Category Archives: Reputation management

Raw video: Tactics + strategy for a YouTube age

Police filming students during the anti-cuts demonstration in London 26.3.2011A Law Enforcement Today article recently covered the question: what do you do when a civilian starts recording you for a YouTube video?

Regardless of whether your jurisdiction’s policy is to view videotaping as Constitutionally protected free speech, or a danger to officer safety, stated author Jean Reynolds:

Criminal justice experts suggest the following guidelines can go a long way to head off liability problems arising from citizen videotaping:

  1. Always identify yourself immediately as a police officer.
  2. Speak clearly and courteously, avoiding inflammatory slang and street talk.
  3. Use positive words like “cooperate” and “protect” whenever possible.
  4. Describe what you’re doing and why.

One problem: memory in high-stress situations is a tricky thing, as the Force Science Research Center has shown. That’s compounded by the fact that online video is as easily edited as it is recorded.

Weeks following the pepper-spraying of UC/Davis student protesters — once the damage had been done to both agency’s and officers’ reputations — an “extended cut” of the incident surfaced. In fact, the officer responsible for pepper spray use, along with his colleagues, had communicated extensively with students before spraying them.

Emphasize strategic as much as tactical messaging

Telling officers to “behave professionally at all times,” regardless of what they’re doing, where they are or whether they’re being videoed, is important… but overemphasizes the tactical aspect of a situation. Department commanders should also consider strategic aspects, including:

Community culture. Watching the full UC/Davis video was almost like watching newsreel from 1968. The protesters were organized, using professional activist tactics to push the situation in the direction they wanted it to go. Police commanders need to be not just aware of activist organizations in their communities, but also in regular contact with them before, during, and following events — acting “as facilitators rather than a force to be confronted.”

The nature of journalism. Traditional journalists have argued that “citizen journalists,” who are not beholden to the same ethical standards, can edit video, text and images with impunity (among other issues). Professional media, however, are not immune; their businesses are suffering, and they’re hungry for saleable stories. So while police and media may have reached a communication standoff in many communities, helping media understand the specific agency’s point of view is key to helping citizens understand.

The messages they themselves are transmitting — intended or unintended – to their communities. After I posted the LE Today article to my Google+ stream, I received this response from a civilian:

The article alludes that there is a “problem” with the video taping of police?… Why is it a “problem” when citizens do it, but its “for protection” when the all-seeing-eye is on a cruiser’s dashboard? If you’re doing your job honorably, and following protocol, in many cases, that tape just became (or should have) “your protection”, no?… These [four items] sound like things [police officers] should ALWAYS be doing (esp. #1 & 2), regardless of any “problem” or “fear” of recording.

In other words, a “do as I say, not as I do” approach will not encourage the kind of relationship-building which most chiefs agree is essential to community policing.

Open government and officer safety need not be at odds

Officer safety is a real concern, but to my knowledge, no one has been able to point to ambushes that happened because attackers had been studying videos of police tactics. Some of the highest profile ambushes have been crimes of opportunity: four officers killed in a coffee shop, several shot as they sat in their idling cruisers, an officer killed during a traffic stop.

Governments at all levels pay lip service to embracing transparency without understanding what it entails, which is usually a path full of thorns involving personal privacy, sometimes ugly truths, and the hard work needed to fix problems (often despite tight budgets). However, many Americans, both left and right, express fear that we are sliding towards — or living in — a police state. Officer safety is as much a function of public trust as it is tactical prudence. Law enforcement agencies that champion transparency, starting with public scrutiny for their officers’ actions, will go a long way towards assuaging that fear.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Cleaner Croydon

Occupy policing, Part II: Setting — and conveying — the right tone

Occupy San Francisco RallyOn LinkedIn last week, I posted an item to several of my groups about how the Philadelphia Police Department cleared the city’s Dilworth Square of Occupy protesters. I received a LinkedIn message asking me what it had to do with social media or the Internet, and rather than respond one-on-one, I thought it would be valuable to go into greater detail here.

To start with, PPD actually did use Twitter to get its message out to Occupiers. More than that, though, was the way PPD commanders engaged in careful planning, including:

  • Reciting the First Amendment at each roll call.
  • Restricting officers from carrying pepper spray or Tasers, and assuming sole authority for the decision to use force.
  • Reminding officers to be ready for citizens to film them.

