Hostage Press Conference: Losing Control

Yesterday’s hostage standoff at the Discovery Building in Silver Spring, Maryland ended without any innocent lives being harmed (the hostage taker was shot and killed by police).

Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger briefed reporters while the hostage incident was still unfolding, and his press conference offers an opportunity to deconstruct a common mistake spokespersons make during crisis communications.

Police Chief Manger starts out fine, giving an opening statement for the first 2:15 of this video.

But after the opening statement, Chief Manger cedes control of the press conference to the assembled reporters, ultimately being “saved” by a colleague who jumped in and ended the news conference. (Video no longer available.)

Take a look at this sequence, starting at about the 3:24 mark:

Question 1: There have been eyewitness reports of four people on the ground in the lobby. Is that correct?

Chief Manger: I can’t confirm the number of hostages.

Question 2: Are you saying some of the hostages are injured?

Chief Manger: I did not say that. There’s no confirmed…I have not confirmed any injuries.

Questions 3: What about these reports that people are lying on the ground? Is that incorrect eyewitness testimony?

Chief Manger: Well, I (shakes head, looks flummoxed, pauses) can’t confirm if they’re injured or if they’re standing up or lying down. But they’re in the same room as our suspect.

In answer three, he says he “can’t confirm if they’re injured,” but in the previous answer, he said, “I have not confirmed any injuries.” Why did the answer change? By inserting the word “if” into his third answer, he introduced uncertainty into his previous, more declarative answer. His answer to the third question should simply have been, “Again, I have not confirmed any injuries.”

But the bigger problem was this: After he finished his opening statement, he should have asserted control by saying, “I have to get back to the command post, so I only have time for two or three questions.” By doing so, he could have ended the press conference on his own terms after a few questions without needing someone to step in and save him.

To be fair to Chief Manger, this press conference wasn’t awful. But he was lucky. Under different circumstances, his failure to control his message and his terms could have become disastrous.