooth obvious underlying racial tensions in a rapidly changing community the initial attempts were to draw further battle lines that would only escalate those latent tensions and attempt to justify an action that clearly requires clear headed investigatory and forensic professionalism. In a rush to judgment the authorities attempted to portray the confusion which led an unarmed black youth to be shot six times and left to rot in the street for hours as justifiable. So who is it that cannot handle the truth?
Everyone would have been better served if the truth of the situation were allowed to be discerned through a careful and methodical examination that would bear all the earmarks of an impartial and objective assessment of the actual facts of the case. Such transparency would support the standard that innocent until proven guilty remains a principle tenet of American jurisprudence.
Instead we have born witness to a rash of recriminations, many of them already proven false, that only reinforces the distrust among a cynical, angry, and frustrated community. The truth in this instance is the fact that until we have incontrovertible evidence and facts the best policy is to simply refrain from inciting passions with speculation and theorizing. In this instance it is not we in the populace who cannot handle the truth, but rather they in positions of power who cannot handle the truth.
It appears as though the community is fractured by the wounds of institutionalized racism. The healing will take hard work and considerable time. Let it begin with a concerted effort on behalf of the local power structure to place transparency and the truth above all other concerns and let the chips fall where they may. Playing their hand out in a convoluted and aggressive media strategy aimed at placing blame before the evidence is gathered is exactly what should not have been done and must not continue. And it matters little whether or not those concocting the strategy know what they are doing. In an era of minute to minute media coverage those strategies are bound to produce more friction and distrust.
Impartiality, objectivism, professionalism and a desire to gather factual evidence before attempting to assign blame represent the truth in this instance. All sides must buy into this in order to restore order to what has been a chaotic series of events. We cannot replay the actions taken in the aftermath of this tragedy, but we must start to heal the wounds in the community and restoring a sense of fairness and justice in the investigation into this case is paramount to beginning that process. An important first step would be for the county prosecutor to recuse himself from the case.
We must get to the point where all sides can handle the truth.