These measures were notable enough, but what also stood out to me was the way communications planning took into account the way protesters themselves were communicating:

During the trip to Center City, Karima Zedan, the department’s director of strategic communications, monitored the chatter on social media of a building police presence at City Hall. Zedan and Ramsey discussed whether they should send the occupiers a message through the department’s Twitter feed, which they knew the protesters monitored.

“What we should say is just what our goal is, and that’s to safely remove people so construction can begin,” the commissioner said.

As Ramsey’s Car 1 arrived at City Hall about 1 a.m., Zedan sent the tweet.

Indeed, PPD’s Twitter feed from that day was filled with tweets about, and to, Occupy:

It was not all that dissimilar to an October 10-11 effort in Boston, where police moved protesters from an unapproved encampment near an original, agreed-upon site:

Boston Police communicated to protestors the request to vacate the 2nd encampment and return to the original site numerous times throughout the evening via Twitter, flyers and in person [as well as its blog]. The required police action resulted in the arrest of 141 individuals who were charged with Unlawful Assembly or Trespassing.

The agency’s Twitter feed, while more repetitive than Philadelphia’s, similarly used hashtags and other community-oriented language and tone:

For BPD, which has been on the forefront of social media use (including a personal approach rarely seen in law enforcement tweets), this style of communication was not unexpected… although I believe it could’ve been less defensive. See the difference between BPD’s messaging tone, and PPD’s?

Defensive, derisive or merely dismissive: How tone affects your message

Again, simply using Twitter to communicate with Occupy protesters is not the point. While I do, as I said in my last post, wish police were using their feeds more proactively, the fact that communication is being built into encampment removal plans at all is important.

The New York Times’ graphic of the evolution of riot gear shows that communication with protesters was poor and inflexible in 1968, but had given way to negotiation and flexibility by 1995. Although communication is, unfortunately, not mentioned by name in 2011, indirect forms of communication are: managed protests via the permit process, along with “regular use of intimidation.”

It’s these indirect forms of communication that can affect a blog post or Twitter feed, too. In contrast to Boston and Philadelphia police tweets, @RichmondPolice’s appeared to want to downplay any mentions of Occupy by limiting their tweets — even as police bulldozed encampments on Halloween. (Three of those tweets were directed to people who had addressed them first; several of those, directed to the same person.) No Occupy hashtags were used, and the tone (“We’re sorry you have an issue…”) borders on dismissive.

These kinds of nonverbal communication speaks volumes about police officials’ collective approach to people in a certain situation. Look at the way officials in each of these three cities spoke about protesters:

“These people are not criminals,” said Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan, who oversaw the operation. “They are not our enemies.” (Philadelphia)

“We continue to encourage the leadership of Occupy Boston to maintain an open dialogue with authorities in the spirit of coordination and cooperation.” (Boston) (To be fair, less than two months later, Police Commissioner Ed Davis was quoted as saying, “[There are] drugs, vandalism and assaultive behavior. [$723,000 in police overtime is] a significant amount of money…. [which] would be much better spent in neighborhoods where there is firearm violence.”)

Meanwhile, a brief Google search revealed that Richmond police had little to say beyond the fact that nine arrests took place. Again, it would appear that they were trying to downplay the protests in their city.

The work of relationship building

Some believe that police are not there to understand or to communicate with Occupy protesters; rather, their job is to investigate crime and remove encampments when ordered to do so. Indeed, PoliceOne.com reports that police went undercover at Occupy Los Angeles, collecting intelligence on any potential threats to law enforcement.

Even at that, according to the L.A. Times: “From the outset, department officials had struck a collaborative, friendly stance with protesters, and believed they knew what to expect from them [when police stormed the park]…. ” That work paid off; the LAPD was widely praised for its restraint in removing the encampment.

It’s notable, as the Times further reports, that police invited clergy and legal observers to witness police-community interactions. That is not the mark of a police state, nor are agencies that seek to understand the mistakes of others in order to avoid them.

