Tag Archives: United States

PR lessons learned from BART

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 14:  Oakland Police offi...
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Could the Bay Area Rapid Transit have found a better way to manage the public relations disaster that was the shooting of an unarmed black man? This is up for debate—BART says no, PR professionals interviewed for the Contra Costa Times say yes—but thanks to the proliferation of shooting footage on YouTube, the question bears examination.

What the PR pros say

The first press release took BART 2 ½ hours after the shooting to produce. This was enough, argue the PR pros, to make community members think a cover-up was going on. Why? Because they’d already seen the video on YouTube. Posted multiple times within minutes of the incident, the video showed all its viewers felt they needed to know.

BART was also, the pros noted, too slow to disclose that Officer Johannes Mehserle had declined to be interviewed the night of the incident. A faster response and better details were two strategies they felt should have been employed.

In its own defense, BART argued that the information they were receiving was constantly changing. Furthermore, just one media relations officer was on call that morning (they have since revised policy to make it two). And, they pointed out, legal issues made it difficult to comment on an ongoing investigation.

Viral vs. chain of command

The PR pros seemed certain that BART had acted with no strategy on how to deal with a crisis incident, but I wonder whether this is true. Government hierarchy—chain of command—is how most police departments deal with emergencies.

The alternative is to “empower” shift commanders and supervisors, even media relations personnel, to provide information themselves. Who wants to take responsibility for wrong information, or worse, for jeopardizing a criminal investigation?

Yet the fact remains that 2 ½ hours was just long enough for community members to start believing that BART was “stonewalling.” Police leaders therefore need to figure out a better strategy than relying on chain of command in critical incidents. Trust those lower on the chain to get information out there that is both accurate and appropriate? Prevent communication breakdowns altogether by developing strong long-term relationships with community members? Some combination of the two?

Most important is to keep the goal in mind: adapt to the increasing public expectation for on-demand information and dialogue.

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Branding police work via social media

Image: <a href=“Branding” is one of those corporate buzzwords that threatens to be overused, if it isn’t already. Yet the concept–to create a set of words and images that inspire positive reactions in people–couldn’t be more important to law enforcement.

How does police work get branded? Usually, through the media. The TV show COPS is a brand, as are the CSI and Law & Order franchises. Because they influence public perceptions of law enforcement (the “CSI Effect,” anyone?), they all contribute to the larger “brand” of police work.

Local media, the newspapers and TV news affiliates that cover your community, also figure into the branding equation for better or worse. Cops complain about this kind of branding a lot, how reporters encourage “armchair quarterbacking” over incidents for which they show little understanding.

But the news media can also brand police work the right way. Witness the photography of FrederickNewsPost.com’s photojournalists, who covered the funeral of Officer Richard Mark Bremer, killed in a motor vehicle accident on October 23, 2008. Their slideshow, accompanied to great effect by Chief Kim Dine’s eulogy, shows a different side to police work–one the public doesn’t often see.

Overall, however, traditional media influence over police work’s “brand” is too hit or miss to trust. The good news is that these days, it doesn’t take much to compete with them. You needn’t hire a public relations agency as the Atlanta Police Department recently did to brand itself for recruiting purposes. And pay no attention to the talk flying around the Internet about “personal branding,” as if people could package themselves neatly into a human Coca-Cola or McDonald’s–and inspire the same customer loyalty.

A variety of tools, many of them free, exist to help businesses and public agencies present the best image they can to their customers or constituents. The catch-all term for those tools, social media, refers to the evolving means of Web-based communication.

Social media use is meant to create and further relationships between people. Especially as the economy spirals steadily downward, smart sales people realize that the best way to move product is to build trust, give customers a reason to buy. In law enforcement, you’re not selling a product–but you do want the public to trust you. How else will you get those tips on your Crime Stoppers hotline, or get voters to approve a bond issue for a new police department?

A police department’s use of social media doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to be authentic. It has to come from a person in the department, whether officer or administrator. Perhaps most importantly, it demands a reassessment of current policy. The not-unfounded fear is that officer blogs or MySpace pages or YouTube videos could lead to the kind of PR disaster that got a Eustis (Fla.) police officer fired for misconduct committed off-duty.

But managed correctly, most officers can and will do right by their police departments: create honest dialogue with the people they serve, use that dialogue to build toward a stronger and more unified community-policing ethic, and ultimately brand their job the way everyone wants to see it: cops who care.

Image: robstephaustralia via Flickr

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