After I spoke at the Police Leadership Conference in Vancouver last April, my public relations work took off (coincidentally rather than causally). I moved with my family to a new apartment, got ingrained with some big client projects, and experienced some instability in my personal life that led to a process of filtering what — and who — is important from what isn’t.
Over time, although I wasn’t sure what I could say here that I hadn’t already said, I kept feeling as if there was, indeed, something more. That’s reflected in the projects I’ve been involved with this year, including:
A book chapter on bringing “digital natives” — members of generations who have never known a world without technology — into law enforcement. Coauthored with my colleague and friend Lt. David Hubbard of the Eustis (Fla.) Police Department, the chapter discusses recruitment, retention and management issues. You can find it in the book “Dancing with Digital Natives,” published by CyberAge Books.
Perhaps more salient is my new column for Officer.com. I’ve spent six previous columns talking about various aspects of social media, including strategy, metrics, whether social media is all that much of a force multiplier, and related issues. That led to editor-in-chief Frank Borelli inviting me on Officer Radio (11-17-11) to talk broadly about social media and law enforcement, and I hope to be back soon to discuss further.
I can’t promise that I’ll return to weekly blogging — things are still in flux in my professional life — but Cops 2.0 is still important to me, and as always I welcome suggestions, questions and comments.
What do you think is most important for police to learn about communicating at the intersection of technology and service?
Monday last week was something of a first for me. Instead of writing about public relations and social media, I talked about it – to a roomful of about 160 public information officers, media relations officers, command staff and others involved with police information dissemination.
The original plan was to divide the talk in half. Lead researcher and coauthor Laura Madison would present an overview of the study and its findings, and I would follow up with a short discussion on the floor about how the conference participants might put (or already were putting) this stuff to work for themselves.
Laura couldn’t make it, but thanks to her fantastic Prezi (below), I was able to deliver her half of the presentation with no trouble. If this is the first you’ve seen it, please find our study so you can follow along.
My half of the presentation involved an interactive session, in which I asked conference participants to talk about their experiences in context of what we’d studied and presented:
We didn’t have a ton of time for an in-depth discussion, but I believe it was enough for participants to think about. Some highlights:
The force of personality
One of the most important questions involved the balance between humor/personality and official business. Both I and keynote Deputy Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie (who, as social media lead for UK police, has a wealth more experience than I do) tried to explain in context of Twitter accounts like @TrafficServices and @SuptPayneWMP, but this probably could have taken an entire session in itself!
Suffice to say, feeds that read like they’re off the screens of computer aided dispatch systems are boring. To draw out the old analogy of a cocktail party, a CAD-like feed is the equivalent of some guy standing in the corner droning. He may think his information is necessary and important, but no one else will.
The bottom line is to make the information compelling, to mix official messaging with a personal view of police work. While it’s pat to say “have a conversation,” we see accounts that do this quite well – both from individual officers and from official agency accounts.
Social crime reporting
Another participant asked about crime reporting via social media. The upshot: have a policy. Whether you accept crime reports via social channels or not, you need to communicate this clearly to your fans and followers. Very few of the accounts we studied actually did this, though a few told their followers to call 911 or Crime Stoppers with incident reports and tips.
Additionally, the policy you create should be fluid enough to change. Whether your agency adds social media officers over time, enabling you and them to take social crime reports; or conversely, that social crime reports are overwhelming, your policy (and the training and communication that go with it) should adapt accordingly.
While all this was going on, naturally, there was a conversation happening on Twitter. Using the hashtag #plc2011van, conference participants talked with (and were retweeted by) others who were off-site.
One conversation that stuck out: a chat I had following the conference, with a web manager in England. Sasha Taylor chairs the National Police Web Managers Group, and he contributed some thoughts to an element of Laura’s and my presentation: when police tweeters engage in “endless self-congratulatory tweeting.”
The point I was trying to make: that it is important for an agency to tell its own story, especially if its relationship with the media has not been good… but not at its community’s expense. It’s important to listen and understand how the public – especially, as Sasha pointed out, those who have been victims or do not get service due to service priorities – view the police department, before telling the story. Otherwise, the attempts at engagement will only drive a bigger wedge between public and police.
Neither, however, should listening take precedence over engagement, as Sasha also noted. Only through engagement can a police department fully understand how it is viewed. While I don’t recommend only using Twitter for this purpose, I do think it’s a good and convenient platform for those who use it, and should be treated as such.
Have you read the study? How would you respond to the questions Laura and I posed?
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:
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.
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.
“…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
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
Because that’s what we social-media proponents all say, isn’t it? Be online, build trust with the community online.
B&R brings up a good point about the people who trust police vs. those who don’t:
The part of the community that trusts law enforcement is the ninety percent that rarely, if ever, uses our services. Of the remaining ten percent, five percent of those are good people that live in crappy areas, but won’t be seen talking to the police because it would put them at risk of retaliation. Earning the trust of the remaining five percent is not something I assign a high priority to and seriously doubt the goal can be achieved.
His is a point of view shared by at least one officer in every agency, if not even some at the administrative level.
Trust-building comes as a result of relationship-building. You can’t have conversations with people who want only transactional relationships, and you can’t build trust with people who want neither to trust nor to be trusted.
Lots of people in lots of communities are happy when the local police department joins Twitter and Facebook, because it shows the department’s willingness to meet with the community in its “hanging out” spots online.
But for many people, presence doesn’t automatically mean trust. In some cases, it means quite the opposite, both on and offline. Officers who know this will have a hard time using or evangelizing the department’s social media efforts—and these officers shouldn’t be ignored.
