Minute by minute: How the GBI handled the social media response to the Ahmaud Arbery murder
Public Affairs Director Nelly Miles shares communication strategies with Julie Parker in response to the Ahmaud Arbery video
By Police1 Staff
A critical incident can happen at any time, in any community, across the country. Sharing information about these incidents is one cog in the overall response wheel, but it’s one that cannot be overlooked. It’s crucial to effectively communicate both during and after a critical incident. Police1 is launching a new feature that dives into the communication response to some of the most significant incidents law enforcement agencies have recently faced.
Julie Parker, President of Julie Parker Communications, specializing in law enforcement media relations and social media, is spearheading this spotlight on crisis communications. In this episode, Julie interviews Nelly Miles, director of the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, about the agency’s communication plan to handle the overwhelming public response to the viral video of the death of Ahmaud Arbery.
A transcript of the interview is below.
Julie Parker: Nelly Miles. Thank you so much for joining us. Please let the viewers know who you are, what you do and where you work.
Nelly Miles: My name is Nelly Miles. I’m the Director of the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The GBI is a state-level criminal investigative agency. Our main focus is to support the criminal justice community. In order for the GBI to get involved in an investigation, we have to be requested by local law enforcement. So in most crimes, we do not have original jurisdiction. We can’t just show up and say we’re the GBI, we’re coming to take over the case. We have to have a request from local law enforcement for the GBI I to begin an investigation.
Parker: In the case we’re going to talk about today, the Ahmaud Arbery case, who called in the GBI? Walk us through how that all began.
Miles: In the end, it was the district attorney who requested the GBI to investigate this case. And how it all began is that Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in February 2020 and for a few weeks, there was a little bit of local chatter about the Ahmaud Arbery case about a young man who was jogging in the neighborhood, but there wasn’t any widespread media coverage about it. And one of the defendants in the case, which was Mr. McMichael, he’s the father, it was a father-son defendant set of defendants, that were eventually arrested. Initially, he gave the video, which was recorded by a third person to the local radio station and said, I wanna give this video to the local radio station in order to quell some of this conversation that’s happening about it. And so that’s how it all began. The local radio picked it up, aired it, and from that point, May 5, 2020, it went viral.
Parker: In your career, have you experienced anything of that magnitude?
Miles: Absolutely not. A lot of our cases, we get out there, we issue a statement, we do a news release, maybe a few on-camera interviews, and after one to two days we move on to the next case. But nothing like this.
Parker: Our goal with this interview is to help inform leadership and public information officers and try to prepare them if and when their agency goes viral. This case was actually larger from a social media standpoint than a traditional media standpoint, which says a lot. How did the GBI manage that social media messaging component of this murder?
Miles: Exactly, it was 100% bigger on social media and that started online when the video went viral. Now when it comes to public and governmental affairs for GBI, we don’t have a very large team. And so we were receiving hundreds upon hundreds of comments and questions, Facebook posts and tweets about this particular case. What we did, me and Natalie Amons, who’s the deputy for GBI in public and governmental affairs, we were just combing through all of those comments knowing that with just two people, we may not be able to respond to each individual comment, but we can kind of get an idea of what is the conversation. And Julie, the main message was “Why isn’t the GBI doing anything? Why won’t the G B I step in?”
And so as I described earlier, our mission and the fact that we can’t, that was the first step to educate the public on what the GBI can do and what we can’t do. And so there were a couple of investigations that we were asked to do. We were asked to investigate who leaked the video. That was a legit ask. We were asked to investigate threats that the defendants were getting and the suspects were getting in this case. And we had not been asked to investigate the death. So we just let the public know this is what we’re doing and we’re still waiting on requests for other things. And that’s what we did. We just basically took most of the comments, looked at them, and then issued statements online. And this is probably one of the first times where we really had to do rapid-fire statements. As I said earlier, the GBI are not first responders. And because of that, we are usually not having to deal with fast-moving incidents like that cuz it’s usually the local agencies handling that. But not in this case.
Parker: What would you say to public information officers who rightfully so are trying to do what they can to prepare for something going viral? Is there anything that you had done in your day-to-day jobs that prepared you for the onslaught of comments, tweets, questions and concerns that were flooding social media about this case?
