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Communicate to protect drivers and protesters

The public needs to be told what to expect should non-permitted protests erupt and disrupt traffic


Everyone has a right to know how the law applies when vehicles meet non-permitted protestors on the road.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

As a veteran crisis communicator, I have watched the civil unrest throughout the country with the same concern I’m sure every law enforcement leader and officer shares. At the same time, I cannot help but notice that one of the most basic tenets of crisis communication has been largely ignored by state and local law enforcement agencies, one they routinely practice in other situations. It’s centered on communication in the interest of basic traffic safety. The silence is impossible to ignore.

By now we’ve all seen videos of crowds of protesters surrounding cars, leaving the surprised driver to make an on-the-spot decision as to whether to stay and risk their personal safety or escape through the crowd, potentially harming one or more of the protesters. Compounding this problem is that the media will likely portray the driver as “driving into a crowd of protesters,” when in fact, the opposite may be true. The driver was on the road and was surrounded by protesters, and only then had to decide whether to exit, not enter the crowd.

Against this backdrop of confusion, there has been little guidance from law enforcement for drivers or protesters on what is expected from each.

It is clear that many of these demonstrations are non-permitted, which under normal circumstances, would mean common traffic rules apply – the vehicle on the road has the right of way. But in the current operating climate, it seems that the protesters and the media feel that vehicles do not have right of way and that there is no consequence to spontaneously barricading vehicles and surrounding them.

Why is this happening?

If everyone knows the rules of the road, yet those laws being ignored, and a new opposite set of rules have informally come to play, what is going on?

It starts at the top. Certain governors and mayors will not support police departments that enforce traffic safety rules. They don’t like the optics of police doing anything to interfere with protests, even if that means putting protesters and drivers at risk.

Some police chiefs’ hands are tied from a command-and-control standpoint, and so are those of the officers on the street.

What communicators and leaders must do

Any police chief or public information officer (PIO) has a decision to make: “Do I do nothing and stay quiet to keep my job and pray that no one gets hurt? And if someone does get hurt, should I allow an unsuspecting driver who panicked at a time of distress to take the fall for the lack of leadership in City Hall or the Governor’s mansion?”

Ethically, the choice is clear. Difficult, but clear.

In the interest of protecting both drivers and protesters, a decision has to be made as to whether existing traffic laws will be enforced when possible on the street and, at least in a general sense, how “right of way” is treated by the legal system. That decision needs to be communicated broadly and consistently. The public has a right to be told what to expect should non-permitted protests erupt and disrupt traffic.

The path to communication

Whether you are a PIO or a chief of police, the starting point for communication is up the chain. Tell your leadership the plan to notify the public as to who has the right of way during non-permitted protests. All in the spirit of public safety for all.

Prepare news releases, social media posts and text alerts that let everyone know that vehicles have the right of way. Conduct press briefings, if need be, to lay out the guidelines. Coordinate with local district attorneys and even state departments of transportation to build a coalition on this message and present a unified front.

Drivers need to receive detailed instructions on what to do should they find themselves surrounded by protestors while in their vehicles. Commercial trucking companies issue such guidance and training on a routine basis. Everyone has a right to know how the law applies when vehicles meet non-permitted protestors on the road.

But, what if leadership refuses to listen?

Someone once told me that you’re not really providing solid crisis counsel unless you’re willing to lose your job when you know what you’re doing is right. That rule applies here. If you know you’re right, and those above you won’t budge, be willing to call them out, internally at first, externally if need be.

There’s a term for this. It’s called “leaving loudly,” which means to publicly tell people via the media, social media or other means to make it clear you took a position and no one listened.

A recent example of this is when Seattle’s former Chief of Police Carmen Best took a public stand in support of her department and its officers against the pressures coming from politicos. She ended up losing her job, but she didn’t shrink from telling the plain truth that was in the spirit of public safety, law and order, and out of respect to her officers.

If someone is asking you to do something that will get people hurt, leaving loudly is a last resort.

Does this mean things will change? Media sympathies waver. Some elected officials are so strongly ensconced that one PIO or police chief leaving in anger can be dismissed as a “former disgruntled employee.” But at the end of the day, you have to live with yourself, so the real questions are, do you want protesters to get hurt or killed? Do you want drivers to get hurt or killed? Or, do you want an innocent driver to face jail time because he or she simply did not know what to do in advance?

The answers to all of these questions ride on the need for clear, preventative communication.

Tim O’Brien is a veteran crisis communicator and communications professional. He founded O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh-based consultancy, in 2001 and has served major corporations, nonprofits, government entities and others. He comes from a family of police officers. He can be reached at 412/854-8845 or