Information or relationship?

Cornerstone, St.
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Just after I responded to a comment here with the question, “I wonder if the cornerstone needs to be “relationship” rather than “information” or control thereof,” I read this blog entry from public relations strategist David Mullen. His view: information first. Relationship second.

The impossible dream

Although his post is about corporate public relations, who must often cultivate relationships with hundreds of reporters, the implications for a police department’s public information or community relations officer are clear. When dealing with a community of hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people, is it possible to build relationships? Is it wise?

There is no way, of course, to build relationships with every citizen. Even if every officer in the department were involved in the online world, this would not be humanly possible. Moreover, the majority of people who come in contact with the police do not want to have a “relationship” with them. So how can police effectively manage information, yet with the personal touch that builds credibility?

Quality over quantity

As a trade magazine reporter, my experience has been that the best stories grew out of the best relationships, which formed at random with certain sources over the years. The key was to watch and listen, to be open rather than shoehorning my work into an expectation of a “hamster on a wheel” cycle of monthly contacts with new sources.

So, too, in communities. The key is to build relationships with “influencers,” community members in the best positions to help develop the department’s reputation. Who are these influencers? Some may be reporters. Others are politicians and small business owners. Still more are de facto leaders in neighborhoods, people who seem to know everything about everyone. Whether they seek you out or you seek them out, you know them by the measure of respect you, and/or everyone else, has for them.

The relationship is the means—not the end

Mullen’s point was that PR professionals must carefully craft the messages they send to reporters, not to “spin” the companies they represent, but to ensure the information gets into the right hands. One of his commenters observed that her job as a PR person was simply to facilitate relationships between reporters and her clients.

So what does this mean for a police public information officer? Perhaps most of all, that the information going out to the public is crafted well enough that it encourages citizens to form relationships with each other. As commenter SpartanCops noted: “People don’t trust the PD or government or any entity. They can only trust the individual people in them.”

The ability to trust the PIO, chief, or others involved in community relations is a good start, but the real measure of strong public relations is citizen willingness to do something with that trust—to work with police to make a stronger community.

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2 thoughts on “Information or relationship?

  1. Andy Willis

    Very well said! I am particularly impressed with how you brought me around to understand that the “information” is the critical component and that it is not just about the relationship.

    I understand the full measure of the conversation now that you have cleared it up for me.
    While it is important for the PIO to have good relationships in the reporting community if he/she can’t put the information out to them in a meaningful way that manages the image of the PD – they’re not right for the job and should probably look for work elsewhere.

    However, if a PIO has talent in crafting well thought out messages and can build meaningful relationships in the reporting community he/she is very valuable to the entity they serve!

    Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Christa Miller Post author

    You have to remember, when I tweet about stuff like this, it’s often to brainstorm and figure out where a thought is going. :) Glad I was able to clarify. Meantime, your point about the PIO’s ability to craft messages and build relationships points to the necessity of a strong community policing strategy — how else will you ever be able to find the right person, if you don’t have an adequate structure in place to see how officers interact (in person or online) with the public?

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