What Philadelphia’s effort showed was that, if police want to avoid reinforcing this belief, any communication plan should not just include logistics — who will communicate, via what channels, how often, etc. — but also careful assessment of:

  • What emotions they may inadvertently convey. Even something as short as a tweet can read sarcastic or condescending. Professional police shouldn’t allow this to happen, but are still human, still experience frustration and irritation. Make sure your bloggers, Twitter users and videographers understand how miscommunication can hurt relationship-building efforts, especially in sensitive parts of your community.
  • Whether the right people are communicating. Most law enforcement agencies would rather maintain control over their messages by restricting the number of people who can send them, but think about officers who know particular communities or issues better than any other. Consider having them contribute to, if not outright create, content on behalf of your agency.
  • How much information you can reasonably transmit, taking into account ongoing operations. Law enforcement agencies are no different from other organizations in their desire to avoid liability. However, a tight communication policy won’t protect your agency from a lawsuit if there are deep systemic problems, and citizens value information — the more of it they have, the more comfortable they feel. So consider sharing what you can about what you do, even if this requires a sustained effort with long-term planning.

Occupy protesters may be, compared to other areas of a community with deeper and longer-standing problems, a nuisance to be dealt with before moving on. But they remain members of the community, and they’ll remember how police approached them — via Twitter, in person, on a picket line or even as part of their group. Whether their memories are positive or negative will drive how they interact with police in the future to solve public safety problems. And so, even when police stick to their core mission, the tone in which they communicate their efforts remains critical to their success.

How has online or in-person tone shaped your interactions with people in your community?

Creative Commons License photo credit: breyeschow

Occupy policing: Shaping community dialogue through leadership

occupy wall street policingA Washington Post headline this week caught my eye: “Police want to stay out of Occupy story.” As quoted in the article:

“What keeps police chiefs up at night is that somehow the purpose of the movement will become about actions that the police have taken,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a D.C.-based law enforcement think tank.

That’s exactly what is happening. Because of police actions, some OWS supporters view law enforcement as part of the bought-and-paid-for corporate machine; and some Tea Partiers, though they may support actions taken against OWS, have perceived police as part of Big Government.

At this point, the more “outside” police try to be, the more they will fan the flames of misperception on both sides. This is perhaps exemplified in a recent Alternet post (emphasis mine):

PERF organizes conference calls among police officials to discuss areas of common concern. Last year, it held a conference call among police chiefs who were worried that Arizona’s harsh immigration law, SB 1070, would drive a wedge between law enforcement agencies and the immigrant communities they are supposed to protect and serve. Fox “News” ran a story at the time alleging that PERF was some sort of far-left police organization and therefore illegitimate. Now we’re getting a similar story from progressives, which is discouraging.

Shaping the story you’re part of

For three years Cops 2.0 and resources like it have existed to help police learn how to use social media (and other forms of technology) to build relationships with the public. Yet we see little evidence of any such relationships — online or off — in any of the cities where violence, or even nonviolence, has taken place.

What if police used social tools to shape the story they’re already a part of? Not their side — a cop’s-eye perspective on arrests taking place — but the story itself. Consider this largely positive version of PERF and OWS policing from the Las Vegas Sun (emphasis mine):

From Atlanta to Washington, D.C., officials talked about how authorities could make camps safe for protesters and the community. Officials also learned about the kinds of problems they could expect from cities with larger and more established protest encampments….

and:

Interim [Oakland, Calif.] Police Chief Howard Jordan said… a theme was how the atmosphere at the camps had shifted from a haven for peaceful protest to one for criminal behavior.

“Some chiefs had been tolerant of the progressive movement, but that all changed when the criminal element showed up,” Jordan said. “As police, you can’t allow anything that foster criminal activities in any city.”

Jordan said that he and other police brass and city officials began planning last week for officers to remove the camp outside City Hall for a second time after collecting enough evidence that gang activity and an open-air drug market had emerged at the park.

and most telling of all:

Portland (Ore.) Mayor Sam Adams said the primary issue among the mayors was how to get a message to a movement that didn’t have any clear leadership. “A lot of time was spent on how do you effectively communicate with a group that doesn’t have a leader?” Adams said.

Monitoring, influence, and “joining the conversation”

I am quite sure that police are monitoring online conversations for insight and, yes, intelligence about what’s going on in the encampments. But Adams’ question indicates fundamental misunderstanding about the power of social media monitoring in helping an organization learn how — and with whom — to communicate.

Setting up a Facebook page and a Twitter account (or a blog, YouTube channel or podcast) only prepares the agency to keep broadcasting using new channels. In other words, engaging with fans and followers about the content you push is merely a discussion about business as usual.

