|Media relations and community corrections|
|By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.|
Editor's Note: Senior public affairs specialist Len Sipes, shares some thought provoking ideas about what his Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency uses to successfully manage its public relations and its relationship with the media. They are valuable strategies that agencies should consider having in their public relations tool kit.
In 2003, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), a federal, executive branch entity providing parole and probation services to Washington, D.C., decided to embark on an aggressive and comprehensive public relations outreach effort to support its initiatives. CSOSA prides itself on state-of-the-art practices with some the lowest caseloads and best contact, drug treatment and testing, and programmatic initiatives in the country, and its information systems are first rate. So, it made sense to communicate to the public the good that CSOSA was doing.
We knew though that community corrections (and corrections in general) have immense public relations challenges. According to national surveys of confidence in the criminal justice system, corrections pales in comparison to law enforcement (see Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics).
The emphasis on offender reentry from prison is one example as to how the public looks at our activities. Although most of the verbiage on reentry comes from national sources, the great majority of decisions regarding supervision and services for returning offenders will be made at the state and local levels.
The public will support these community corrections initiatives based solely on their ability to trust the local system assigned with implementation. Average citizens and reporters probably have never been exposed to national reentry advocates and their positions. All fellow citizens know about corrections is what they read in the paper and view on television.
But when the media carry endless stories of offenders committing violent crimes as the primary message, our ability to enter or effect the discussion is greatly diminished.
So, the question is: Can corrections agencies have a favorable impact on public attitudes and perceptions regardless of the topic?
During my 14 years as the director of public relations for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, independent university research documented an increase from 20 to 50 percent in favorable public opinion for corrections, which is remarkable considering the inevitable negative publicity associated with the field. To be fair, my former agency also consisted of law enforcement agencies, but the vast majority of publicity, good and bad, was associated with corrections.
Correctional agencies can be part of the debate and greatly influence local and state media.
First and foremost, the media are our most important audience. Unless you have an advertising budget, everything will be filtered and distributed through them. Establishing favorable media relations can only be accomplished through a service orientation and by serious considering their needs. But, they must provide fairness to get that consideration.
We are available around the clock through agency cell phones and Blackberry's. We have access to the CSOSA information system through home computers. We have laptops with wireless broadband capacity. We have the authorization, tools and knowledge to take care of media needs.
We market to the media as often as we market to the public. In a hyper-competitive media market like the nation's capitol, we know that our proactive efforts will not get all the exposure we want. But when a reporter writes about a parolee involved in a violent crime, we are hopeful that the reporter or editor knows of the quality and comprehensiveness of our efforts. At the very least, they will know what we are trying to accomplish.
We are also concerned about our national reputation. We have sometimes found it easier to market to CBS News and National Public Radio then to local media.
Proactive efforts are the foundation of good public relations. Beyond pitching story ideas to reporters, we are systematic in our outreach efforts. These include:
This is just a sample of what we are trying to accomplish through our public relations efforts. The bottom line is that CSOSA is a major player in the effort to protect the safety of the citizens we serve. We are dedicated professionals who are operating in everyone's best interest, thus we have little to hide and much to contribute to the public discussion.
When the inevitable criminal act occurs from one of the 15,500 offenders we supervise daily, we hope that most members of the media will place the crime and offender into proper perspective. We believe that this is done through a combination of an honest service orientation and their knowledge of our efforts and contributions.
Community correctional initiatives will never be accomplished without a working partnership with the media. Regardless of the topic, bad media relations ensures that what can be done won't be done. In governmental public relations, trust and respect is everything. Without it, nothing good will happen.
Leonard Sipes is a senior public affairs specialist with the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com
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