Tuesday, July 28, 2009


By Richard E. Nicolazzo

Rarely does a news story cause a crisis for three separate entities at the same time, but that’s just what happened when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was handcuffed in his home and hauled off to the Cambridge, Massachusetts city police department.

The events of July 16, while still a bit fuzzy, have nevertheless sparked another national debate on race relations in America, even involving (or should I say entrapping) President Obama.

At first, the incident wasn’t much of a story, only appearing four days after the arrest as an item on the Harvard Crimson website. It didn’t take long for the local, regional, national and international news media to uncover the nasty details of the tête-à-tête between Gates and Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley, the officer who made the decision to arrest the professor on disorderly conduct charges.

Given Gates’ lofty status, the viral nature of the story immediately engulfed the police department and the professor in a crisis situation…both parties talking way too much and, at least initially, digging themselves in deeper.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, President Obama fanned the flames when, at the end of a press conference on health care reform, he said police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates, and noted that black and Hispanic men are still arrested disproportionately.

Report Cards

Breaking things down, what’s almost inconceivable is that the President would finish last of the three parties in managing the crisis.

Cambridge police deserve a solid “B+” for the way they responded. First, Sergeant Crowley stood up and logically explained the events and protocol that was followed before he took out his cuffs.

He received solid support from Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas and the police union. In each case, this group responded only after learning and digesting the facts.

The city made another excellent decision when it reached out to convene a group of nationally recognized experts to help determine what lessons officials can learn from the arrest.

Gates, accustomed to the spotlight, apparently couldn’t resist responding to media inquiries. Not only did he respond by phone and email, he made himself available to cameras while vacationing at his Martha’s Vineyard summer home.

I’d grade him no better than a “C-“ because he let his emotions get the best of him. Not only did he criticize the police, he quickly let it be known that he might bring suit. He also went for Sergeant Crowley’s jugular, accusing him of making up the facts in the police report. Even at this point, Gates and Crowley disagree about what happened.

In my view, the Gates angle of the story could have evaporated rapidly if the professor had released one written statement and ended it at that. It may take some time to sort out, but in the end his contentious remarks may damage his reputation.

Low Mark for the President

The big surprise in all this is President Obama. How can you grade him anything but a “D-.”

When a reporter asked him about the incident, instead of declining comment on an arrest that had nothing to do with a major healthcare policy initiative, he stepped right into the fray, uttering the stupidity remark that caused an instant firestorm.

Sorry Mr. President, but this can’t be chalked up to a rookie mistake. You’ve been immersed in a high stakes media environment for nearly two years. You’re surrounded by a top-flight team of advisers and confidants who are supposed to be guiding you in managing communications.

Surely, given the race card issue that was being played out across the country, someone on your staff must have cautioned you to be aware of a trick question and not fall into a trap? Not so, it appears.

For a man who prides himself on self-discipline, President Obama has seemingly caught “slip-of-the-tongue disease.”

In recent months, he had to apologize after joking that his bad bowling skills might qualify him for the Special Olympics. A joke about Nancy Reagan holding séances forced him to call her and make amends.

He sparked more debate when he said college football should adopt a playoff system, picked North Carolina to win the NCCA basketball tournament, and said he liked Michael Jordan over Kobe Bryant.

In the Gates incident, Obama, to his credit, made a conciliatory gesture to help mitigate the crisis when he invited the Harvard scholar and the police officer to share a beer with him at the White House.

Nevertheless, the President still violated the number one rule in crisis management: Never speak before you have the facts.

While we can only speculate about Obama’s future comments, I sense moving forward we may see a more guarded Commander in Chief.

Richard E. Nicolazzo is managing partner of Nicolazzo & Associates, a strategic communications, crisis mangement and public relations firm headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts. Joe Grillo, a partner in the firm, contributed to this commentary.
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