If police really wanted to use social media to “join the conversation,” they’d join the conversation — the one that matters to the citizens. Not to be political, but to involve protesters in finding the best balance between free speech and the laws that make for civil society.

And, secondarily, to use all that online intelligence to educate themselves about the group. In fact, many movements online are lateral and leaderless — yet nevertheless benefit from informal leaders, or “influencers,” whose opinions and thoughts resonate with many.

So in much the same way that physically blending into the OWS crowds would allow police officers to see informal leaders and group dynamics, learning who’s blogging, tweeting and shooting video (and what they’re writing or shooting about) would help police determine critical online influencers.

And what would they do with that information? For starters, they might solicit those individuals’ help, both online and off. The “criminal element” dilutes OWS’ message too, and while protesters wouldn’t want to be treated as “informers,” they should at least be given the opportunity — as any Neighborhood Watch — to have a hand in protecting one another.

This is the story police should be telling about their role. Chiefs coming together is a start, but making communities safe needs to involve the communities themselves.

Incidentally, these are ideas reflected by former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper in an interview with Democracy Now (emphasis mine):

“…if the police and the community in a democratic society are really working hard—and it is hard work—to forge authentic partnerships rather than this unilateral, paramilitary response to these demonstrations, that the relationship itself serves as a shock absorber. ”

Expanding further in his own article for The Nation, Stamper advocates:

Assuming the necessity of radical structural reform, how do we proceed? By building a progressive police organization, created by rank-and-file officers, “civilian” employees and community representatives. Such an effort would include plans to flatten hierarchies; create a true citizen review board with investigative and subpoena powers; and ensure community participation in all operations, including policy-making, program development, priority-setting and crisis management. In short, cops and citizens would forge an authentic partnership in policing the city. And because partners do not act unilaterally, they would be compelled to keep each other informed, and to build trust and mutual respect—qualities sorely missing from the current equation.

In the business world, marketing strategists talk about the need for “social business,” an organization into which social media are integrated at every possible level — channels that facilitate communication, which in turn promotes the kind of structure Stamper envisions. (It’s worth noting that these are dynamics already appearing among the civilian protesters at OWS.)

A police force whose actions reinforce the worst perceptions is an ineffectual police force, at a time when our society needs leadership more than ever. Leadership isn’t telling people to go shop, or go home, or go get a bath and a job. It’s understanding why people are using demonstration to show they care about their society, and from there, understanding — and talking about — how to work together to keep the peace.

How can you shape the kind of story that develops into dialogue about how you police your community?

Creative Commons License photo credit: jorenerene

Political pressure? Refer to your values

pressureIt’s been said that social media “amplifies” whatever an organization’s values are. If a company is all about pushy sales, so will be its social efforts. If it seeks long-term customer loyalty based on relationships, its social efforts will reflect that too.

Likewise among police departments. An agency that respects its citizens enough to communicate with them and make them partners in crime-solving will show that online. An agency that has no respect for citizens… well, it might have Twitter and Facebook pages, but it either won’t use them regularly, or won’t use them appropriately.

That’s why it’s so important that the Huntington Beach (Calif.) Police Department resisted city council member Devin Dwyer’s plan to use the department’s Facebook page to “shame” drivers arrested for DWI. An Associated Press article noted:

Police spokesman Lt. Russell Reinhart said that since launching its Facebook page in November, officers have found it to be a valuable way of getting information to the public and soliciting tips on tough cases.

A couple of DUI suspect mug shots have been posted, but they were from egregious cases where police thought the public could be at immediate risk from the suspect. Reinhart fears Facebook fans could be turned off by the routine public shaming of all repeat DUI offenders.

This is not just a gut sense on his part, but rather one based on page analytics: “Our social media presence is just a few months old and we have had a steady growth of fans and followers,” he told me. “The administrative side of Facebook shows the number of views and impressions is growing steadily as well.  The feedback is all positive from our community.  Using those tools as a measurement, we are doing the right thing for the right reason.”

Different definitions of “public safety”

This debate shows how critical it is for goals and strategy to come before the tactics. If you jump on social media without knowing what you want your public to take away from it – and then, what you want them to do with the information – it will be harder to articulate why a politician’s demand “feels wrong,” and easier to cave to that demand.

