|By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.|
Last spring, I attended a meeting on promoting community corrections in Lexington, Ky. It was organized by the International Community Corrections Association, the American Parole and Probation Association, and was sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice.
A survey administered prior to the conference revealed that there was little to no proactive promotion of community corrections throughout the country (something the organizations involved seek to remedy). I’m sure the same can be said for mainstream correctional systems or facilities.
If there is universal “agreement” that we do not promote, then let’s examine the reasons why. As someone who has spent close to 20 years representing virtually every aspect of corrections (jails, prisons, and parole/probation) on the state level for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and currently for the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia, I believe I can offer some insight.
Correctional agencies, whether they are prison systems or community corrections, are chronically under-funded with massive and sometimes conflicting mandates. All of us make tens of thousands of decisions every day that involve significant risk.
Few offenders get the services they need. We live in a world of enormous stress and challenges. Regardless of our endless contributions to public safety, we believe it’s probably better if we leave proactive media out of the picture.
For those who do not promote, there are reasons. You are probably understaffed without a promotional budget. If your days are filled with reacting to media calls or emergency planning or the many other duties as assigned, you may feel that promotions are simply too much to accomplish. Besides, there are few in management who are asking for promotional activities. In 20 years of agency public relations, I’ve heard “No news is good news” hundreds of times.
So for the majority of us, that’s the story. There is no will, money, time or management emphasis to promote. End of story.
But is it? I contend that proactive promotional activities are crucial to the mission of the organization. You can accomplish very little without the backing of public opinion.
To influence public opinion, you either have to have an advertising budget (which none of us has) or reach out to the media in a slow, multi-year effort to teach them about corrections. The thought is that this will influence their reporting, they will convey this information to the public, and you will be able to accomplish your goals.
Heading to the Exits
Many of you are headed to the exits right about now. “I’m sorry, Leonard, you do not understand my media market. They are unfair. They hate corrections and the people who work here. They are biased people who simply want to destroy me and everything I stand for. They move on to the next market with my blood on their hands, which they will display proudly.” Sound familiar? I may be exaggerating, but not by much.
We can spend the rest of the article talking about the reasons not to market ourselves (and there are legitimate reasons not to promote), or we can test the waters.
I will say it again; aggressively promoting corrections is the key to the prosperity and future of your organization. Whether or not your personnel get raises, or you get the funds to comprehensively promote offender reentry, or successfully deal with a hostage situation principally depends on the media’s perception of your agency. It’s really that simple.
It’s impossible to address every aspect or to provide a comprehensive overview of promotions in an article. But I will provide a list of things for your consideration.
The bottom line of promotions (or public relations in general) is that every organization decides for itself the reputation it has. As unfair or absurd as that sounds, it’s true. We decide.
Regardless of budget or staffing or the never ending distrust many have of the media, our reputation is in our hands.
The media come to judge each and every one of us. They are no different from you or me. They can only process a limited amount of the information that comes their way.
So organizations are labeled either as honorable entities trying their best to do a good job under difficult situations or morons completely undeserving of sympathy or a successful program that gets the job done.
Many correctional organizations fall into the first category. Some agencies responding to Hurricane Katrina typify the second. It will take years of top-notch PR work to overcome what happened in the Gulf. Companies like Google capture the third.
What to Do?
So for starters, how you treat the media on a daily basis will pretty much decide how they treat your organization. Don’t know the answer to a question? Blow the deadline by failing to supply information in a timely manner? Don’t return calls in the evenings or on weekends?
The media will brand you and your organization as “typical, uncaring, unprepared bureaucrats.” And they will share this information with other reporters and news organizations.
The mast majority of reporters are decent people; they have a job to do, and they want accurate, timely information. Organizations (and their public affairs officers) either acquire a reputation for understanding and cooperating with this reality or, if not, for being evasive and having something to hide.
Treating the media fairly and responsibly—and respecting the job they need to do—is just the first step. The second is inviting them over to your house.
Good media relations means opening your doors. Let them see what you do. How are they ever going to come over to your side unless they know what you are going through? Let them come in. Let them talk to staff. Let them tour your facilities.
Good, hardworking people who are doing honest work in the public’s best interest have little to fear. Overly paranoid bureaucrats have something to fear. The media knows this. They understand the difference between the two.
If you’re treating the media fairly and letting them have the access they need to understand who you are, then it’s time to try some proactive activities. Quite simply, the more hooks you drop into the water, the more fish you will catch.
What do the Media Want?
The media is interested in hard news, human interest or a great photograph. If what you’re offering does not fall into one of those categories, don’t offer it. Bureaucrats sometimes want press conferences to “announce” items that may be tremendously important within their agency or community, but are not newsworthy.
I attended a press conference by a major power company that was giving $100,000 to local schools. They had a league of very well paid public affairs personnel promoting it. The media ignored it. It was not hard news, there were no good photographs available, and the human interest angle wasn’t sufficiently developed to generate coverage. The public affairs staff thought that the sizable donation would get their executives some face time with the media. They were wrong.
The adage is to give the media what they can use, not what you want them to have. There are endless consultants that will ask you to spend thousands of dollars on training so you can pitch a story regardless of the topic. Don’t waste your money. The media hates pitches that have no value, and they make you look silly.
Go with the good stuff. Have the courage to tell your administrator that a press conference concerning a boring topic is not a good idea. Having a press conference to discuss the impact of a new program will generate better results because it has news value. The line employee who raised $10,000 for a local charity is also a winner if you can link it to great photographs and quotes from recipients.
Every media call, every visit, every inquiry should be seen as an integral part of your overall public relations plan. Go to them. Ask them their opinion. Get to know them and their concerns and interests. Pitch stories frequently that they will appreciate.
Your Web Site and Podcasting
Your web site can be a 24-hour promotional activity if it is filled with story-based articles and fact sheets fairly describing what it is that you do and the impact of your operations. Media, citizens, policy makers and others will view your offerings if the site is attractive and filled with content that matters.
One of the best decisions you can make is to offer material that is easy to digest, interesting and informative. Giving your visitors the option to read, listen or watch videos makes the difference between a mediocre and a great site.
Podcasting (radio and television shows for the Internet) is another method of informing your public and defining yourselves. Audio podcasting is getting easier to do and can be done for as little as $500.00 or less on an existing computer. Video podcasting can require nothing more than joining your local public access station and spending a couple of hundred dollars for a half-hour television show.
All of this can be mounted on a rented server for $10.00 to $12.00 per month. Your local community college can provide you with the technical assistance to do it. Please see our podcasting web site at http://media.csosa.gov.
I fully understand that what I’m suggesting may be beyond the budgets and available time for many of you. The complexities of promotions go far beyond what I’ve offered in this article. But the bottom line is establishing the ability of your organization to prosper. For correctional facilities and systems, it will make a difference.
Some agencies put together a proactive public relations plan. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what’s important is your willingness to respond to new opportunities with speed and determination.
I will offer a final analysis; those correctional organizations who aggressively promote themselves prosper, and those who do not suffer under the perception of incompetent administration and failed initiatives. The choice, I maintain, is essentially ours.
Leonard Sipes is the Senior Public Affairs Specialist at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, DC. For more information about his organization, contact him at 202.220.5616 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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