The eyes of the world turned to Minneapolis on Monday, 25 May 2020, and witnessed the shocking murder of George Floyd. This was not the first time the ugly face of racism and a city’s inability to address a systematic problem appeared. What followed were days of large and mostly respectful and peaceful protests, as well as riotous behavior that saw hundreds of Minneapolis buildings burned and destroyed. As a Minneapolis native, those first few days and nights after George Floyd’s murder were a mix of emotions ranging from anger to sadness to disillusionment. And from my perspective, as a communication professional, Minneapolis and the Minnesota state government needed to make significant improvements in communicating direction, management or strategy in the days after Floyd’s death.
I could not be silent. I could not sit idly by. I had to do my part to help my hometown.
I fully expected Minneapolis and the state to get their communication footing by the second day, and I expected I would see some sort of strategy play out. After nearly five days of unrest and a continued lack of communication from local governments, I picked up the phone at 8 a.m. on Friday and called a friend in the governor’s office.
Growing up in a police family, we had police scanners running all the time. From a young age, I learned how to listen to calls and dispatches coming in and then watch how it played out in the media. There is no better way to learn civil crisis communications than by being immersed in them.
After I had calmly and directly assessed the situation with the governor’s office, I offered to put together a volunteer team of communicators with experience communicating during protests, riots and big events. I quickly made four phone calls to all-star communicators who, combined, had handled the biggest crisis and protest situations in the Twin Cities. From Super Bowl and Republican National Convention protests to mass casualty events such as plane crashes, these four individuals brought the calm heads, strategic thinking and experience the state needed. I shared a communication plan for the state’s operations center by noon that day and further offered that my volunteer team would staff it and assist in implementing it at no charge.
By noon on Friday, the state had our plan and our recommendations. Not long after, we were embedded in the state’s operations center to provide our guidance. Our plan laid out 10 simple concepts:
- Never manage your own crisis. In most crisis situations, there must be a certain level of professional detachment from the event so emotions are not tied up in the response. Involving outside experts who can help move through crisis situations is key to finding success. Thankfully, our offer of help was accepted, and we joined the operations center to assist with communications, provide perspective and allow for the recommended emotional separation.
- Establish a regular cadence of communication, with multiple aligned sources. One mistake was the lack of communication coming from police, fire operations and government bodies during the unrest. As citizens sat huddled in place wondering if their homes and businesses would burn, there was silence. Social media and speculation filled the void, but that only heightened the uneasiness. Holding press events during business hours and sharing regular information from first responders about status, actions and expectations should be the norm. Adding the voices of aligned people and groups — for example, civic, religious and business leaders — could have provided the type of aligned communication needed to calm residents’ fears.
- Project unity in response. Perhaps the saddest element was the finger pointing between the Minneapolis mayor and Minnesota governor. In a moment of stress, leaders may be compelled to point blame elsewhere. This only impedes progress and does nothing to deescalate tensions. To quell fear and unrest, the people of Minnesota needed consistency and to hear that their leadership was a united front.
- Be present. Leaders’ directive messages must provide guidance to a frightened populace. Do not hide or stray from your community when they need you most.
- Have a message, use your message and repeat your message. In the face of great tragedy and unrest, simple macro messages put in a directive format work best: acknowledge the pain and anger, vowing to address the pain points and telling the audience a plan for moving forward. Alongside macro messages, Minneapolis needed to know how calls for first responders would be handled, what the expectations were for people not following curfew and what citizens could expect in the future. Your messaging must tell people where things are going and what you will do to get there.
- Empower the media to help tell your story. One clear misstep was not helping the media do their jobs. Done right, the media have a bigger and often more credible ability to tell your story and get your message out. Once we got started, we helped direct media stories and worked with reporters about what to look for, how to talk about certain police responses and what else the public could expect.
- Get social. During the rioting, citizens begged for answers and information. The traditional media and social media were the quickest and easiest ways to get information out, and yet it was almost non-existent. Regular posts that provide information, leadership communications and a sense of hope and understanding are efficient ways to be in touch with the public during times of crisis.
- Involve experts. Having a working knowledge of the tactics of professional protestors is essential to understanding riots and protests. My group had the knowledge and experience of working with enough of these situations to know what professional protestors would do and could work behind the scenes with the media to tell this story. The vast majority of protestors intend to protest peacefully; however, they can get co-opted by individuals who embed violence within the ranks of legitimate protestors. This happened in Minneapolis and, months after the riots, several of these professional protestors have since been identified and arrested.
- Work as a team. In a crisis situation, egos must be checked at the door. My group knew not all of our advice would be taken, and we were fine knowing that our plan and our efforts in the operations center were just one part of the team approach.
- Your leaders need care and feeding, so go to your bench. As unfortunate as it was to see the Minneapolis mayor and Minnesota governor clash at times, I also know they are human and had been under the stress and strain of managing COVID-19. They and their teams had been working several weeks straight on understanding COVID-19 when George Floyd was murdered. Frankly, they needed to take a break to clear their heads. Any crisis plan and response must contain leadership respites so that people can step back to refresh themselves.
For more from Omodt, read his personal piece about his hometown: “Where Does Your Reputation Live?“