Chaos is often the rule of the day when a tragic crisis occurs. Chaos reigned on the streets of downtown Dallas when a gunman bent on killing white people and white police officers went on a crazed rampage. When the smoke cleared, five policemen were dead and many others injured. It was the deadliest day for police since 9-11, and the live news coverage of downed policemen on a major American city street was shocking and surreal. You simply could not believe what you were seeing. The right leadership, coupled with the right spokespersons, can mean the difference between recovering from a crisis – or making things worse for your organization and stakeholders. Fortunately, the City of Dallas had the right combination with Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas Police Chief David Brown. They represented not only their police officers and the City of Dallas — but also spoke for all law enforcement groups across the country, as the threat of copycats and escalating violence was top of mind. With so much on the line, it was crucial that Rawlings and Brown set a calming and appropriate tone, and here is what they got right.
“Long after most of the facts about a crisis are
forgotten – the visual symbols live on.”
1. Lasting Crisis Symbols
Long after most of the facts about a crisis are forgotten – the visual symbols live on. The drowned toddler on the beach of a popular Turkey resort became the symbol of the Syrian migrant crisis. The video of two officers lying facedown on the pavement will live on as one of the symbols of the Dallas crisis. Fortunately, so will the photos of Rawlings and Brown standing side by side. In the context of this tragedy and the heightened emotions of Black Lives Matter protesters, the symbol of a white mayor and an African American police chief standing together and acting in complete harmony was much needed. These two men obviously have a lot of respect for one another. They worked seamlessly to address the crisis, while comforting officers, their families, the community and the nation. Chief Brown said, “We’re hurting, our profession is hurting. Dallas officers are hurting. We are heartbroken. No words to describe the atrocity that occurred to our city. All I know is this must stop – the divisiveness between police and our citizens. We don’t feel much support most days. Let’s not make today most days.” Symbols impact short and long-term public perceptions.
2. Spokesperson & Stakeholder Connections
The most effective spokespersons have credibility with key stakeholders. Chief Brown’s focus has been on his primary stakeholder group throughout this crisis – police officers and their loved ones. Brown’s credibility runs deep with this group; he left college early to become a police officer after seeing what crack cocaine had done to his Dallas neighborhood. He eventually rose to the top post within the department. Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union”, he talked about his brave officers running toward the shooter and about the daily risks taken by officers – for $40,000 salaries. At the same time, Brown has earned a national reputation as a progressive leader whose top priority is improving relations and improving trust between police and minority residents. This gives him credibility with another key stakeholder group — African American citizens that feel alienated by police. Like some of them, he knows the grief of violence. His bipolar son shot and killed a civilian and a police officer before other policemen killed him. His police partner was killed in the line of duty and drug dealers killed his younger brother. Brown was simply the right spokesperson at the right time.
3. Emotions Rule
Emotions shape public perceptions in a crisis and most people were still in the “shock and disbelief” phase when Rawlings and Brown conducted their first news briefings. Therefore, it was important they communicate with calmness and control. Despite what they must have been feeling on the inside with the loss of so many officers, they stepped up to the microphones with steady, calm and deliberate deliveries. Their appropriate use of pauses, measured eye contact, tone and cadence all perfectly matched the emotions of the situation. Journalists and audiences know at a subconscious level when someone believes in what they are saying at an emotional level, versus someone who simply delivers talking points. These two leaders had a few notes to guide their thoughts, but they were primarily speaking from their hearts – a worthwhile lesson for all organizations.
4. Transparency Builds Trust
Rawlings and Brown conducted two news briefings within the first few hours of the Dallas shootings. They shared what they knew and encouraged the public to help them locate persons of interest, while the city used social media to ask the public to help in identifying suspects. Brown was forthcoming about specific statements made by the gunmen to the hostage negotiator, making it clear that the killer’s intent was to target white officers and white people in the wake of recent police shootings. After the briefings, local reporters praised Chief Brown for his transparency, saying he has always been open with the media and the public. More organizations could take a lesson on this point – engage reporters and your stakeholders in good times, and you will have more credibility, support and consideration during the bad times.
5. Lean On Me
Emotions are high during a crisis and stakeholders need leaders to reassure them that actions are being taken and things will be all right. Rawlings and Brown certainly fulfilled that role. They were out front and visibly united multiple times in the first hours. They were bonded in purpose – even to the point that the mayor waited for Chief Brown to finish a meeting at the City’s Emergency Operations Center, so they could arrive simultaneously at Parkland Hospital to visit the wounded officers and their families. Rudy Giuliani was named Time Magazine’s 2001 Person of the Year because of his exhaustive presence and leadership in New York after the 9/11 attacks. Organizations typically don’t have a lot of confirmed information in the early hours of a crisis, but what is more important — is being out front and visible to communicate crisis leadership and action.
The right leadership and the right spokespersons can mean the difference between recovering from a crisis – or making things worse for your organization and stakeholders. There is much organizations can learn from Mayor Rawlings and Chief Brown.