Ferguson PR Firm Speaks Out

The situation in Ferguson, MO, following the police shooting of Michael Brown is so tenuous that the city hired a PR firm to help. As you might expect in any emotionally charged situation, the firm has been criticized. Most of the focus has been on Common Grounds Public Relations as an all-white firm.

Ferguson PR

CEO Denise Benetele defended her firm's role, calling diversity an "industry-wide challenge" and explaining the involvement of The Devin James Group, a minority-owned firm.

Ferguson clearly needs help. In the middle of a dispute that's getting international attention, Mayor James Knowles said, "There's not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson. That is the perspective of all residents in our city. Absolutely."

Aug. 20, 2014
PR Firm Aiding Ferguson Responds to Industry Critics

Just as an EMT would respond to a 911 call, Common Ground PR was asked to provide immediate, emergency help in the form of fielding the overwhelming number of media inquiries the city was receiving until it assembled a long-term team to handle this crisis.

Our short-term agreement to assist had nothing to do with the preceding tragic events. Rather, as we watched the news of ongoing turmoil, it was apparent that the negative images could forever impact our region's economic development efforts and the lives of our neighbors.

And so we went to field calls from media around the world, trying to connect them to the appropriate sources while city leadership tended to an incredibly challenging, unfolding situation. The pace of queries was profound – like catching raindrops in a hurricane.

It's not every day that a city of 21,000 residents gets more than 500 media calls in a day. It's not every day that the alphabet soup of news networks and stations ALL converge in one of the more than 90 municipalities in St. Louis County. But when all of the cameras are gone, we as St. Louisans will be left to rebuild. We will deal with companies who leave town and others who decide not to invest in St. Louis.

I was dismayed at the negative reaction online and on social media, especially among fellow communications professionals, who pointed at the lack of diversity on our staff as a sign of the "greater problem." Increasing the diversity of communications professionals is an industry-wide challenge that we all need to tackle. But as a local St. Louisan who watched this tragedy unfold, I offered our assistance because it was clear that this community was overwhelmed and needed immediate help fielding media inquiries.  The color of our skin reflected nothing of our concern to help our broader community respond to the watchful world.

In my first conversation with Ferguson city officials, I advised that any solution to strife and development of long-term reconciliation would have to come with the assistance of a member of the black community skilled at community engagement with these key constituents. 

To that end, The Devin James Group, a nationally certified Minority-owned firm, has been working with St. Louis County and the City of Ferguson as an independent liaison to handle the public relations and long-term needs, work with community leaders and seek regional support in a grassroots effort to build true engagement. With the long-term coalition and communications help of CEO Devin James, local residents and businesses can focus on determining what's best for this community.

Devin is currently identifying and recruiting communities and leaders to participate and assessing potential for collaborative capacity which could result in the forming of or partnering of community coalitions, creating an outreach plan for improving awareness as well as developing a platform that gives the local community an outlet to address the issues and media perceptions.

We thank the many people who have shared their support and advice and we hope this helps answer questions our peers have, and hope more importantly that you send your prayers to the long-term healing of St. Louis.

Denise Bentele, APR

President & CEO, Common Ground Public Relations

Discussion Starters:

  • What advice would you give Mayor James Knowles?
  • Did Ferguson do the right thing in hiring Common Ground?
  • Assess Denise Bentele's statement. What works well, and what could be improved?