The best PR campaigns often take courage of convictions or a willingness to do something differently in order to influence and engage with audiences to improve outcomes. This is even more the case in a crisis PR / communications, where the stakes are high and a wrong move can be costly.
As is often the case, the risk reward equation needs to be carefully balanced, with business leaders making the call based on the advice and expertise given by their PR agency or advisors.
But equally sometimes in business, politics or society the right action just feels right, is based on a calculated risk and an intuitive understanding of the people you are looking to engage with.
There is no better example of this than the crisis communications undertaken by Chris Swanson, Genesee County Sheriff, who put down his helmet, weapons and joined protesters marking the murder of George Floyd saying, “I want to make this a parade, not a protest”.
Simply brilliant. He had a clear understanding of his audience, the courage of his convictions and the leadership to take his team with him. He also faced significant risks as he faced a potentially angry mob who were protesting against police brutality and who in other regions and states had clashed violently.
Swanson took off his helmet, ordered other officers to put down their weapons and smiled and high-fived people in the crowd. The crowd responded by chanting, “walk with us!”. So, he did. “Let’s go, let’s go,” Swanson said as he and the cheering crowd proceeded. “Where do you want to walk? We’ll walk all night.”
His leadership and actions marked a change in behaviour as well as the emergence of #walkwithus. Several law enforcement officials have taken his lead with more in the past few days engaging with marchers and showing solidarity either by marching, kneeling or publicly denouncing the death of Mr. Floyd.
This positive and persuasive response is in marked contrast to the confrontations that have escalated and cities, including Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, where violence and vandalism have targeted police in recent nights. Videos have shown police officers using batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders and journalists, often without warning. Sadly at least five people have been killed so far in violence connected to the protests that started after Mr. Floyd died in police custody.
So why was this crisis communication so successful? It was not a crisis PR campaign orchestrated with big budgets and celebrity influencers but simply honest and genuine communications that understood and related to its audiences.
It also took a lot of bravery and showed exceptional leadership in a time of crisis. It was however considered communications and one based on an understanding of the audience, confidence in the team and an honest appraisal of the situation.
Well done Sheriff Swanson, setting an excellent example not only in policing, humanity and empathy but crisis PR communications as well.