How to screw up a press conference in one easy lesson

NBC Headline

I just watched the attempt by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to hold a press conference in Ferguson, Missouri concerning the situation developing as a result of the shooting death of Michael Brown.  [CNN]  The event was tense, at times hostile, loud, at times interruptive, cautious, at times cooperative. But, at all times it was not very constructive.  There were some ingredients in the mix which could manifest themselves in a primer on how to screw up a public event.

If mangling an opportunity to make inroads into the sources of public discontent is the intent then:

# Assume the audience is there to hear only what you have to say.  The Governor was there to announce his declaration of a state of emergency in the area and the imposition of a midnight to five o’clock in the morning curfew.   Let’s grant for a moment that it’s necessary to publicize this information, and that it’s just as necessary to find a way to get some very overworked Missouri Highway Patrol officers some sleep.  However, there was certainly more the members of the audience wanted to hear — Which gets us to the next way to foul the waters.

# Don’t admit that there are issues over which you have no control.  Standing behind a podium can often augment feelings of omnipotence, such as “I’m the (fill in the blank with the title) and I can handle all this.”  The Governor was there to announce law enforcement plans, but the audience wanted to hear about the progress of prosecutorial efforts to bring the killer of Michael Brown into court.  A word about the system:

“Missouri circuit courts are courts of original civil and criminal jurisdiction. That is, cases usually begin in the circuit court, which is where trials may occur. Within the circuit court, there are various divisions, such as associate circuit, small claims, municipal, family, probate, criminal, and juvenile. Missouri’s counties and the city of St. Louis are organized into forty-five judicial circuits. There is a court in every county. The circuit court is typically in the county seat (or the city of St. Louis) and may be in additional locations in the county.” [CourtsUS]

A case against the officer would be tried in the St. Louis County Circuit Court, and for that to happen charges must be brought by the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s office. The Prosecutor is Bob McCulloch who has already told the press and public there is no timeline for the investigation of the Brown Case. (8/13/14) [KDSK] In other words, unless the Governor were there to announce the appointment of a special prosecutor, he couldn’t offer anything more about the investigation at the local level without having McCulloch chime in.

# Squirm away from questions about the progress of local inquiries.  Failing the cooperation of the local prosecutors office — one from which a tone deaf response has already been issued [Wonk 8/15] — there wasn’t much the Governor or the Highway Patrol could say without creating another brush fire with the Prosecutor’s office.  There was no particular reason to shy away from telling the audience something to the effect that “I can’t answer your questions about prosecution because that’s in Bob McCulloch’s hands.” It’s absolutely no secret in St. Louis that McCulloch is the policeman’s best friend, and has been very visibly so since the 2001 Jack in the Box Case.

# Fumble attempts to inform the audience how the investigation might find a work-around the prosecutor’s office.  Once having tip-toed past the conflicts with the county prosecutor the Governor was in no position to firmly tell audience members that the FBI has been called in, and this case would be taken out of county hands.  The audience saw the flyers, heard the part about 40 FBI agents on the ground, and still weren’t assured that the officer was going to find himself answering at the bar.  In fact, with the Department of Justice and the FBI in play, there is a very real possibility the officer will be facing Federal charges.  So, why not tell the good people in the hall, “I share your frustration with the time it’s taking the local prosecutor to move on this case, but he may become irrelevant when the Justice Department files charges in a Federal District Court.”

Not that Robert McCulloch will be vastly pleased to find himself designated irrelevant after his highly publicized prosecution of Axl Rose, and his police protective performance in the Jack in the Box Case, but the Governor’s reticence to inform the listeners about the possibility of a very vigorous and very serious prosecution — making the whole thing literally a Federal case — didn’t help matters. Nor did omitting information about the efforts of St. Louis County Executive Charles Dooley to secure permission for a special prosecutor from the office of the Missouri Attorney General help the situation any. [DKos]

We can only hope that future press events will include (1) people who actually have something to do with local investigations and prosecutions, (2) people who can update the press and public about the progress of the investigation, including such public information as a summary of the autopsy report, and incident reports.

Until then, the Missouri Highway Patrol will have more sleepless nights.

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