Opinions about the Ferguson decision aside, few would disagree that the city of Ferguson made multiple errors in the way it communicated its message to its citizens. City leaders ignored even the most basic rules of crisis communications, and instead defiantly wrote their own, with great consequence to all their stakeholders.


Timing is everything. This is true across all communications, but especially in crisis communications. Ferguson’s leaders botched the timing of what they knew was an unwelcome message. Critics immediately scorned the city’s decision to release the news of the non-verdict late in the evening, but in fact, the most critical error was how long they made the public wait for the news. The public knew that the grand jury had reached a decision early in the afternoon, but rather than release the verdict shortly thereafter, those involved made the public wait all day. The people of Ferguson had been gathered outdoors, in the cold, the entire day. They were tired, hungry, anxious, and distraught. When the news finally came, the mood went from bad to worse, as any partially intelligent person could have predicted.

The Messenger

Prosecutor McCulloch's grand jury speech was accusatory and free of compassion. (theguardian.com)

Prosecutor McCulloch’s grand jury speech was accusatory and free of compassion. (theguardian.com)

It’s critical that your messenger be the right person for the job. In Ferguson, the messenger was a lawyer, a profession that has always been surrounded by scandal and breeds contempt in millions of people. Robert McCulloch’s opening remarks were meant to come off as compassionate, but because the messenger’s compassion appeared forced and unnatural, and his tone became accusatory, the message was lost. The public didn’t buy it.

The Message

You may have only one chance to repair your company’s reputation, making it critical for your message to hit all the right notes and miss all the wrong ones. Spare no expense and take no chances with this communication. It must perfectly convey its intended meaning and leave no room for interpretation. In Ferguson, multiple messages were delivered simultaneously, mostly by the prosecutor, Robert McCulloch. In one message, he expressed his sadness at the tragic death of Michael Brown. He went on to explain why this tragic death was the deceased’s fault. In yet another message, McColloch called several dozen of Ferguson’s own citizens liars. In his final message, McCulloch blamed social media and all of America for turning a simple police shooting into a conspiracy. Well done.


It’s possible that the city of Ferguson had no choice but to let Mcculloch deliver the grand jury’s decision to the public. If that’s the case, someone should have been advising him in what to say and when to say it. If a crisis communications team did advise Mcculloch, he clearly wasn’t listening.


What are your thoughts on crisis communications? Leave your insights in the comments section or tweet me @nataliepetitto