10 September 2014

Real men know what accountability is

I am by no means an expert on domestic violence, or how to prevent it.  The pieces I read by Roxane Gay, Liz Gumbinner and Rebecca Wolf are better than anything I could ever write on the topic.

I do have some knowledge in crisis communications and how companies and leaders demonstrate accountability in the aftermath of big mistakes.  That's what this post is about.

The National Football League is one of the most prolific sources of entertainment in the United States. Its owners and leadership earn profits in large part thanks to a special set of rules and benefits few other businesses get - preferential tax treatment, public subsidies and infrastructure support, business-friendly hiring practices, and so on.  They are the yachts William Carlos Williams wrote about in my favorite poem.

So I'm not surprised when the league develops rules of conduct that seem arbitrary to the rest of us.  I'm not surprised when they employ circular logic to defend the indefensible. I'm not surprised by the league's reaction when they are suddenly held to the standards others face every day.

Here's the thing.  There's a difference between saying something and doing something.  There's a difference between apologizing to someone and making them whole again.  There's a difference between saying you have a new policy and actually implementing that policy.  There's a difference between saying you're accountable and actually being accountable.

Ray Rice hit his fiance in an elevator - knocking her unconscious - and then dragged her out of the elevator.  He admitted doing this. The NFL had all of the facts and gave him a 2-week suspension.

When the NFL got overwhelming criticism for this decision, the commissioner admitted "they got it wrong" and announced a new policy.  The first time you do something like this you get a 6-week suspension, the second time you're fired. Rice's suspension, however, remained at 2 games.

Three days later, two NFL employees were arrested on domestic violence charges.  To date, neither has been disciplined under the new policy.

Then a video emerged confirming the facts the NFL already had and confirming what Rice said he did.  No one has suggested, at least publicly, that Rice lied or misled the league.  The facts haven't changed.  However, Rice is now fired.  He has been held accountable.

The NFL commissioner insists that no one at the NFL saw this "new" video.  Others have suggested this is not the case. Either way, the video does not offer new facts.

The commissioner says "the buck stops with me" and when it comes to the NFL's errors in appropriately enforcing rules, "I'm accountable for that."

The NFL commissioner is embarrassed.  He's apologetic.

He hasn't been held accountable.

And that's why the NFL hasn't stopped the damage yet.

08 September 2014

I strongly oppose my recent behavior, part 8,411

UPDATE: The Baltimore Ravens just fired Ray Rice after the video of him hitting his fiance "surfaced." It will be interesting to learn their justification.  I don't know that Rice ever denied what he did - what has changed now that video has surfaced?

Get ready for #notallfootballplayers:
Just three days after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell created stronger sanctions for players involved in domestic violence, 49ers starting defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested early Sunday morning on suspicion of felony domestic violence charges involving his fiancée.
As we brace ourselves for the inevitable "I'm really a good person" talk from McDonald and the parade of character witnesses, I'm struck by how completely routine this has all become and how far we really have to go.

McDonald played football on Sunday.  So far at least, there have been no public sanctions placed on him by his employer. Think about what your boss might do with you if police found probable cause to file domestic violence charges filed against you.

What McDonald allegedly did to his pregnant fiance is certainly bad enough - but it's just the beginning.   How can we forget the Ray Rice fiasco - and how he's only suspended for two games while McDonald may be on the hook for six. Rice held a press conference with his wife sitting next to him - imagine that for a second - talking about how "her pain is my pain" and how he's "going to get through this" and "move forward," but not before he "helps himself."  How he was going to be "out there" speaking against domestic violence.

Because I'm sure that's what women need - the guy who was caught on tape dragging his unconscious fiance out of an elevator talking to them about domestic violence.  Nope, no trigger warnings needed there.

And it's interesting that the official website of the Baltimore Ravens published this:
In his first major appearance Monday night at M&T Bank Stadium as part of an open training camp practice, Rice got a standing ovation from the Ravens fans that have followed him for the past six years.
Standing ovations (and their official coverage from the team) give cover to people like that jock-sniffer Stephen Smith discussing Rice and saying - not for the first time - that women need to do a better job not provoking men into beating them senseless.

The NFL took a step in the right direction when it strengthened its policy on domestic abuse and physical violence - a six game suspension for the first offense, a "lifetime" ban for the second.  This "test case" suggests they need to do a better job describing how this policy will work.

