Crisis Communications Case Study: Brookhaven PR Director Wrongly Accused of Racism By Disgruntled Photographer

There is a rather interesting PR story brewing here in Atlanta that perfectly illustrates why – in a PR crisis – you need to get your message out first and FAST.

Here is the scoop:

Over the past weekend, the Communications Director for the city of Brookhaven (a newly incorporated suburb of Atlanta) was fired and branded a racist in the press. And, I have to admit, when I read first version of the events as reported by WSB-TV, I supported her dismissal.

The first version of the story:

Cherry Blossom Festival ModelsIn that first version, a photographer, Nelson Jones, who was hired to shoot publicity photos for the city’s Cherry Blossom Festival claims he was taking a photo of an African-American and Asian woman when the city’s Communications Director, Rosemary Taylor told him to stop, saying, “They are not the type of people the city of Brookhaven wants representing them.”

A terrible statement to be sure. And, the Communications Director was fired “pending an investigation.”

In that first article, the local news station apparently knocked on Taylor’s door for comment, but she didn’t answer.

Therefore, the only version of the story anyone had was the photographer’s. And, like I said, I was appalled and shocked and posted to my Facebook page that they were right to fire Taylor.

The second version of the story:

Then, Taylor’s version came out in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She says:

1. The photographer (who arrived two hours late) hired the African-American and Asian women as models without the city’s approval and he was taking “staged” photos of these models in the festival’s VIP tent.

2. Having hired Jones to take candid shots of festival-go-ers and not staged shots of models, Taylor apparently told him, “this is not the image I want for the city of Brookhaven. We don’t need models for this.”

3. The photographer confessed he was actually taking photos of the models for his own promotional purposes. In other words, he was shooting unrelated photos on Brookhaven’s dime and time.

4. Taylor took issue with this and told him again to stop and that this was not what he hired to do. She said again that she wanted candid authentic photos of attendees at the event, not staged photos of models, and that he was supposed to be capturing the festival – not working for himself.

5. Taylor and her team ended up hiring another photographer for the event and told Jones the city would no longer retain his services.

That’s when Jones went to the press with accusations of racism.

Now, I wasn’t there so I don’t claim to have any knowledge beyond what both parties have said. But, since Jones admits that he brought in the models without the city’s approval and he admits he was taking photos for his own purposes while on the city’s dime, his credibility and professionalism are certainly in question.

And, I will say from a PR perspective, Taylor’s statements make sense and are supported by her team, who were present.

THE LESSON LEARNED

The important lesson here is that when faced with a public crisis like this, you must “own the story” and get your side out in the press immediately.

While Taylor spoke to the media today, Jones’ version of events circulated online for two full days and that powerful accusation of racism – without her defense – will live online forever.

Certainly her response will remain online as well. But, let’s face it, the second story never gets as much attention as the first, especially when the first story is as “juicy” as it is.

Taylor confessed she should have answered the door when WSB-TV knocked on Monday. But, she said says she’d just stepped out of the shower and was in complete shock over the entire situation. A rookie mistake to be sure, but to be branded a racist for it seems harsh.

So, remember, when faced with any kind of public crisis, don’t hesitate to put your message out there. Don’t let someone else own the news cycle and create the public’s perception of events. Get your story out first and FAST.

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