Miles: That’s a really good question because before this particular case, I just really had the mindset that with the GBI, we’re here to help, it’ll never happen to us. But recognizing it’s not a matter of if, but when was really big and just knowing that you need to go to training, that was, that was really major when I first started. I came from the sciences, I was a chemist, so I did not have any background in this. And I just started going to conferences. I started taking training classes, I started meeting people in my network and really just building those tools and storing it away in my back pocket because I thought, well, I may not need it now, but what if I need it down the road? And sure enough, that day came when I had to pull all those tools that I had been storing up for years so that I could know strategically what’s my next step here as a team.
What are we going to handle? What are we going to respond to? How are we going to get the message out? Is it gonna be on social media? Is it going to be a news conference? Is it going to be a recorded statement? And really sit down and, and come up with that strategy for how to handle it. But that would not have been possible if I did not have training and a strong network of people like you that I could lean on to help support us from the comm site along the way. Those were the two biggest things: The training and the network.
I think the other thing is just the organizational structure of the GBI that really, really helped. We understand at the GBI I how important communication is. And so my position as director of the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs is part of the agency command staff. So I report directly to the agency head and that makes all the difference because I don’t have to waste a lot of time to sift through a lot of layers to get information out. And so when this big one hit, we were able to get down to business and, and get information out to the public to sort of calm a lot of the outrage that was happening.
Parker: Two-pronged question: What is the approval process like for you and what platforms did you post to about this case?
Miles: For social media, the approval process is I am the approver. That’s how we set up, we have an organization that has selected someone who is an executive level that they can trust. What I will do when it comes to really big, big cases and major statements and news conferences, we have a think tank if you will, that would include the GBI director, the assistant director and the division director over the investigative division. And we certainly collaborate as you know any other team would. But when it comes to putting things out on social media and what gets tweeted and what goes on Facebook, I’m the approver, And Twitter was our saving grace to get information out quickly. But we also did use Facebook.
Parker: Twitter is an interesting topic. Are you looking at right now whether to continue to use this platform from a government perspective to message about whether it’s a crisis or your day-to-day? Has that question come up?
Miles: Today? Yes, but as we know in this business, you have to be flexible and things rapidly changed in 2020. It was the perfect place for us because I will say that when it came to misinformation, we did not deal with loads of misinformation in this case. That was very helpful. It was a video that was out, everyone saw the video, it was more of the outrages. Why isn’t anyone being held accountable for it in today’s time? Unfortunately, we find a lot of misinformation that’s out there. And we had a lot of trouble with Twitter, we have very extreme people, or say extreme views that we find on Twitter. A lot of anti-police sentiment that just happens to show up on that platform. I’m not quite sure what’s happening with the algorithm or why, but it does not show as much on other platforms. But that particular platform, I mean, it is definitely a struggle. And even from just taking away our check mark, we’re no longer verified and we applied for the gray check mark and we, we were turned down and, and I know that we are a reputable statewide agency, but for whatever reason, we don’t qualify for it right now. So it’s a struggle. But at this point, we have not found an alternative and we still have a lot of our journalists that are on there. So it’s been a good way to get information out. But I will say we don’t use the platform nearly as much as we did before.
Parker: Now let’s focus on that tidal wave I would imagine of local, state, national and international members of the media calling showing up. What was it like? How would you describe it?
Miles: It was a whirlwind, Julie. I mean, when it came to media, the major issue was just trying to keep up with the volume. We finally got to the point where we just said, here’s the dedicated inbox that you’re going to have to use for this case. Because we couldn’t keep up with people DMing us, texting us and trying to track us down. They did everything but show up at our front doorstep trying to get information and it was just much more efficient for us to dedicate an inbox for that case. And we just honestly told people, if you’re looking for updates, we will let you know when they are updates and we’ll send the updates out. And we simultaneously put them on social media and I think that that was helpful.
