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.