President of PR firm hired by City of Ferguson ‘dismayed’ by online reaction

Denise Bentele of Common Ground PR says a lack of diversity is ‘an industry-wide challenge that we all need to tackle.’


When Common Ground PR announced Monday that it would be providing “short-term assistance” to the city of Ferguson, Missouri, online sleuths quickly began looking into the firm.

Clashes between the mostly white police force and people protesting the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an African-American man, have had a racial charge to them. That led Talking Points Memo and others to question why the city had hired a PR firm that appears to have no black people working in it.

Wednesday afternoon, the president and CEO of Common Ground, Denise Bentele, issued a statement addressing those concerns and answering why the firm stepped up.

“Our short-term agreement to assist had nothing to do with the preceding tragic events,” Bentele wrote. “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.”

Bentele said she was “dismayed at the negative reaction online and on social media” over her firm’s hiring and the criticism from communications professionals and others over the racial makeup of Common Ground’s staff.

“Increasing the diversity of communications professionals is an industry-wide challenge that we all need to tackle,” Bentele wrote. “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.”

She added that the city has also been working, upon Common Ground’s request, with The Devin James Group, a black-owned firm, to spur community engagement.

Here’s Bentele’s statement in full:

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.

Please let us know what you think of Common Ground’s response in the comments section.

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