By Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D.
Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer has a problem that is the exception to the rule. The standard public relations advice for someone being vilified in the media is talk to your accusers, admit your mistakes and move on.
This is because it is better to make the problem go away than to cause it to drag on while you are trying to save face. Unfortunately for Sawyer and the crew at Ladder 4 Engine 40 firehouse, they can't admit to wrongdoing because they didn't do anything wrong.
As you recall, four children died in a fire before dawn on Saturday, July 5. The following Monday approximately 250 residents filled the neighborhood streets to protest what they deemed an inadequate response by the fire department. Rev. Adolphus Capehart said the fire station was "two seconds away" and its response was "pathetic."
At a Tuesday news conference, Sawyer addressed the predominantly West African Philadelphia neighborhood residents saying, "You're asking our heroes to be superheroes." He was right.
The first calls about the fire came in at 2:45 and 2:47 a.m. One engine was at a car fire, so a ladder truck showed up first at 2:49 a.m. The engine truck left the car fire and arrived at 2:52 a.m., seven minutes after the first call.
Four houses were ablaze when the trucks arrived; the fires were under control in 90 minutes.
The deaths of four children are a painful, regrettable, inconsolable loss. It is natural and certainly useful for everyone involved to consider how the deaths might have been prevented.
Were fireworks to blame? Were the buildings adequately maintained; did it have sprinklers? Were there working fire alarms? Was there a delay in calling the fire department? Was the response of the firefighters competent and professional?
Surprisingly, the community laid the entire blame on the firefighters. Their statements imply incompetence or willful neglect: one resident said he watched a firefighter take several minutes attempting to open a fire hydrant. Capehart drew a parallel with a fire in 2008 that killed seven people in the same community.
The protests continued, and on July 9 reporters described an angry mob of around 200 surrounding the fire station where three residents were arrested. NBC 10.com quoted the father of two of the victims who said, "They let the kids upstairs die!"
Access to the firehouse was actually blocked by the protesters, and firefighters were unable to respond to neighborhood emergency calls that day.
Sawyer and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter continued to respond to allegations. They gave details about the first caller who reported not a house fire but a "rubbish fire." They accounted for the activity in the firehouse during the first few seconds after the call came in.
And they refuted a claim by a resident who said she personally went to the station to report the fire and was turned away 20 minutes before the firefighters responded.
A different tactic
Sawyer and Nutter are in a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" situation. As public spokesmen for the fire department and the city, they have to respond to ungrounded charges and defend those who risk their lives to protect the population.
Yet, no amount of sincerity and good will satisfy someone who is making exaggerated and false claims.
From a public relations perspective, the process of charges and defense statements is predictable. The key to managing the situation in Philadelphia is realizing that it isn't about the fire department, and it isn't about the fire; it's about the community.
A public controversy can bring people together, give meaning to their actions, and produce a mythology of heroes and villains. While no humane person would welcome a scenario like this, once in the situation, maintaining and escalating it may seem more desirable than letting it dissipate.
Knowing the situation
There are many historical examples of public offenses bonding people together and moving them to action. Some have been real and some exaggerated or manufactured.
Public outrage over the dubious sinking of the USS Maine contributed significantly to the onset of the Spanish-American War. On a smaller scale NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups engage in a similar process of banding together against common enemies.
Planning the right response requires a discerning eye. If the complaining group is concerned about a real offense, resolving the problem or admitting blame is the right thing to do and usually will diffuse the situation.
If, however, the supposed offense is exaggerated or manufactured, then the group's incentive for communal bonding is probably greater than its desire to address a problem.
A community group like this may not want to accept apologies or solutions and may be more inclined to escalate the public argument in the hope that a legitimate complaint can be generated from something like an angry or insensitive comment from an official spokesperson.
There are, then, two strategic options for an organization under public attack. If the charges are justified, engage your accusers and admit guilt, and the public relations part of the problem should go away.
If the charges are exaggerated or manufactured, then publicly state your position and do not participate in ongoing dialogue with the accusers. Continuing to respond to false accusations will not resolve the problem and may result in someone saying or doing something that will cause the conflict to escalate.