September 16 was not a good day for police officers in Baltimore. It first turned bad when a man shot and wounded a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, then shot and killed his mother (a patient) and then died of a gunshot wound himself.
It got worse, according to CNN, when it was revealed that, contrary to early police statements that officers shot and killed the gunman, the assailant actually had taken his own life. To compound matters, after police issued a lengthy statement at a news conference about the shooting, identifying Warren Davis as the gunman, CNN reported that this was an alias the individual gave to hospital staff and police now were working to discover his real identity.
The miscommunications that occurred in Baltimore were the results of failing, perhaps unwittingly, to honor the first rule of crisis communications: release only confirmed information. Often spokespersons in the early stage of a crisis appear to be dodging reporters’ questions or out of touch with what the media already have reported, but developments in Baltimore were an example of why spokespersons must be extra cautious in making sure they are absolutely certain of the events that occurred and the people involved before announcing these kinds of details.
Organizations also should remember the following key points when managing communications in a crisis:
- Gather–and analyze–the facts, not always an easy endeavor.
- Monitor media and online sources to correct misinformation and offer the facts.
- Disclose appropriate information with minimal delay. Information you would not have disclosed under other circumstances does not necessarily need to be disclosed at this point.
- Be sure that the organization’s top executives are visible and engaged on site
- Speak with one voice
- Always be truthful
- Do not speculate
- And, as the people in Baltimore learned, always question “certainties” until they are confirmed