But for us, because it was a viral video, what we didn’t want to do is put one thing out and then go silent. So the constant flow of information that we could say about the case as it developed, I think did help. We had lots of social media tweets and posts. We had multiple news conferences throughout the incident. We issued some statements, even if we didn’t have a whole lot to say, even if it was just, “Here’s why we need you to be patient and here’s what’s going on behind the scenes.” And some of the decisions that we made along the way just to keep people informed. We did recorded statements, we just exercised a variety of different ways to communicate that we hadn’t before. We didn’t even have basic photography or basic recording equipment or microphone. I would go to conferences and all of that sounded great, but I’m thinking we are, we’re not going to need that because normally we’re just behind the scenes. But that’s a thing of the past. I’ll just say that.
Parker: Any specific equipment that you would tell anyone who’s watching now to go buy immediately in case?
Miles: I think the microphone was really major, just having that external mic because there were so many times we’d have news conferences and they were ready to fire our team because they couldn’t hear what’s going on there. So the mic for sure, good lighting, this backdrop that you see here, that was one of the things to keep that professional setting that we had. And I mean, we just, we use our iPhones. I think they have still very good quality these days.
Parker: The microphone being key because it’s not just about the media capturing it, it’s that your live streaming, I’m guessing your news conference to the public and they’re frustrated as they watch at home by not being able to hear from your folks. Is that right? What was the biggest lesson you learned around internal communications?
Miles: One, people within your organization should not find out what’s happening from the news or from social media, and nevermind the fact that even in 2023, not everybody’s on social media, but just making sure that we are communicating internally first before it goes out was a big lesson learned. Because we just did not do that. We were just so caught up in the investigation and even though in this case it wasn’t a GBI agent that was involved in a use of force or anything like that, it was still such a major investigation that had widespread social consequences in the midst of civil unrest during a pandemic that, I mean, we absolutely should have been communicating internally first. So that was a big lesson learned. Midway through we issued some messages to our staff internally and apologized for the delay on this. And since then we’ve been far better about making sure we communicate with our folks internally first about things that are going to impact them before we post it publicly.
Parker: Would an example of that be from a chief of staff, for example, saying, dear GBI, we’re about to do a news conference this afternoon about X, Y, Z, it’ll be live streamed here. It’s about 1, 2, 3, and then that’s your message. Or is there anything more in-depth that you think should be sent out?
Miles: Well, that is a great example. But just even to say that this major event has happened, this is the statement that we’re about to release, that we wanted to make you aware of what was going on and where you can find out more information just to keep up with it. Just to keep that connection to know where and what’s happening. This is why we made a certain decision to do something. Here’s information about that and then we go ahead and put it out. So we’re a statewide agency and we are servicing over 11 million citizens. So it may not be that every time we’re responding to something, we’re going to send something out because quite frankly, it’s not really going to impact everyone in our agency. But we know what the big ones are that are going to, that we make sure that we communicate internally first.
Parker: Great point. Let’s close it out where we started, which is with social media and leave the Police1.com folks with this learning point: What is one thing that public information officers and police leaders should be doing today to get ready for a crisis in terms of social media?
Miles: Well, in terms of social, from my experience and then working for the state and working very close to a lot of local law enforcement agencies, the thing that they need to be doing is actually using it consistently and establishing that relationship with their followers and constituents before something happens. Because when I know for me as a citizen, when I want to know what’s going on, I go to people’s social media accounts and if I see that the last time you posted something was four years ago on your accounts, it’s very concerning. It’s very difficult for me to have a lot of faith that I’m going to get the information I need to make the right decisions. And so that to me is the big thing because you have consistent communication about what kinds of information people are looking for, what really piques their interest.
And you already have that rapport with them. So you’re not just starting this conversation blind with, even though they’re the local community. I mean, your local community versus your constituents and your followers on social media may not be the exact same thing, but they’re still there. They are going to be mixed in with your local community and other folks that may be from the outside, but they’re driving that conversation. So please, whatever you do, be on the platforms. That’s kind of the given. It may seem obvious, but you’ve got to use it. Please, I beg you use those platforms before something happens. And honestly, if you don’t have the capacity to be on 10 platforms then you don’t need to, pick your top two and then focus on that. So it might not jump on everything, it might just be these are the two that we have the capacity. I just think the worst thing is for you to have these platforms and then you don’t use it and then someone else is telling your story.