By Bill Rams and Joe Vargas
A narcotics officer transferring to patrol cuts his waist-length blond locks for the first time in five years. A meth addict thanks the cop who helped him turn his life around. A homeless girl plays hopscotch with an officer as they await services to get her family shelter.
What do these stories have to do with police work?
If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will – and you probably won’t like it. In law enforcement today – unfortunately – those telling the most effective stories are plaintiff’s attorneys, suspects and their families and anti-police politicians and protesters.
What can and should you do about it?
Embrace technology and communications strategy
Technology has changed how the public consumes information. It’s provided a virtual megaphone from which artfully crafted messages or embarrassing slip-ups can reach hundreds of millions of people instantly.
Unfortunately, cops have been slow to embrace social media – and haven’t invested enough energy in developing thoughtful communications strategies for today’s dynamic world.
That has to change. Immediately.
Effective communication is (almost) as important as solving crime. How many residents in your community are armed with a cell phone camera and Facebook account? Your reputation is on the line on every call, and with every interaction and decision. In virtually every other profession, communications and reputation management are top priorities.
In law enforcement, responsibility of the critical strategic function is sometimes delegated to a sergeant or other position whose passion is anything but public relations. And many PIOs focus a lot of time on the mainstream media when the department could be talking directly to constituents – while positively influencing media coverage.
This should be the Golden Age of Policing
Crime is at or near all time lows. The men and women keeping us safe are more diverse and educated than any in history. Detectives are using technology to predict and solve crime in ways never imaginable. Every day, some of the finest men and women on the planet are saving lives, and putting themselves at risk while serving and improving their communities.
Here’s the problem: not enough people know what they’re doing – or more importantly, who they are.
That has to change. Social media provides an unprecedented opportunity for you to let the community know who you are and what you do.
We could (maybe we should?) write a book filled with suggestions, approaches and strategies, but here are five general suggestions:
- Be authentic. People who know cops like them. Show photos, videos and stories that humanize.
- Be timely. If a street is closed, let residents know. If there’s a crime uptick in a neighborhood, ask for help. Even if there’s an OIS, share that, too (Assuming your agency has given you the authority to release this information). Err on the side of providing as much factual information as possible. Become a trusted source of valuable information.
- Be engaging. Answer questions. Celebrate good news from your partners in the community. Conversations don’t work if they are one way.
- Be helpful. Let your residents know how they can protect themselves. Arm them with information – not just tips about how to prevent vehicle burgs, but also information that there’s been a rash of them at the community college.
- Be strategic. Don’t just post to post. Be intentional. Develop strategies. What’s your message? Measure your posts to see what drives engagement.
Here are five more specific suggestions:
- Get on Facebook and Twitter. Consider other social platforms such as YouTube and Instagram.
- Create a social media team with different people from different generations who like this stuff.
- Our opinion: In the near future, professionals from communications, marketing or journalism will have a seat at the command-staff table to debate the lawyers and challenge the chief. Consider this approach now.
- Strategize about your reputation regularly. It’s the best preparation for the inevitable crisis that will occur – and should be a command-staff priority.
- Spend as much time building on-line community relationships as you do off-line. You can reach exponentially more people on-line.
The story about the narc’s haircut went viral, reaching more than 1 million people and drawing follow-up stories from mainstream media in New York and London.
Because it offered a glimpse into the life of a real narcotics officer, whose dramatic change in appearance resulted in bringing untold numbers of bad guys off the street.
His story resonates. Yours does, too.
Why is showing a cop playing hopscotch with a homeless girl valuable?
Because it shows compassion. It debunks the notion that cops are faceless, racist thugs.
Such stories aren’t fluff.
What about more sensitive issues, such as officer-involved shootings?
Not long ago, Redlands and San Bernardino officers saved a woman’s life when her boyfriend took her hostage at gunpoint and threatened to kill her. Unfortunately, she was shot and seriously injured after the suspect, who had already shot a bystander at a Home Depot in the hand, jammed his handgun into her back. Police shot and killed the suspect.
A few days after the shooting, ballistics reports showed that the woman was hit by officer fire, not her boyfriend as was initially suspected.
Instead of waiting for the prosecutor to complete his detailed probe, Redlands Police Chief Mark Garcia held a news conference, sharing significant details about the incident, including the unfortunate news that the victim was injured by police fire. He was factual and detailed. Just as important, he was composed and compassionate.
Redlands PD filmed the press conference and posted it on their Facebook page. It generated hundreds of comments from residents. Virtually all of them were positive.
The public understands that you can’t reveal every detail of everything all the time. However, they expect you to tell them everything you can. And when you can’t answer a question, they deserve an explanation.
They want strong leadership, the straight scoop and a sense of humanity – all things that already define you.
In closing, here’s the recipe:
Do a great job. Be as kind as possible. Explain what you’re doing and why. Be honest. And tell your story.
You get extra credit if you show some personality – like the City of Miami Police Department (and others) did with its #RunningMan challenge.
Last year, Irvine PD introduced the “Mark 39 Cellular Disruptor,” a radar gun that deactivates cars when people used their phones while driving.
It was an April Fool’s joke, posted on social media, executed to perfection.
All joking aside, building trust and rising crime are the biggest issues facing law enforcement today.
These tools combined with thoughtful strategy can and will help.
Bill is a principal at Cornerstone Communications, a crisis communications consultant for Cal Chiefs and founder of BehindTheBadgeOC.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department Captain, a columnist at BehindTheBadgeOC.com and a POST-certified public and crisis communications instructor. He can be reached at JVargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.