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
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.