13 Jan The Need to Serve, Protect — and 5 Steps to Communicate
It’s no longer enough to protect and serve their communities; law enforcement agencies must now rebuild public trust. This month’s PR Week, a nationally recognized public relations magazine, highlighted the efforts that police departments across the country are making to connect with communities and address what it calls a “public perception crisis.”
From our work with law enforcement clients and our stronghold in crisis communications, the recognition that effective communication is necessary — even critical — is no longer the issue. The question now is how can police departments develop and execute a comprehensive communications strategy.
Law enforcement in major cities notorious for high levels of inner-city crime are not the only ones that need to communicate. With smart phone cameras and a population plugged into social media 24/7, an incident can go viral in minutes — landing police in less- and moderately populated regions in the news quickly too.
A report published last year by a joint group of mayors and police chiefs through the U.S. Conference of Mayors underscores what police departments in cities like Baltimore now recognize:
How a police department communicates with the public and the media is crucial to the success of its relationship with the community, especially when officer involved shootings and other high profile incidents, such as demonstrations or significant crimes, occur.
Below are five basic steps nearly any police department can take now to build and maintain public trust and goodwill in preparation for crisis.
Step #1: Partner with a public relations/communications firm. I realize this may seem self-serving, but it’s absolutely critical. Most of our clients at LT Public Relations’ do not have the time or the specific expertise to address the myriad of issues that prevent a public sector entity from communicating effectively. If financial resources are a concern, keep in mind that most publicly minded PR firms will be flexible and honest about how best to invest the limited resources at your disposal.
Step #2: Conduct a Communications S.W.O.T. LTPR refers to this as a 360o Communications Audit. The idea behind this project is to really understand holistically how your organization communicates and the best way to move forward. The S.W.O.T looks at organizational issues preventing good communication, opportunities for media coverage or lack thereof, quantifiable survey data to really understand your public reputation, and opportunities to positively engage the public through partnership, social media and/or other platforms.
Step #3: Develop a communications plan. The S.W.O.T. should not be completed and then placed in a bureaucratic filing cabinet. It should transform the S.W.O.T conclusions into a simple, proactive, realistic and actionable plan.
Step #4: Provide media training for your key personnel. The current environment has put every police department on notice. The slightest hint of misconduct can lead to local and, in severe incidents, even national media exposure. Whether questioned by the local gazette or CNN, the principles of handling media effectively are the same. Training should be mandatory for an agency’s core personnel. It will equip them to engage the media directly or to provide useful insights as a media relations team member.
Step #5: Put a crisis response plan in place. From our experience, law enforcement agencies often don’t have a defined protocol in place for managing a crisis — big or small — that threatens its public reputation. Incoming information about an incident often becomes scattershot across the organization. Nor are processes in place to ensure a timely, unified and sensitive response to media inquiries or social media escalation. As result, agencies often overreact or respond in a manner that makes the situation worse. Moreover, a lack of reporting structure can create power struggles to control the situation and related messaging. All these issues can be addressed before a major crisis hits by developing a crisis plan with buy-in across the organization. And with all things, a plan is only as good as its execution – we often say “Crisis management is 99% preparation and 1% execution.” So once the plan in developed, take the time to rehearse. This final step may identify holes or opportunities to enhance the plan as well as provide direct familiarity with the plan for key staff to lean on during an actual crisis.
If your law enforcement agency isn’t used to communicating strategically, it can be hard to get started. The steps listed above can all be undertaken with relatively minimal cost — especially when failure to communicate can cost so much.