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Social Media Policy in the Aftermath of Ferguson, Missouri

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Louis J. DeAnda
February 13, 2015

If you watched the national news at all from August through November 2014, you very likely saw some extensive coverage of the social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting of an unarmed, African-American teenager. With some dismay, I watched the coverage from the perspective of a former federal law enforcement manager and realized just how quickly an incident can spin out of control for an agency or city administration. Several patterns emerged that I believed were very instructive and bear close scrutiny for the lessons they hold for any public administrator:

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  • The use of social media developed the story negatively at a very accelerated pace.
  • In addition to the speed of development, the complexity of the issue also rapidly developed.
  • At no time was the city or state ahead of the incident in the public eye.
  • Unaffiliated third parties with social agendas quickly hijacked the incident as a public platform, increasing the intensity of the issues and the media coverage.
  • Cities and communities far away that had nothing to do with Ferguson or the shooting were subsequently impacted to very serious degrees. 

Let’s examine each of these fact patterns from a perspective of public policy review and preparation.

The Impact of Social Media Upon Public Policy

The single most important element for public administrators to understand about social media is that facts become secondary to perceptions!  What actually happens may be quickly buried under multiple layers of misinformation or outright deliberate distortions of context, scope and degree. If the misinformation is socially volatile, administrators may find themselves facing an angry segment of the public that holds the administration responsible for a fact pattern that never existed.

The first impulse of administrators may be to run toward the shelter of policy that forbids the release of information until certain conditions are met. This is now a recipe for public relations disaster. Every hour that goes by means the misinformation is spreading like wildfire. The silence from the agency appears to be collaboration on some kind of cover story.

The solution may be a prepackaged and vetted public announcement that concentrates not on the facts the agency has collected, but instead on process and is presented in the form of a mass solicitation for fact witnesses. The preemptive headline message should be: “We’ve had an incident and we are urgently seeking fact witnesses about the involved parties and their actions before and after it occurred.” The headline messenger should be someone with whom the impacted constituency may relate to by race or ethnicity.

Issue Complexity – What Actually Happened is not What is Happening!

The Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown was uncomplicated and not uncommon– police shootings of suspects occur almost daily in the United States. The social issues however, rapidly transcended the shooting itself and evolved into outrage over racial profiling, social inequity, police abuse of force authority, due process and even federalism. Simply holding a news conference to say that an investigation is taking place and the facts will come out is like taking a child’s squirt gun to respond to a forest fire. Contextually, you are grossly outmatched by the scope of the social issues confronting you. Administrators must be prepared to address larger-scope social issues even if they are officially perceived as unrelated to the incident (they’re not!). It may also be prudent to have on short-call notice a panel of social leadership figures that can appear to respond to those issues.

Getting Behind and Staying Behind…

This is not where administrators want to be, but policy often restricts them in terms of when and what information is communicated. If this is so – change the policy!  Trying to catch up means administrators will always be one storyline behind. Get out in front early and stay there, first with the process message headline and later with a conference that is prepared to address any issue raised by the press or the public.

Third Party Hijacks

Social mass media now permits any third party with an agenda to attach itself to any emerging social issue for purposes of publicity and relevance. Administrators should expect this in any issue of controversy and build a policy response that effectively counters or matches an attempted hijack by third party agenda groups. This means war-gaming policy development in advance using a media relations group.

Geographic Distance is Now Meaningless…

The final lesson of Ferguson is that distance doesn’t really mean anything in terms of impact avoidance. There were spinoff violent protests in cities across America. If your city has similarities in social issues to the city of prime impact, your policy should be one of rapid response just as if the incident took place in your city.

Summary

The policy lessons of Ferguson, Missouri are there for administrators to see. Prudence demands some serious policy review and development. Use a team approach, leverage your subject matter experts in your community and don’t wait!

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