By Brent Snavely, Director, public relations
The social media tornado that touched down in Tempe, Arizona, over a period of several hours Monday morning illustrates how rapidly a story can go from what was expected to be a local, feel-good, one-day news story into a full-blown, national, social media crisis.
The Tempe Police Department got through the situation relatively quickly by engaging directly with local media, responding to national media and clarifying its policy on Twitter.
The police department found itself in the middle of the rapid, national social media backlash on the morning of July 29 after a local TV station incorrectly described the department’s new “Positive Ticketing Campaign.”
On Sunday, the police department issued a media advisory to local media in advance of an 8 a.m. press conference on Monday where it planned to explain the program in more detail. Tempe’s 12News used the media advisory as the basis for a story that incorrectly reported that the police department planned to pull over motorists who were obeying the law and reward them for good driving habits with drink coupons from Circle K, a chain of convenience stores.
Within two hours, the tweet was generating dozens of responses questioning the legality, constitutionality and logic of the department’s policy with some even seeing it as an excuse to target immigrants or people of color. Others complained that an uninvited police stop would make them late to get to wherever they were going and still others made fun of the policy as a waste of time for a cheap drink they didn’t want to begin with.
The police department was fortunate – its communication crisis began to blow up about an hour before the pre-scheduled press conference. That press conference gave the department an opportunity to take actions to regain control of the media narrative just as it was beginning to break. The department also clarified its policy on Twitter where it included its press release.
By Monday afternoon, both local and national outlets had written stories correcting and clarifying the program. And by Tuesday morning, Greg Bacon, a detective with the media relations unit for the Tempe Police Department, had time to return my call and explain how it happened and how the department responded.
“The campaign never changed,” Bacon said. “We never, ever, ever had any intent to stop cars, or to pull bicyclists over.”
Still, many of the news stories lacked clarity about what had happened and many on social media continued to believe the police department backtracked and changed its original policy – even after the department’s social media clarifications and after media outlets wrote stories explaining the fiasco. One of the clearest explanations of the situation was written by the Phoenix New Times.
Shortly after the Tempe Police Department launched a “Positive Ticketing Campaign,” 12 News, a local NBC affiliate, shared the news on Twitter, mischaracterizing the campaign and prompting many to criticize the department for something police now say they aren’t doing and never intended to do.
What was it like to be in the middle of this crisis?
“We are fortunate that we have great partnerships with our community members, and we have good partnerships with our media,” Bacon said. “I will say, that close to every local outlet this morning has discussed this story again and has clarified the policy. So, there shouldn’t be any more confusion.”
By the time Bacon spoke to me, just a little bit over 24 hours after the communications crisis emerged, he no longer had any more media calls to respond to and what was, just one day earlier, a communications crisis, was on its way toward fading into the background.
An argument can still be made that the policy was unwise and lacked clarity. And there are many on Twitter who continued to question the department’s motives even as it worked to explain the policy.
But the primary lesson to be learned here is that the ability to act quickly, and willingness to swiftly correct the confusion by engaging with the media and clarifying the facts on social media, can effectively quell a national social media communications crisis.