|Controlling Crime Through Media and Public Relations|
|By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.|
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The Bureau of Justice Assistance just released the “Violent Crime Reduction Operations Guide,” designed to examine the components of a successful crime reduction project, Bureau of Justice Assistance.
What’s interesting is the document’s incessant call for improved media and public relations. Proactive outreach is embedded throughout the document.
The document acknowledges a basic tenant of criminology and crime control; the public needs to be involved and take ownership of crime problems, Crime in America.
Back in the day when I was a cop, and when I started my thirty-five career in media relations, there was little discussion about public outreach when it came to crime control. Yes, agencies had community relations specialists and public information officers and yes, we acknowledged that we had to have community support and yes, the chief or command staff met with politicians and community leaders.
But the emphasis of the “Violent Crime Reduction Guide” is different. It addresses the evolving sense that law enforcement and all justice-related agencies need to incorporate public and media relations into everything we do.
I assume that readers may respond with some disinterest; my assertions may seem dated. “We acknowledge that,” several will suggest. “Tell us something we don’t know.”
When I started my job as Director of Public Relations for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, I and my fellow PIO’s had to have expert knowledge of our operations, good relations with the media and possess superb skills as to interviews. That unto itself was an immensely time-consuming task, especially if you were on call 24-365.
That day is over and it’s been over for many years.
The first two sections the “Violent Crime Reduction Operations Guide,” focuses on community relations and partnerships. The need for communication skills continues throughout the guide.
Thus the essence of law enforcement and justice proactive communications needs to be incorporated into everything we do. Everything!
What’s Important To Remember
We get to tell our story through proactive communications. We get to decide how our story is told. We are no longer dependant on the media. This is revolutionary!
If you represent law enforcement or the justice system, you have instant credibility with the public. They trust you. Where others have to work hard for every page view, you get an immediate audience because you represent something they know and respect. The public believes that you have information that directly affects their well-being.
Good communications is not a sub-operation; it’s crucial to everything you are and everything you hope to be. It’s necessary for agency success.
That understanding takes communications to an entirely different level.
The chief or agency head or command staff can attend every community meeting possible. They can go to every homicide. They can meet with every politician and community leader. They can do all this while exerting maximum effort yet touch a tiny portion of the community you serve.
The communications staff, however, can “talk” to hundreds of thousands of people through websites, television and radio shows, social media, video, audio, podcasts, photographs, graphs, story-based writings, a good email list, and other forms electronic communication. You can talk to hundreds of thousands more through news articles and reports.
And it’s not just specialists hired specifically for communications. Having line staff feed you photos or video or news from the field can give you the material you need to promote.
The essential difference is the ability to talk to thousands daily. The skills of yesterday as to agency knowledge, media relations and interview smarts are merely an entrance point.
We need social media knowledge. We need to know how to create video, audio, take and edit photos, create podcasts, write story-based articles, get ourselves on radio and television, run websites, and more.
The day of the stoic cop spokesperson is over; it’s been over for a long time.
Is This Fair?
Is having all the mentioned skills fair? Probable questions: “Do you really expect me to know how to do all of this? Hell, I can barely keep up with my day to day media load and meetings. You’re asking me to do the impossible.”
Nope. I’m not asking. Go back to the “Violent Crime Reduction Operations Guide,” it’s required to control crime.
And here is where we lose each other. Your assertions: “We don’t have a budget to do all of this. We don’t have the time. We don’t have the people.”
Per professionals in the advertising world, we need to hit our intended audience three times in three different ways within a specified time period to effect change.
It’s simple for me to suggest that a well trained and well-paid communications staff with a sufficient budget is essential but if it’s not there, we don’t accomplish our mission?
Are There Other Ways of Doing It?
Yep, but it takes an enormous amount of hustle.
Everyone’s doing an audio or video podcast today. Every fourteen year old is uploading video to YouTube. Every college (and many high schools) have studios with green screen capacity.
They will be more than willing to help you with your production needs.
People like cops and the justice system. Law Enforcement is one of the most respected professions in America. There are endless television cop shows. There are people with skills who can help you get the job done on a volunteer basis.
My first television shows ( I was the host) were filmed free by a community college. My first radio shows were produced at no charge by a popular radio station. We need to understand that broadcasters are looking for creative, original content even if they have to produce it themselves. I copied my television and radio shows and sent them to stations throughout the state. We got endless thousands of views for minimum expense.
I learned to create multi-award winning audio podcasts with a computer, a mixer and some microphones. Someone already doing audio podcasting volunteered to teach me how to do this. Once the investment was made, it cost my agency nothing to create weekly radio shows that got hundreds of thousands of listens.
Just a few examples of what agencies are doing:
There are law agencies doing podcasts to solve crimes.
The Lip Sync Challenge encouraged hundreds of agencies to create videos of officers lip-syncing to popular songs showing that cops are regular people who like to have fun (see photo above from the Norfork, VA Police Department).
Public affairs television and radio shows are now part everyday life for many agencies.
Agencies are posting photos and video on a variety of social media platforms showing the daily lives of personnel.
There are cable stations looking for original content for their public affairs shows. Comcast did scores of shows for me and distributed them to a wide variety of participating stations. I provided them with interesting personnel from my agency including the director.
Websites have evolved from the perplexing domain of computer specialists to entities that anyone can use and operate. I use WordPress for my websites. If you post enough interesting content, thousands will go to your website daily, especially if promoted via social media and a good email list. The website NEEDS to focus on users, not agency priorities.
Social media is a key factor in your communications strategy. You need to post interesting content daily.
Understanding Our Limits
Public affairs professionals (and hopefully their executives) are good at understanding the following limitations. They:
We can do things that professional marketers cannot do. Public affairs professionals with an aggressive marketing strategy are very good at the following tasks. They:
They will read about your efforts in the local newspaper. They will come to understand that you and your organization are not afraid of larger public policy issues. They will admire you and your executives for your willingness to be part of the public debate. They will assume that if you’re so willing to be so accessible, then you must be honorable people doing an honorable job. They will take this into account when your detractors come knocking. They will remember your efforts when you and the organization fall upon hard times.
The media has a way of coming to an understanding about who you and the organization truly are. You want to be seen as actively engaged and unafraid. This tactic will afford you a considerable amount of credibility that will protect you in the future.
Proactive communications for law enforcement and other justice agencies is not a side gig; it’s essential to your ability to accomplish agency objectives.
Yes, there are limitations as to time and budget and yes, the agency should fund and staff everything as a priority.
But the day of sitting back and letting nature take its course without your active involvement is over. For decades, we said, “no news is good news.” We also said, “reporters are not your friend.”
Like the lessons emphasized by the “Violent Crime Reduction Operations Guide,” we can no longer leave our story to the media to tell. We get to control our own fate. It’s time to take that mandate seriously.
Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.
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Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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