This is especially true when the demand is grounded in a different perspective on public safety. As it turned out in a council debate, the issues on both sides are complex. Among the council members’ reasons for opposition:

  • Posting pictures, even of habitual offenders, could shame families as well as offenders and increase the risk for bullying or cyberbullying of kids who have tried to hide the family secret.
  • Huntington Beach, having marketed itself as a fun tourist destination, should not hurt that image by appearing to be a “Footloose” kind of town.
  • Conversely, the additional publicity could hurt the city’s image by showing it has a DUI problem.

On the other hand, Dwyer himself pointed out that he had received many letters of support from families with alcoholics, who told him that shaming could be another tool in a family’s – and a community’s – intervention toolbox. He also felt that the shaming could be part of the agency’s own arsenal, together with existing saturation patrols, training for restaurant/bar owners and servers, and other prevention methods.

Social presence starts with values

HBPD was able to disagree because it had already decided on how to use its Facebook page. “We never disagreed on the public safety issue of those individuals on the road who are DUI,” Reinhart says. However, “Shaming is a form of punishment and law enforcement’s role in society is not to hand out punishment.” Posting all DUIs, or even all habitual offenders, could dilute the page’s overall focus and distract fans from paying attention to public safety as a whole.

Indeed, the Associated Press article went on to note other agencies that have tried – and then rescinded – similar policies. Meanwhile, the council elected (largely, Reinhart says, to end the media “hype” around the issue) to allow the department to continue to use its discretion with its Facebook postings.

Reinhart says of this experience, “For other agencies using or considering social media my recommendation would be to anticipate political pressures on how it should be used and be prepared to support and defend your position. This is no different than the debate on how we dedicate and use all the resources we have in law enforcement.”

At the same time, as Reinhart says, “Social media gives law enforcement the opportunity to help the community we police know the realities, both strengths and weaknesses, of our role in society.” This means that police departments must tread carefully when communicating those realities. People can misconstrue intent via social channels just as traditional media have in the past.

Again, it comes back to values. Transmit those through social and traditional media, and people (including local politicians) will know what you and your agency stand for – for better or worse.

How are you building agency values into your social media work?

Creative Commons License photo credit: smemon87

In a crisis, communicate short-term for long-term goodwill

law enforcement crisis communications

How will you respond to criticism of the way you handle a high-profile case?

An iPhone prototype lost, found, and then sold. A police raid on the home of the blogger who broke the story. In a public relations crisis that is largely eclipsed by the much bigger issues of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Wall Street fraud, the Silicon Valley-based Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT) Task Force is facing criticism for two issues:

First, fears that it violated California’s journalist shield law. And second, that iPhone’s developer Apple, which sits on REACT’s steering committee, influenced the task force’s actions to too great an extent.

Compounding this, REACT seems as ill-prepared to respond as any law enforcement agency that is unused to widespread public criticism. That, I’m afraid, is a much bigger problem than most police might envision. But I’ll get to that in a second.

Messaging vs. communication during crisis

REACT doesn’t have a social media presence, other than an intermittently updated blog. The guestbook on their website has been taken over by criticism, however, in much the same way as Nestle’s Facebook page was by Greenpeace activists.

To REACT’s credit, they aren’t taking the criticism down (assuming they even know about it), but beyond that, haven’t said much. They’ve left communication to the public information officer at the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, their “home base”:

To the extent that high-tech companies or other entities would send representatives to the meetings, they are considered members of the committee. While our records have not shown its attendance as of late, Apple is similarly situated as other companies or entities, which have open invitations to attend committee meetings at any frequency.

Meanwhile, task force leader Michael Sterner was quoted as saying that it was “not uncommon for investigators to make use of intelligence from firms’ internal security teams or to consult with companies’ security personnel as cases move forward” but that the task force does not “take directions on our investigations.” San Mateo chief deputy DA Steve Wagstaffe reminded reporters that Apple was the victim of a crime — a week after the controversy started.

In my opinion, these statements don’t go far enough. They don’t take into account the task force’s actual day-to-day work, its role in combating high-tech crime, the other cases they have worked since their inception — part of whose conditions was a private-sector steering committee. (One wonders if this in itself is the underlying basis for the criticism.) A lot more is in play here.

Crisisblogger Gerald Baron writes about the role of politics in a crisis:

“…the crisis managers [at BP and Goldman Sachs] involved in working these two humongous issues right now, will have a very significant impact on the long term decisions that elected officials will make in these two arenas.”