The NFL claims it hadn't seen footage released today of Rice actually striking his fiance in the elevator.  They claim they asked the police for everything "including the video from the elevator" and didn't get it.  This is either a poorly-crafted statement or a tacit admission that they at least knew the video existed.

I will say this - I'm confident the NFL was caught by surprise.

Regardless, I think the burden is on the rest of us to demonstrate that we won't tolerate the violence either.

Standing ovation?  WTF, Ravens fans?

19 August 2014

Trying to sort it all out

The past couple of weeks have been family-focused for me.  I was away and relatively (though not completely) unplugged.  I'm very grateful that I have the resources to do that, because I know most people don't.  From an extreme distance, in more ways than one, I watched the scene unfold in Ferguson.

I read the national media accounts - the ones that focus on sensationalism and conflict, and try to explain  "why it's important" or "the 5 things you need to know" or how what's happened is just a proxy for someone's real agenda or confirms someone's world view.  I read the local media - the ones that insist that "this isn't who we are" and focus on the leadership (or lack thereof) in the community.  I read the "niche" media that reflects perspectives I don't and can't truly have - conservative media, African-American media, foreign media, people who write about law enforcement.

I looked at all this and I asked myself "what if Michael Brown were my son?"

But then, none of this would ever happen to my son.

If a local cop found my son walking in the middle of the street, and by some miracle chose not to ignore it, he'd probably just threaten to tell me about it.  If he found my son hiding a box of cheap cigars under his arm, he'd probably tell him to give them back. If he smelled marijuana on him, he'd probably think fondly of the days when he'd sneak a joint. He might even crack a joke.

If my kid got into trouble with the law, people would be falling over themselves trying to figure out how a good kid could get caught up in this stuff.  They'd wonder if he has problems and they'd try to find him help.  My son would probably get a dozen second chances.  We would be telling prosecutors not to ruin this kid's future.

If a cop shot and killed my son in a situation like what happened in Ferguson - and by that I mean "jaywalking" - there would be no riots.  They wouldn't be necessary, because everyone knows accountability would be swift and sure.  I'd see suspensions, resignations, written apologies, and drafts of settlement agreements with big dollar amounts attached to them. I'd get a call from the mayor, maybe even a member of Congress. I'd probably watch the offending officer break down crying, wondering aloud how he could have possibly made such a tragic mistake, and beg my forgiveness.  Someone would set up a scholarship fund in my son's name, and the police union would make the first donation.

Less than a week after this "accident," I'd never have to worry about calculating, depraved, and cowardly character assassinations from a local police chief that demonstrates a level of incompetence and disregard for the rule of law I'd never think possible in modern America.

I'd never have to witness a surreal spectacle of police officers with more combat gear than a military special forces unit dehumanize the citizens they're sworn to serve and throw journalists in jail for trying to document it.

None of this would ever happen to my family. I cannot possibly comprehend the depths of pain the Brown family feels right now.

There is one thing, however, I can comprehend as a professional in crisis communications.  It's the level of deception, depravity, and hypocrisy coming from the Ferguson police chief in the guise of "public relations."

As his officers abuse the citizens they're supposed to protect, he also allows them to block, assault, detain, and tear gas journalists - all in obvious violation of the law. He's clearly condoned, and possibly even directed this behavior.  This prevents the documentation of abuse that would likely hold him accountable.

Just before he finally released the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown, he accused Brown of stealing a box of cheap cigars a few minutes before he was killed.  He acknowledged that this had nothing to do with the shooting, but said he had "no choice" because journalists had apparently filed "FOIA requests."   He also said he hadn't informed the Missouri Highway Patrol - the organization who had taken over for him due to his profound incompetence - of his decision because he was still "in the mode of the county being in charge."

I've done enough work with public entities and dealt with enough FOIA issues to know this is exquisite bullshit. Nothing in the law requires the police chief to do what he did.  This man has ignored the laws that would force him to act transparently, and he has deceptively invoked laws to obfuscate the facts.  We now know state and federal officials urged the local police chief to exercise appropriate restraint.  The chief effectively flipped them the bird.

He said all this at a press conference he called - one in which he asked the media to "exercise discretion" by not bringing members of the Ferguson community with them.  He wanted the media to know this and report it without the instant reaction of outrage.  He wanted the narrative of Michael Brown the robber to cut into the narrative of Darren Wilson the shooter for that first round of coverage.

And he stood there, in front of cameras, and claimed he was powerless to stop it.

That's a lie.