2011 riots: How a ‘real’ voice stopped a race war, and what we can learn

However, while the events – which included the burning of a 100-year old building – were no doubt devastating, the situation could have been a lot worse, had deep-rooted racial tensions in Birmingham been left to manifest.

As rioting reached the city, three Asian men were killed when trying to protect businesses from black looters. When news broke out nationally, there was a real palpable fear that this would stoke up trouble between the two communities who already had a history of simmering racial tension.

Police and politicians feared a race war, however, the issue was addressed head on by a grieving father of one of the victims, and as well as making headlines around the world, put an end to a potential race riot.

Tariq Jahan was not a media-trained spokesperson, nor was he well-versed in crisis management. But he was a real, relatable voice that spoke out to both communities with a message of peace, during a time when vengeance and violence was front of mind.

Though Mr Jahan didn’t act alone. David Cameron had arrived in Birmingham and a government advisor and spokesperson for the city’s black community congregated to discuss the best way of handling this potential crisis. It was quickly realized that a politician’s words wouldn’t resonate, and Mr Jahan was asked to speak. It was his heartfelt speech that is credited with stopping a potential race war.

So what lessons can be learned from this incident during the 2011 riots? Well from a PR and reputation management perspective, choosing the right voice for the cause is key. All too often politicians are drafted out to encourage calm and impart advice, with little effect.

People listen to people who are like them. So having a familiar, relatable voice that knows the issues is much more likely to be heeded than someone in a suit who simply doesn’t walk the walk. And if Mr Jahan, the father of a man killed in the riots is urging peace, few people could argue with that.

Never has there been a stronger example of the importance of keeping things real.

Halima Khatun

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