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July 1, 2010
Sizing Up Strangers
One of the most prominent failures of public relations in recent memory -- police/community relations in this instance -- was the confrontation at the home of famed Harvard professor Henry Lewis Gates last July at which Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct by a Cambridge police sergeant. The incident brought renewed searing awareness of how communication can go awry when strangers encounter each other in an unexpected situation and both race and authority are involved.

Both the officer and the professor had the influence of stereotypes and stresses of emotional intelligence acting upon them in a very unfortunate encounter at Professor Gates' front door. Now The Huffington Post advises that a report has been released on the incident finding that both parties missed opportunities to "ratchet down" the situation. That's often the way it is when communication starts going awry. Missed cues, mistaken assumptions, simple fatigue, or distraction can cause even professionals to get things wrong.

Anyone who doubts that human communication is an art that occurs all too often, instead, at the level of assumption and farce should review the Gates case. 

Professor Gates had just returned home from a trip to China and found his front door jammed shut. With the help of his driver, he attempted to force it open. A witness reported their efforts to the police as an apparent burglary in progress. 

Responding to the call, Sergeant James Crowley apparently did not not readily accept Professor Gates' proffered identification, and the professor reportedly lost his cool. The result was the professor's arrest on disorderly conduct charges and a photograph of him being led from his home in handcuffs.

The case quickly gained notoriety and President Obama didn't help the situation by initially commenting that the police had "acted stupidly" in a situation in which he, the president, wasn't present and should have kept his own cool. The president, however, later invited Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates to a "beer summit" at the White House with himself and Vice President Biden. The charges against Professor Gates were dropped. 

We don't have the details of the report by a 12-member panel that was assembled in September to review the case, and we wish did, but the situation had all the markings of the sort of emotional hijacking that often occurs when communication goes awry. A police officer's job is a risky one, and a professor's travels from China were fatiguing -- not a great context for an encounter that neither man was expecting.

What has the panel recommended?

"The report suggests," says The Huffington Post, "that Crowley could have more clearly explained what he was doing and why he was doing it, especially after being shown Gates' license and university ID. For his part, Gates could have used a more respectful tone to address the officer."

Fine, except for the emotional pressures that were building in both men.

"The panel," The Huffington Post report adds, "made 10 recommendations for avoiding similar incidents in the future, including better training for police in de-escalating conflicts, as well as more outreach to the public and academic community to teach understanding of the police department's job."

Fine, too, except that both parties should already have been aware of such factors.

What happens in a situation of emotional stress is that primal energies are triggered, a traffic light starts blinking red that both sides try to get past, only to collide over mistaken -- or, sometimes, maybe not mistaken -- assumptions. One can easily become despondent in reviewing the Gates case and its portents for communication under stress. But the good news of the actual affair is that Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley have apparently "met many times and have developed 'a friendly relationship.'"

What a communication seminar they could convene! Public relations all too easily becomes crisis management when hasty, possibly unavoidable, appraisals of a stranger's intentions come into play. Spare us all from such encounters. Stereotypes quickly can become sizzling. 




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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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