By Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
In less than a month, two families will celebrate the lives and tragic deaths of loved ones at the hands of police that took place three years and four days apart.
On August 9, the family of Michael Brown, activists and residents of Ferguson, Missouri will celebrate and remember Brown’s life and tragic death at the hands of White Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in 2014.
Here in Milwaukee on August 13, the family of Sylville Smith will hold a memorial with local activists and residents, reflecting on their loved ones shooting death a year ago at the hands of former MPD officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown, who is Black (and recently found not guilty in the shooting of Smith during his trial).
Both shootings led to violent protests and destruction of property and attracted the attention of the nation and the world.
City officials and law enforcement in the majority Black St. Louis suburb of 21,000 and in Wisconsin’s largest city will also be reflecting on what they did…and didn’t do following the fatal shootings which, in the case of Ferguson, sparked protests across the country against police brutality and forced changes in police practices. It also gave rise to the question: do Black lives matter?
A Black St. Louis public relations executive who spent two years in Ferguson playing a major role in addressing the issues and healing wounds after the Brown shooting said the best way for city government and police to confront such crises is immediate and total transparency: sharing all uncensored or unfiltered information about the incident and what is occurring and will occur—as it relates to an investigation–with the citizens and the media.
“(The) Main goal and focus was to be transparent,” said Johnny Little, a public relations and strategic communications counselor and owner of eLittle Communications Group.
In an exclusive MCJ interview, Little felt his agency’s job was to make Ferguson government and law enforcement officials “transparent”: making visible what they were doing to investigate the shooting and ease tensions in the community, and making accessible all information to the media outlets that descended on the town. “That’s what we emphasized (transparency). Why? Because the whole world was looking at Ferguson.”
Little was in Milwaukee recently to speak about his experiences in Ferguson and how public relation firms can help government, law enforcement and communities build trust at a luncheon before members of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter, a professional development organization for public relations practitioners in the Milwaukee area.
Little, whose firm was hired to assist Ferguson in its public relations effort following the Brown shooting, said his agency worked as a liaison between government, the community and media. The city had no office of communication or individual to handle PR at the time of the incident.
A former television news executive producer and director of communications for the St. Louis school district, Little noted Ferguson government officials were criticized for not being transparent with the community, nor responding to the media in a timely fashion with details of the investigation.
“Our focus (as an agency) was not to shape the narrative, but to communicate and have transparency with accountability.”
Little believes there is a place for public relations firms in crisis situations like Ferguson or Milwaukee to help calm tense and racially charged situations.
“We (public relation firms) are experts in our field. When you’re sick, you don’t ask a baker to prescribe you medicine. When in a crisis, you go to pros who know how to communicate.
“We’re able to make a difference mainly in dealing with media. Ferguson got between 250 and 300 media inquires, and not all of them local, but also national and international, even from Africa. People from around the world were flying into St. Louis and visiting Ferguson. Public relations makes a difference.”
As a former television news producer who worked under the pressure of deadlines, Little understood the importance of getting information to reporters as quickly as possible in order for them to meet their broadcast and print deadlines.
“If you don’t work with reporters, you will spend (a lot of) time correcting mis-information.”
Little couldn’t say what Milwaukee government officials and law enforcement should or should not have done in the aftermath of the Sylville Smith shooting. There were two days of unrest in the Sherman Park neighborhood following the incident and a curfew.
He did suggest officials look for and develop what he called “community ambassadors,” individuals who are active in and respected by the community, and work with them—even before a tragic situation develops—to build trust with residents.
Even with the one-year anniversary of Brown’s death, Little remembered he and city officials held meetings with certain members of the Brown family because officials knew there would be protests.
“We wanted to make sure we worked with activists and anyone who wanted peaceful demonstrations. You can’t be afraid to work with the family and activists.
“I was in a lot of tough meetings (with them). A lot of tough decisions had to be made. There wasn’t always going to be a welcome mat extended.”
Little stressed it is also time for elected officials to listen to their constituents and their concerns and frustrations and work with them to resolve them before there is another Michael Brown or Sylville Smith.
“The voices of concerned citizens can no longer be swept under the rug.”
By Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.