This analysis from Crisisblogger Gerald Baron, on an interview Cambridge PD Sgt. James Crowley did with the media, makes me wonder: can social media help train officers to deal with traditional media?
Cops are taught, by and large, to steer clear of the media. The PIO or a commanding officer handles them at critical incidents, and “regular” cops must get permission before speaking to reporters.
So what happens when an untrained officer finds himself in a media interview? Some (I speak from experience) do a great job. Others, like Crowley, find themselves so severely disadvantaged that if this were a street fight, they’d be in the gutter. As Baron writes:
What did he do wrong. One, he said he wasn’t going to say anything–then he said exactly what they hoped he would…. He kept engaging them–they did a great job, just like a good telemarketer, of keeping him engaged. You could see his guard dropping further and further and then they went in for the kill: will you apologize. And that’s where he made his headline-creating mistake. He not only said no, emphatically no, in effect hell no, he said he never would and when asked if it meant losing his job, he spoke for his department by saying it ain’t going to happen, won’t ever happen.
What does this have to do with social media?
In my opinion, the more officers are familiar with people and how they transmit information among one another online, the better they will understand what people are looking for and how they want to receive it.
Notice, by the way, that I didn’t say officers have to engage with people. It’s preferable, of course—to become part of information dissemination—but I’d argue that simply watching works too. It’s like how constant reading teaches a writer how to write, almost via osmosis. You learn to figure out why something clicks for you, how sentence structure and word choice and many other “tricks” come together to form truly great writing.
Why is this important? Because pure information sharing is a different form of communication than what most cops are used to. It’s not about getting people to explain their problems, or obey your instructions. It’s finding out what’s going on. Not unlike getting incident data via CAD, in some ways.
Authentic communication promotes authority
Even more importantly, however, social media can help non-media-trained officers learn how to channel a quality that’s lacking in most “canned” media interviews: authenticity. This is a point, in fact, that Baron brings up in a blog entry from three years ago:
The point is to be effective you have to be open and honest, trustworthy, responsive and communicate effectively the messages important to your organization, and do this while being totally yourself. The ones who do very well at this succeed on all counts. But it ain’t necessarily easy.
These values are inherent in social media. Marketers and public relations people who help businesses learn social media talk constantly about authenticity, honesty, responsiveness, being yourself even when representing your organization. These are perhaps, then, the most important takeaways for law enforcement officers.
Not many officers will end up in Sgt. Crowley’s position, but in an age where information is expected as rapidly as it’s demanded, preparation isn’t a bad thing. No, you don’t want officers at an incident scene all telling their own versions of what’s happening. There’s a reason the current model works.
And social media cannot be a substitute for proper media training, just as social media-savvy officers shouldn’t be chosen as PIOs just because they “get” the online culture. As Baron points out, it takes the right mix of personality and communication skills along with training.
Still, the shift commanders and supervisors need to be better prepared. “No comment” doesn’t cut it anymore; people think you’re covering something up. Also, future PIOs will come out of this crop of officers. The more officers have the chance to learn how to talk to the public—via the media or not—the stronger the pool administrators have to pull from.
“Authentic” and “authority” have the same root word: autos, Greek for “self.” Communicating with authenticity, from one’s own self, provides and promotes authority—the thing no law enforcement officer should be short of, on the street or in an interview.
Image: Ernst Moeksis via Flickr