Charlottesville Memo Exposes Behind-the-Scenes Crisis Infighting

Thom Weidlich 08.31.17


A leaked memo regarding Charlottesville, Virginia’s handling of the white-nationalist demonstration there on Aug. 12 raises some interesting insights into crisis communications. Unfortunately, they’re mostly negative, as the document reveals a back-and-forth between the mayor and city manager that provides an astonishing inside look at people not working together.

Mayor Mike Signer (with input from City Council members) wrote the leaked memo, addressed to City Manager Maurice Jones and obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Dated Aug. 23, it contains excerpts from emails and text messages from city leaders.

The memo mentions the lack of communication at a July 8 Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville. For that reason, the City Council pushed for “more proactive, creative, and energetic communications” surrounding the “Unite the Right” rally on Saturday, Aug. 12.

That isn’t what they got. Jones had promised daily press briefings leading up to that weekend, but they never happened, according to the memo. In fact, on that Saturday, during which a white nationalist killed a counter-demonstrator at 1:42 p.m., the city didn’t provide information to the public until a press conference at 6 p.m., “meaning that during a day of incredibly tragic events, the City was silent.”

Most disturbing — in terms of crisis communications — was the disagreement about what the mayor’s role should be. (Caution: The memo is obviously written from his point of view.) Signer said he repeatedly requested to be at the command center in the Wells Fargo building near Emancipation Park, the site of the protest and of the controversial statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee (pictured). The mayor said he wanted to be there “so that the stakeholders could be on the same page.”

City Manager Jones and the police chief told him to go instead to the emergency-operations center in Zehmer Hall at the University of Virginia.

‘One Page’

That Saturday morning, Mayor Signer reiterated his desire to be at the command center, especially because of a march by the white nationalists the night before. “Given last night I need to be on site so we are on one page,” he wrote. But Jones told him to go to the emergency-operations center.

After the city declared a state of emergency at around 11:30 a.m., the mayor again wanted to go to the Wells Fargo building, but Jones said he feared for the mayor’s safety. Signer went anyway, but wasn’t allowed on the command-center floor and instead was brought to a different floor.

The subsequent text exchange between the mayor and city manager astounds:

The mayor: You have barred me from the center. We are not together. I don’t know what’s happening. We are not unified. We can’t say no comment or it has to wait.

The city manager: Mr. Mayor, we are not disorganized. This is a hyper fluid situation. We need to let this play out. And the media can wait for an hour or so.

The mayor: Elected officials like me can’t be barred from necessary information and how to talk about it. That’s disorganized.

The mayor then headed back to the emergency-operations center.

Obviously, we don’t know the people involved, and the situation was extremely difficult. But this conversation highlights the need for preparation, for everyone to be on the same page before a crisis hits. That wasn’t the case here.

Fortunately, the City of Charlottesville has commissioned a review of its handling of the Aug. 12 events — handling that has been roundly criticized. Former U.S. attorney Timothy J. Heaphy, now with the Hunton & Williams law firm, will conduct the review. It will be broad, encompassing among other things the permitting process, logistics, and police response, according to the agreement.

And, yes, “communications with protesters and the general public” will also be scrutinized.

Photo Credit: Katherine Welles/Shutterstock

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