So, too, decisions affecting REACT and task forces like it. Recall the Heartland data breach, the Google data breach, and others. Breaches like these can lead to intellectual property theft as serious as laying hands on an iPhone prototype. They can also lead to identity theft, as when private personal and bank information in a company’s servers is sold. These affect everyone – not just the companies themselves.

Thus the need for police-private partnerships. In fact, many companies don’t involve police; they’re afraid of bad PR, and they risk that a breach dealt with quietly behind the scenes won’t evolve and go public. Police are working to change these attitudes, but they can’t do it without developing relationships with those companies.

And implications that police-private partnerships are inappropriate won’t help.

A social alternative to traditional crisis communication

media relations during crisis

Fast, clear, accurate communication is necessary during crisis

An ongoing high-profile investigation is the last thing most law enforcement administrators want to comment on, especially in the real-time social web. However, consider that numerous outlets already are doing so. Thus even if a response cannot talk about the case itself, it can work to mitigate the less wholesome coverage. Hint: that wouldn’t involve getting a subpoena to take down a news article.

So what if REACT had a social presence? It might take some lessons from a counterpart further to the northeast.

The Sacramento Valley High Tech Crimes Task Force has been, at least since 2003 when I first started working with one of its detectives, very media-friendly. This culture is driven by a desire to inform and educate the public; this desire in turn led to the task force’s social presence. Detective Dan Brown daily posts information about cyber crimes like identity theft, trying to educate his publics about threats and how to protect themselves.

In short, he talks about the same hard-to-understand issues that led to the task forces’ creation. So I asked him to speculate on how he would handle it if it was Sac Valley, not REACT, that was involved in the search. Here’s what he had to say:

I would address the question and in this way: The steering committee is made up of 52 law enforcement agencies and approximately 42 private businesses of the “high technology” industry and various financial entities.  The purpose of the steering committee (in summary) is to review task force activity and provide advice, recommendations, strategic input and direction for “task force consideration.”

With about 42 private entities involved, no one entity has more influence over the other and we have not experienced an extreme amount of pressure from any one entity.  The task force operates solely on state grant funding and requires no monetary contributions from any of the private entities.  The task force respects the advice and recommendations of the private industry committee members but we are not beholden to any private corporation.  In the end we make the decisions.

Fortunately, we have a great relationship with the private industry side and are of the same mind on most issues.  So our committee is made up of members who simply want to combat hi-tech crimes.  Political influencing and the pushing of individual agendas has never been an issue; furthermore, it would never be tolerated.

Note that Det. Brown is an investigator, not a PIO. That’s why it can be a mistake to defer to the “home” agency’s PIO, whose responsibilities are much broader than what one task force is doing. That person may have only the barest-bones idea of what a task force does and what it means to the community.

Ideally, then, it will be a task force representative managing task force social sites, and working hand-in-hand with the PIO – and, if necessary, legal teams – to communicate rather than message.

Social strategy and crisis communication

social media crisis strategy

A good communication strategy can keep you from being sunk

When I first started writing this post, I thought it would boil down to strategy. A social presence set up solely to educate, I imagined, would be within its rights not to address bad PR. It would not want negative comments to dilute its educational content stream, or to drown out its longer-term message – especially if its resources were as limited as many agencies’ are.

But social culture is rooted in two-way communication. As many companies and law enforcement agencies broadcast, feedback continues to be important to their publics. Indeed, President Obama’s administration has been criticized for “[seeming] to imagine that releasing information is like a tap that can be turned on and off at their whim.”

This in contrast to his campaign, in which he and his staff tapped into social networking culture to drive a grassroots support for a variety of changes—among them, better government transparency. Thus inconsistent communication fails to generate or maintain trust just as much as no communication.

Which was behind Det. Brown’s response to my question about how he would handle social criticism:

As far as Facebook goes I think I would entertain critical comments as long as the language was appropriate for our younger fans.  I would address each comment as quickly as possible and with the utmost professional tone.  In the case where someone just can’t be satisfied or reasoned with, I would not continue in a back and forth debate, which almost always ends in a negative and unprofessional way, and consider removing the comments.

While our main purpose is to inform and educate, it would be a mistake to operate in such a manner which the public would keep us under the same ole law enforcement stereo type “not approachable, silent because we are hiding something, not truthful in our endeavors, etc.”

