It has been three weeks since disturbing allegations about practices at the Cecil County SPCA became widely known on the Internet and Baltimore airwaves. (The Whig got around to delivering the story to subscribers a week later.) For most of the intervening period, while the situation escalated, the daily paper was busy assessing the performance characteristics of Cecil County politicians, worrying about which elected official would receive credit for straightening out the dark entanglement, and defending a county government closed door decision.
In those early days of delayed local coverage we thought our daily would surely call for an independent examination so the underlying allegations could be addressed. Considering the severity and number of abuse complaints, especially when coupled with stories of character attacks on anyone daring to come forward, that seemed like the logical course of action. That thought became even more firm when one factors in the ability of the Net to spread rumors. It just seemed like the right thing to do to straighten out this entanglement for all parties. However, three weeks and a day after the story got the broad light of day in Cecil County via the Internet and Baltimore media, the county daily has joined many in calling for a change in leadership at the SPCA. It appears the Whig forgot about the fact-finding phase entirely or we missed it buried somewhere in the local content page.
This entire fiasco is, sadly enough, going to make an interesting case study when it is over but it is far from that right now. Think of the opportunities for understanding crisis communications by organizations and the current nature of evolving new media in light of how this major headline grabbing Cecil County story was handled. The SPCA was slow to present its side of the story and we don’t believe an official spokesperson has appeared on Baltimore television. However, the executive director is seen in the background of video clips refusing to comment as she tells reporters they must leave the property. If you believe the allegations are untrue why not have a representative go before the camera and in a friendly sort of way to present the organization’s case. To do otherwise, creates impressions that are unfavorable and causes suspicions to grow, which is something this situation never needed. (The Net took care of that aspect.) The other element is the power of the Web. If local media is slow to catch up with a front page story and it is sensational enough, the news can be distributed widely on blogs and the larger area media will see the value of delivering the content.
We want to wait before we begin our assessment for this story is still evolving as the investigators determine what happened and the county appoints its commitee. We are sure there will be at least a few more surprise twists and turns. Meanwhile we won’t worry about which politician gets credit for we’ll let the Whig fret about that unimportant element. It is a sad case, which includes learnings related to promptly handling complaints, managing crisis communications, and changing patterns related to new media. There was a time not too long ago when if the local paper wouldn’t give you some ink, few people would know about a problem. Those days are long gone, and there is nothing anyone can do about it except do the right thing in the first place and then manage the communications process. The right thing in the first place is to have professionally investigated each complaint. What an opportunity that would have provided to make early interventions into operational problems or to have supporting data to defend an organization.
This digital media is new to most in Cecil County’s political leadership so they don’t collectively have experience with how web 2.0 technologies can be leveraged to influence outcomes by spreading spread news or disinformation. But that changed in an enormous way when this emotional story came to light through this new medium since the local outlet was sluggish in picking-up on the subject. Since that happened, it is the local and national blogs, online news sources such as Zootoo.com, and Ohmidog, as well as the Baltimore media, that has provided the full story.