by Julie Parker
At a time when law enforcement crisis messaging is arguably scrutinized more than ever before, how ready is your police department for when the unthinkable strikes? Ready not from a tactical or operational standpoint, but rather from a communications preparedness level. Think of any of the recent mass shootings this country has experienced. Now consider those heinous acts purely from the way those law enforcement agencies tackled the daunting task of managing the explanation of the inexplicable. Consumers of news quickly form a perception of a department, accurately or not, based on the way in which the news was released. In just a few terrifying hours, you act as a voyeur, from the safety of your home, car or workplace and watch or listen to the news that agency is sharing and make a judgment. If the emergency hits home, your law enforcement agency may solidify its community’s trust and confidence in it, at a minimum, damage it, or worst case scenario, lose trust and confidence altogether. There are ways you can prepare now to ensure you’re ready for what will hopefully never be needed.
1) Relationship with local reporters and assignment editors
While you may well be on a first name basis with reporters who regularly cover your agency, what about the editors or assignment desk editors, many of whom would also likely be reaching out to you during a crisis? Make an effort now to get to know some. Visit a newsroom. Invite those editors to a media breakfast at your headquarters or district station. Keep newsroom phone numbers handy for when you need the media to get out information immediately on your behalf.
2) Relationship between government agencies
Ensure you have established a working relationship with fellow PIOs. The time to meet someone is not during a crisis. You should have spokesperson contact information for major fellow agencies such as your Sheriff’s department, Fire, Schools, Mayor or County Executive, Office of Emergency Management, etc. or neighboring LE agencies to include federal, state and local counterparts. Consider hosting a crisis communications drill and include your counterparts in your city or county government.
3) Internal relationships
Does your chief of police or sheriff know you, the PIO, need to be seated by his or her side through a majority of a crisis? When you’re racing the clock and under the intense pressure of an international media circus, it’s not the time to sort out whether a PIO is on the command bus or in the EOC or JIC with the principles. Has your PIO ever discussed with the commander of your SWAT team or the appropriate designee that communications during a crisis has to be relayed to your media or public affairs division? That may well be the furthest thing from that commander’s mind and establishing that concept in advance is crucial. If you have a staff who reports to you, is the team prepared for what to do the moment that first call comes in indicating what’s unfolding?
4) Relationship with your community and the greater public
Evaluate your social media presence. A new year is the perfect time to take note of your various platforms and the following you’ve built. Are your audiences as robust as they could be? What can you do to get them to grow? Those followers are not the result of a popularity contest. They are an audience you’ve built based on sharing valuable and accurate content. They will turn to you and share your message exponentially when you have critical and possibly life-saving information to share. Beyond social media, is your department actively engaged in community policing, citizens advisory councils, police youth groups, etc.? Having a core group of supporters who can share your message within their neighborhoods is invaluable.
All of these points will be central to helping you be prepared for a crisis. It’s important for your executive command staff to know your agency will strive to get out your messages early, often and accurately. And that you’re not doing that simply to “help the media.” Reporters will be sharing your story and, ideally, it will be told as your agency would like. However, ultimately, the goal is for your citizens to understand precisely how its public servants are serving them during their hour(s) of desperate need.
Julie Parker will be presenting on this topic at the upcoming SMILE Conference, April 25-28 in Alexandria, VA. Parker has an extensive background in television and radio news, media relations and crisis communications. Ms. Parker also serves as the Director of the Media Relations Division for one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies. Ms. Parker serves as principal communications advisor to the Chief of Police & other executive command staff and is responsible for key messages, media strategy and the creation and management of a robust social media operation. Her work is credited with helping rebrand a once-troubled department’s reputation. Ms. Parker also spent 13 years reporting, anchoring and hosting in Washington, DC, most recently for ABC7 News where she won both an Emmy Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. You can find her at @PGPDJulie or firstname.lastname@example.org.