Instead, use their street knowledge to inform your communications efforts among the entire population. Good community relations doesn’t target specific groups one at a time, but starts with the agency’s mission and values, integrating them into a broader strategy with a clear, consistent message and strong listening capabilities across all community members.
Part of that strategy? Patrol officers who understand that sometimes listening means hearing only the silence of people too afraid to talk, and messaging means simply enforcing the law.
Understand this, and maybe they won’t pass off community relations as “just another feel-good tactic”… they’ll be able to implement it according to the needs of those they serve.
Sgt. Tom Le Veque has been a believer in social media since he started using it to reach out to the public during contract negotiations. Administration has been a bit slower to adopt, however, so Le Veque went for middle ground: a blog run by the Arcadia Police Officers’ Association.
Sgt. Le Veque’s introduction on our “About You” page led to a more in-depth discussion between us. What he’s doing may be a valuable alternative for agencies that want to “test” social media before they commit to an official presence online, and he has other good insights too.
How the APOA blog started
Le Veque says:
A couple of years ago, we were in the middle of some fairly tense [contract] negotiations. I started following not only the print media, but also constantly querying the topic on the Internet. I stumbled across a fairly active news/political blog that was in our area and started following items of interest. That in turn led to looking into police blogs and local departments that were active on the net. In the Los Angeles area, sad to say, I found little to choose from at the time.
Feeling the need to further our Association’s position publicly, we used letters to the editor, blog entries, commented on news articles (Topix), a billboard, posted a video on YouTube, and launched the APOA website.
When the dust settled I felt that there was a need to promote not only our Association, but also our department in the community. Feeling that social media was an up and coming outlet, I drafted a proposal for an official APD blog and began to work on helping to improve our presence on our PD website.
The blog idea was shot down [due to the] feeling that there was no need for the department to devote time to the project. However, a manager commented that the PD had no control on whether or not the POA started a blog… that sparked the idea of the APOA Info Blog.
A couple of things stand out to me about Le Veque’s efforts. First, he started by listening. It makes no sense to join a conversation you know nothing about. Even if you know your side, no one will respond positively if you’re only talking about your side. Real negotiations start with listening, even to the critics.
Then, even after the contract negotiations were settled, Le Veque kept going. Good marketers who are integrating social media into business initiatives realize that there is no such thing as a “campaign” as in advertising; they know the “conversation” is ongoing. Also, even though the department administrators felt they had no need for a blog, Le Veque knew the community had a need.
Going further, I learned that Le Veque had done significant research before starting his blog. For one thing, he notes a wide range of both police blogs and responses to them:
In looking into the ‘police blog’ idea, it seemed that most of the blogs had few to no comments. There were exceptions, but to me they were explainable. LAPD had many comments, but most seemed to come from within, from their own personnel. A couple of smaller towns in the Midwest had comments on their PD blogs, but the appearance was that everyone in the area knew each other….
I did find that when a department offered question and answer type entries, like that of Sacramento PD, there seemed to be some genuine interaction between the community and the PD.
Different forms of success
Blog comments, in quantity if not quality, do not define its success. Comments are only one form of feedback; there are other forms of feedback both direct and indirect. As Le Veque says:
Comments on the site have been minimal and after looking at other PD blogs we did not expect an overwhelming amount of traffic.
We have had good feedback and believe that it serves as an excellent form of community outreach and communication. Our feedback has been mainly through word of mouth, a few phone calls, and direct email via our feedback link on the POA website.
More importantly, Le Veque’s continued research involves number-crunching:
We have tracked visitor numbers [via Google Analytics] and are pleased with the results. After the start up the blog, unlike WordPress, the host Blogger did not have a counter for visits. I was curious as to how many hits the POA blog was getting so I opted for associating the Google Analytics program with the site.
I found it interesting but also somewhat confusing. The numbers are fairly straightforward, but it seemed that the site is geared for more of a marketing type blog. I know that we have recurring visitors from the community, our politicians and the local media. Comments to officers in the field, phone calls to the Watch Commander, and even a little feedback from Administration has confirmed that information.
Defining blog success
Keeping an open mind with regard to comments was key, as was Le Veque’s attitude that “if we impact anyone with our information than it is a success.” But there’s more to it than that, he says:
I believe that a great deal of how well the blog will do depends on many, many factors. Just a few in my opinion are:
Population, location and demographics (who and where are you serving)
Department buy-in and support
Publicity both in local media and the parent organization (city, county, other departments)
Is it down to earth or too “official” [Le Veque brings up the point that many blogs are little more than press release pages.]
I don’t know if you can be politically correct when it comes to talking about the who and where. I think that a police department that serves an average middle class area may have an easier time interacting socially, either on-line or in person, than a department that serves a high income area. Departments that serve more depressed areas probably depend on how well they interact now and what kind of community partnerships are established.
If the community does not like or trust the cops, they are not going to interact, in a positive way, on-line. Bottom line is that in any project, you have to overcome the ‘us vs. them’ or the idea that law enforcement
is a ‘necessary evil.’
Le Veque acknowledges that until more smaller police departments in California catch on to social media use, “Our management is likely to remain distant. Officially, the blog is not supported, however, there have been a handful of times that even the boss has asked for a topic to be posted.”
So, just as Le Veque researches the community to meet its needs, he continues to research the agency’s needs, working to help administration warm to the idea, including adding a “just ask” button on the blog page (a la Sacramento PD), starting a Twitter account, and proposing a Facebook page.