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What Ferguson Tells Us About Public Relations and Race

Posted: December 3, 2014, 6:50 p.m.
by Amber Patterson.

Last Monday I witnessed history. I sat in front of my television and watched as St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch announced the decision of a 12-member grand jury. They decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the killing of teenager Michael Brown. That wasn’t anything historical, as there have always been patterns of police brutality against young black men.

Don't Shoot

The history that I witnessed was the riots that ensued afterward. Every news cycle seemed to have at least two reporters or more on the scene. It reminded me of the Watts riots of 1965 or the Los Angeles riots of 1992. The riots in Ferguson were my generation’s rebellion. While watching this, all I could think about was: Where was the crisis communication strategy? Why was the world of public relations world silent?



The elephant in the room
Growing up with deep Southern roots, I was taught that race does not make good dinner conversation. It is not something you discuss outside of your home, and especially not around “mixed company.” I feel as if this passive-aggressive attitude toward the topic translates to public relations. Public relations practitioners usually take advantage of social issues to give their opinion, but the events in Ferguson seemed like a bomb that no one wanted to be responsible for detonating. This hands-off approach to issues of race leads to the mishandling of racially charged situations like Ferguson.

What went wrong
The multiple public relations mishaps can be seen in the press conference that was held to announce the decision. It showed the lack of a diverse communications team. A diverse communication specialists could have informed McCulloch that blaming social media as the catalyst that started the chain reaction of anger and misinformation around the death of Michael Brown was not only misguided and inappropriate, but also not accurate.They could have explained to him that African-Americans trust social media more than traditional media. Social media doesn’t depict them as these restless creatures like traditional media does.

The mayor’s office and other government agencies of Ferguson could have also benefited from having a diverse communication counsel as well. They could have advised the mayor that, whichever way the grand jury’s decision went, it would affect the country and the city of Ferguson past that Monday night. They could have explained that although the decision was to get justice for Michael Brown, for the African-American community, it was about justice for all black men who lost their lives due to police brutality. In the 100 days it took to make the decision not to indict officer Wilson preparation should have begun. By preparation, I do not mean calling in the National Guard or putting the city under a state of emergency, but developing a plan to heal the community. This plan should have been implemented after the shooting, but it seemed like everything was on hold until Monday night.

A new attitude
The public relations community’s attitude toward the issue of race mirrors the divide in our country. It is time for leaders in our field to not be afraid to comment or handle these issues. A diverse communication team is vital when dealing with a racially charged crisis, like the one the world watched in Ferguson. It is time to bring race to the dinner table.



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