Law enforcement agencies across the nation face increased media scrutiny, community turmoil, reduced funding and many demands during this new era of policing. It’s no surprise that many government organizations report that their employees are less engaged than ever and that leaders feel helpless to change the situation.
The days of “no comment,” weak media outreach or failing to package and publish “news and information” are relics of the past. Agencies today, regardless of size, must have a media plan that targets their constituents. Executives must set the tone in agency messaging. Public information officers (PIO) must engage in the art of messaging to the media and public using multiple mediums and platforms.
The National Information Officers Association (NIOA) is a resource for law enforcement agencies to tap into. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers an online Public Information Officer Awareness course (IS-0029) with a series of ground classes leading to an advanced PIO course.
You may be in a community where there is mutual respect and conversations between a chief or sheriff and a newspaper editor or radio or TV interviewers exist. In other venues, the relationship with traditional media outlets may be strained. Nevertheless, the focus must be directed at reaching your jurisdiction’s constituents and stakeholders.
According to Rick Rosenthal, nationally renowned media trainer, the traditional media wants three things: information, sound bites and pictures. Information is the who, what, when, where, why and how; sound bites are 27/3/1 — messages that are 27 words long and consist of three sentences with one thought per sentence; and pictures are self-evident in the digital media world of today.
Today we are marketing directly to citizens more than ever before. Just as important is for executives to lean forward in messaging with their community.
Impact of social media
A Pew Research Center study reports that 55% of U.S. adults now get their news from social media either “often” or “sometimes.”
The news media have traditionally been the primary method police have used to communicate important messages to the public. The idea that a simple press release will be effective as it was a decade ago is wrong.
Law enforcement agencies today must adapt to a 24-hour news cycle and social media. According to the Urban Institute’s “Social Media Guidebook for Law Enforcement Agencies,” 94% of responding police agencies use Facebook, 71% use Twitter and 40% use YouTube. Less commonly used platforms are LinkedIn (27%), Nixle (24%), Instagram (21%), Nextdoor (20%) and Google+ (19%). The general population in the U.S. also uses social media platforms at different rates: 73% of all Americans use YouTube and 68% use Facebook, while 35% use Instagram and 24% use Twitter. These rates vary by age group, with 18- to 29-year-olds using these platforms at higher rates.
According to the Pew Research Center, 98% of text messages are read within two minutes — an important reason to invest in a police website that allows for community members to receive text and other alerts.
Marketing your message
This is an era that demands both law enforcement executives and line staff to market their agency’s mission. At the agency level, that requires a proactive media program. At the line level, it requires staff to become marketers with their one-on-one citizen contacts. According to Stephen Kent, a criminal justice trainer from the Results Group, “There is no such thing as a non-marketing employee.”
America has nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies at the city, village, township, borough, county or parish and state level. The average-sized agency in the U.S. averages just 25 officers or fewer. Community outreach, press and social media operations and connecting with citizens is a responsibility that is the same whether an agency is in a metropolitan, suburban or rural location.
Officers have thousands of interactions with residents each year — responding to calls, conducting investigations, attending community meetings and making traffic stops. Those experiences create a lasting impression of
police performance that is shared with family and friends.
Educating and investing in line staff to market their agency is also invaluable. The number of face-to-face contacts made by agency staff can be a huge messaging multiplier. Opportunities to share agency successes, prevention information and education face to face is often as valuable as any media campaign. But if staff don’t have facts, haven’t been briefed on services and programming along with how to refer citizens to additional sources via an informative police website, we are losing critical community market share.
What is your agency’s marketing plan?
Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In doing so, he identified a phenomenon that leaders have struggled with throughout history: It is one thing to have a great strategy, but it’s quite another to accomplish it. Never has this statement been truer, or more challenging, than for today’s law enforcement organizations.
Community engagement is the name of the game today. Failure to embrace a forward-leaning outreach program by all sizes of law enforcement agencies will ensure they will fall prey to a growing number of internal (political) and external threats (community based).
Determining the appropriate timing and most effective communication vehicles for the right messages is not easy, nor will the right messages necessarily satisfy those whose financial stake in the decisions are threatened. Yet, who frames the issues first and offers the most compelling scenario may have some advantage.
In today’s high-tech world, establishing and maintaining a transparent police organization is easier said than done. The department’s website can provide access to reports, statistics, call records, crime mapping, connections to officials, breaking news, written policy and all sorts of other
information. Deciding what information should be provided, how much, when and to whom, in addition to maintaining a respect for the privacy and legal positions of named individuals, are factors that must be weighed against the goal of transparency.
Do we want to sink? Community leadership and police morale
The police, especially in communities experiencing the greatest degree of crime and disorder, feel under attack. Meanwhile, law enforcement executives have found themselves under increasing pressure and scrutiny not only to address crime and disorder within their respective jurisdictions, but also to intervene and resolve social and quality-of-life issues that extend beyond the realm of policing. Keeping a low profile is a weak position in this environment.
An effective and proactive media engagement program is also valuable for police morale. Building bridges and partnerships with our community has value in helping line officers in their community interactions. It also provides support to replace community fiction with fact, in bolstering the often unseen successes that occur daily at the shift, division and agency level. Sharing success with the community is critical for agency morale just as it is in educating citizens.
Social media can be a helpful tool for law enforcement agencies to improve transparency and build relationships within their communities. Doing so is critical in enhancing community partnerships in crime control and prevention. The excuse that police agencies of any size can’t afford marketing and community outreach is no longer a viable excuse.
As seen in the October 2021 issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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