I want to improve communication between our task force and the community we serve.  There is no better way for a hi-tech crimes unit to communicate with the members of their community than on the computer.  I believe if you are going to reach out using social network mediums, you should be ready to converse with anyone who contacts you.  Be accessible, appear approachable and be willing to engage.

This means that above all, don’t just be on Facebook and Twitter because everyone else is on Facebook and Twitter. Know what you’re doing there, have a plan for crisis communication, and be the calm in the storm. That’s what builds trust that when you act in the interests of one segment of your community, you’re acting in everyone’s best interest.

Do you have a social crisis communication plan? Tell us about it in the comments!

Images: Ernst_Moeksis, alex-s, & Amanda_M_Hatfield via Flickr

An example of what I mean

how information sharing helps solve problems

How information sharing can help solve problems

I thought it might be useful to provide an example of what I am talking about when I say that law enforcement agencies can do more – a lot more – with social media than they currently are.

First, Joe the Cop

Joe’s latest blog post concerns the beatdown of a compliant motorist by a police officer. A defensive tactics trainer, Joe provides an excellent perspective into why this might have happened:

Ofc. James Mandarino, “amped up from a vehicle pursuit and believing he was about to confront 2 possibly combative drunks, prepared for the worst as the car pulled over” and ultimately committed himself to use of force. The reason? Possibly, fear. More on that in a second.

Next, Crisisblogger

A not unrelated blog post by Gerald Baron:

If you or your senior execs think that you are at a neutral starting point in public perception when an ugly situation hits, and your goal is to keep at neutral or above, you deal with the crisis in one way. But, what if you are starting the crisis from the perspective of a deep hole–that you are not neutral but public perception is already very negative, how does that impact how you deal with the crisis?

Taking it a step further

What if Joe were the chief of Ofc. Mandarino’s department? He’d be in the position Baron wrote about. He’d be on the defensive. He certainly wouldn’t want to explain his officer’s actions as the product of fear. What member of the public wants to know its chief hires scaredycat cops?

Unless Joe was going to put together a comprehensive argument for why his agency needs a better training budget, and better training.

The Force Science Research Center has published information showing that a police officer’s fear response can actually be rewired with practice, overriding that instinct and replacing it with the instinct to act rather than react.

Joe the Chief, then, might use his blog to publish a graph showing how the recession has impacted his training budget. This might show one of several things:

  • A decline in money allocated to training, and a corresponding drop in training.
  • A decline in money, but an increase in certain types of training.
  • An increase in training money, corresponding with increases in certain types of training (at the expense of others?)
  • An increase in money, and an increase in training overall. This might indicate a problem with the officer.

This takes guts

Decreases in money are easy. Joe the Chief can use them to show how his agency needs more funding, which might inspire one or more local businesses to donate money, for instance. Even if the donation must go into the city’s general fund, the city is already under pressure to provide better training for the police department. (Joe the Chief might even work together with Bill the Fire Chief or others to ask for better overall public safety training and education.)

Increases in money are harder, because then it comes down to the chief’s own decision-making. The chief might have decided to allocate funds to training as a response to some other problem – digital evidence, for example, gangs, or narcotics.

This is what we mean by “transparency.” An agency that has communicated its problems all along will be more credible when an officer does something bad; the chief can say, “Clearly we need to devote more to defensive tactics training.”

Of course there are other issues in play. Training is sometimes a matter of officer motivation, as this PoliceOne.com article (more from the FSRC) points out. Officer motivation is a matter of hiring and retaining the right people. Personnel issues sometimes don’t come to light until after the officer has been at work for several years. And no chief wants to, or should, throw his or her personnel under the bus.

Transparency via social media demands a delicate balance between information sharing and leadership. The public and the officers need both. Ideally, the department’s leaders are communicating both internally and publicly.

Yeah, that’s a lot of work. A lot. As Baron wrote in a separate blog post:

We are still fighting today’s public information battles with old strategies and outdated technologies. Until communicators and their leaders understand how much the world has changed, the same mistakes will be repeated.

The job of the crisis communicator today isn’t so much put out a press release and then do some on camera interviews. It is much more about listening, evaluating, advising, and participating in the swirl of information and discussion about the event.

It’s scary. But it can be done… and needs to be done.

What assumptions are you prepared to change about public communications?

Image: Intersection Consulting via Flickr