Today’s societal landscape appears to have a different atmosphere that mirrors the political climate. Historical concepts highlighting the connection between law enforcement and the community have been replaced with an “us versus them” mentality. The perception is that there are no more isolated incidents involving the violence that shadows the law enforcement profession. The recent wave of shooting incidents across the United States have been diluted to appear as a social and economic issue rather than a criminal action. This observation, either stemming from an issue or an incident, is predicated by the public’s background or experience. Facts are presented, but, in many cases, these do not change the opinion of an individual. The trust factor has been misplaced in many community-based groups, as well as professions such as law enforcement. Law enforcement currently runs parallel with society in areas of technology, social media platforms, and business models.
The spokesperson for a law enforcement agency possesses titles such as, although not limited to, public information officer (PIO), public affairs officer, or communications specialist. These PIOs are officers and civilians—or in some circumstances a team composed of both—who bring varying experiences to the department. A need for a full-time PIO is paramount to the continued success of the law enforcement profession. Despite the specific title or background, the main responsibilities are unchanged: informing the public and being the avenue of transparency. There are many other responsibilities and ancillary duties, but the focus always comes back to advising the public.
The public now relies on images and the dialogue not only from the media, but from citizen journalists and communications from law enforcement agencies. The role of the PIO is to maintain a balance between reactive and proactive messaging. The reactive portion is in response to the public’s perception based on the dialogue and images appearing on social media platforms. Often, this opinion is coupled with misinformation or facts taken out of context. Historically, responding to the public’s misinformation or perception usually drives the message from the law enforcement agencies, which may lead to a lack of proactive messaging.
The Need for Networking and Multi-Agency Communications
Critical, large-scale incidents often require the resources and expertise of multiple agencies—including PIOs. The PIOs are trained to stay in their respective lanes of information release, which could potentially lead to an information gap. For example, an incident occurring near a school would require public information from the education system that the law enforcement agency’s PIO might not have. To provide a complete picture of the situation, first responder communications needs to include representatives from medical teams; emergency management; and when appropriate, the private sector.
Contacts made to external agencies in the midst of crises will not prove beneficial. Law enforcement agencies usually have a relationship with the security directors from the private sector but not the communications department. Unfortunately, the landscape now has situations that require input from professionals outside law enforcement; for example, the need to include the medical center spokespersons are principal in active shooter or officer-involved shooting incidents.
The Incident Command System (ICS) is the mainstay for operations or incidents involving multiple agencies, and it historically focused on first responder agencies; however, there is a current need to sometimes include external entities, as well. To be effective, the communications section must have a direct line to the incident command during the event, and it needs to have access to information about all affected areas including not only first responders but communication specialists from the education, public health; medical; and, potentially, military sectors. The desired outcome involves PIOs for each sector “staying in their lanes” (communicating on behalf of their organization or sector), but openly communicating to ensure parallel messaging.
Due to the amount of information available on the Internet, which may not always be accurate, many agencies either create a separate social media platform or use that of only one agency to release current and accurate information during an incident. Operational security (OPSEC), especially dealing with multiple agencies and messaging, is vital—even in external areas such as medical centers. The balance between the needs of the injured and their families must coincide with the respect and security of the facility.
Besides the content from the media and citizen journalism, the posting of internal pictures may require a reactive response by the PIOs. Similar to the way use of force and pursuit policies are regularly reviewed, the use of social media and messaging also needs to be a crucial part of reviews and briefings. Pictures of command post operations may include officers working in an undercover capacity or sensitive information on monitors and white boards and could compromise the location of facilities. When multiple agencies work together there are always the potential for leaks of information, but breaking down the “siloes” of communication will play a positive role in minimizing this issue.
Large-scale events often include political elements. There will likely be off-site press events at which the message still needs to be consistent. Planning ahead and establishing relationships with the political offices for state, local, and federal entities will smooth the path to consistent messaging even if each entity’s respective goal differs.
The knowledge of the respective agencies lanes benefit the contents of messaging. Each agency represented can frame a particular message for a desired outcome. This may include subsequent court actions, legal litigation, or follow-up legislative actions and may incorporate the need for additional communication plans. The role of the PIO to have established relationships will better foster the approved flow of information from government to nongovernment entities.
Event and Crisis Media Relations Training
PIOs from all sectors are beginning to participate in training exercises and those exercises need to be expanded to include media relations. Just as law enforcement disciplines such as special operations and bomb squads from various departments train together to ensure a seamless response and investigation when an incident occurs, so too should PIOs from different agencies participate in joint training in order to be prepared to present a consistent message throughout a crisis. Cross-training communication training needs to take not only law enforcement PIOs into account, but also nongovernment agencies, non-public safety organizations, and military communication specialists.
In addition to learning to work seamlessly together when needed, media relations and communications specialists should be trained in the careful use of words. For example, the use of the word “weapon” versus “firearm” can distract the message by unintentionally engaging in the right to bear arms controversy. Words and phrases can easily change the tone of the rhetoric, such as the use of “suspect” versus “subject” or “killed” versus “died.” The terminology is also crucial in the potential legal litigation and in messaging regarding the medical status of an individual (particularly the consideration of HIPAA laws).
Many organizations, including the IACP, provide up-to-date training on various elements of policing, as well as increasing the networking opportunities for law enforcement agencies. This same concept needs to be mirrored on the communications side. Full-time PIOs are an essential piece to the strong foundation of a law enforcement agency. The common factor from law enforcement operations to natural disasters is the concept of the prior knowledge of our counterparts that is fundamental to a successful outcome. ♦