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Back to Archives | Back to September 2004 Contents 

Marketing the Smaller Agency

By Harvey E. Sprafka, Chief of Police, Knoxville, Iowa


Cover of Hometown News

olice officers perform many tasks to safeguard their community's quality of life. Sometimes their constituents take for granted, forget, or do not know about the good work that officers do and the risks that they face daily. This lack of community awareness can lead to several less than desirable outcomes:

  • Lower job satisfaction on the part of the department's employees

  • Less support for the department during the budget process

  • Less assistance from constituents in programs and investigations

  • Fewer volunteers for work with the department

Proactive steps by the department's leadership are necessary to make the public aware of the department's good work and to improve the department's image in the community. Failure to take advantage of available resources and opportunities to tell the department's story will leave it to others (such as the makers of television shows and movies and the writers of newspaper headlines) to shape public perceptions of the department and its personnel, and these perceptions may not be accurate. In smaller communities, it is up to the local police chief to provide the good headlines for the law enforcement profession every day.

Make Use of Small-Town Advantage
Among the often cited disadvantages of small-town policing are shrinking residential populations, dwindling tax revenues, and ever-tightening budgets; economic downturns in the agricultural industry that directly affect small-town businesses and municipal governments; little political clout; labor pools that are sometimes too small to attract new or expanding businesses; the loss of experienced police officers to metropolitan and suburban departments that recruit aggressively; lower wages and fewer benefits for police department employees; and less equipment, less access to high technology, and fewer training opportunities. There are, however, some decided advantages.

Townspeople know the department's employees and they know the agency, a familiarity that encourages residents, businesses, schools, churches, service clubs, civic groups, and others to support the agency when it needs it. Smaller agencies can help maintain good relations with the public through continuous, ongoing marketing efforts. Sadly, some smaller agencies overlook the advantages and resources readily available.

Community News Media
Many municipal police agencies serve communities that are home to small radio stations and weekly newspapers that, not surprisingly, have small news departments that lack the personnel and resources to fully cover and produce the news of their locale. This situation can also work to the advantage of the local police chief. The smaller news media rely heavily on news tips from the community and press releases from the private sector and government entities. Unfortunately, too many current law enforcement practitioners and news media personnel still see each other as adversaries. The result for the local police executive can be a missed opportunity to get the department's story out. The big losers of this shortsighted practice are the police and the public they serve. Only a knowledgeable community will provide active support, and this supports lasts only as long as the community feels connected to the police department and understands its purpose, vision, values, and operations.

Small-town police departments' access to the media outlets in their communities would make most businesses turn green with envy, especially since in most cases it is free. Making the agency readily available to the news media can result in big dividends as it attempts to make its constituents knowledgeable and supportive of their police agency. It takes only a little creativity and imagination on the part of the chief to have regular positive information about the department shared with the community.

Practical Broadcast Elements
There are two practical truths in the broadcasting field: rumors are always more exciting than the story itself, and knowledge of the target audience is essential. With an understanding of these elements, the local police executive can design the appropriate news and department marketing strategy.

Knowing that the media needs to report on the perceived story, it is in the department's best interest to release complete and accurate information in a timely manner instead of allowing rumors to develop and be reported to the community. Although the burden of getting complete information out to the audience or readership rests with the news reporting media, if the police do not provide appropriate information the news media will seek other sources and this may not be in the best interest of the department. For guidance in releasing information to the news media see the model policy on police-media relations published by the IACP National Model Policy Center.1

The second key element comes from the marketing arena. The department's chief executive must first and foremost know the target audience, and the message should create change by moving the target audience to take some desirable action. There is an axiom in sales and customer service appropriate to marketing the police department: under-promise and over-deliver. This axiom is as relevant to service delivery organizations such as law enforcement agencies as it is to commercial businesses. Quality customer service consists of delivering what the customer requires and more. In most cases, more is only a little extra, but it can make all the difference in gaining and retaining a satisfied customer. Satisfied customers can be an organization's best advertising resource: word of mouth. And staying connected with the customer, knowing what keeps them satisfied or dissatisfied, is extremely important. 2

A primer on the principles of quality customer service, The Nordstrom Way: The Inside Story of America's #1 Customer Service Company, by Robert Spector and Patrick D. McCarthy, is recommended reading. 3 Many of the same principles and practices at Nordstrom can be applied in the law enforcement field with great effect.

Police Role in Community Economic Development
Law enforcement can and should be a player in a community's economic development plan. Business leaders consider quality-of-life elements as they search for new business locations, and public safety services, schools, libraries, hospitals, and cultural and recreational facilities all are included in this consideration. Having an accessible and approachable police department can become a strong selling point in attracting economic assets and greater growth in populations and tax revenues that can further enhance policing operations. The police chief should reach out to the town's economic development commission and become a partner in this effort.

Lessons Learned
The author brought the lessons learned during a broadcasting career to policing, but it wasn't until later that the marketing components so necessary in community relations became apparent.

After becoming a chief, the author’s first step was to open the department to the community. By redefining the department's philosophy, vision, values, mission, and operations, the department made the transition from a legalistic agency to a community-policing agency.

Then, by building positive relationships with area news outlets, the department's philosophy, vision, values, mission, and operations were detailed, improving the community’s understanding, appreciation, and support of the police department.

Marketing and the building of relationships with media outlets are not risk-free. The chief executive needs to recognize that there will be infrequent occasions where the department is burned by incomplete or inaccurate reporting by news outlets. But even after this occurs, the chief executive needs to continue releasing the facts and, when appropriate, meet with the publisher or the station owner to discuss inaccurate reporting. Nevertheless, the maxim "The greater the risk, the greater the reward" holds true. Making the agency available to the news media on a daily basis is a risk worth taking. Being available means providing information during slow news days and not only during high-profile events. Slow news days afford the department with opportunities to define itself and brand itself to the community. 4

For instance, the police department recently invited local newspaper editors and other community members to the agency's citizen planning session, a five-hour workshop that encourages participants to help police determine their goals and objectives for the future. One of those participants at the Saturday event, Deb Van Engelenhoven, the general manager of the Knoxville Journal-Express, later wrote about her experience there in her regular column:

I got a glimpse into the personalities of the officers themselves and interacted with them on a human level. I was exposed to the things that make them individuals and the things that make them what they are together as a team. . . . The officers became real to me. They were not just a uniform I saw passing me on the street. . . . I will never look at the Knoxville Police Department the same way again. 5

Seek Other Marketing Outlets
News outlets are not the only means to market your agency. Many communities have the following outlets:

  • Free newsletters

  • Service club meetings and events

  • City and department annual reports

  • Local corporation and business newsletters

  • Internet sites

  • Business communication networks
  • The chief executive should use many different local outlets to market the agency to the community. For example, a broadcast fax or e-mail system for sending messages to local businesses about situations affecting them can easily be set up. If a series of thefts, burglaries, con games, and fraudulent practices, for instance, begin occurring in and around the community, a broadcast message can alert the businesses to the situations and help them avoid becoming victims and at the same time advance the department's community outreach efforts.

    Communicate Your Story
    This past spring the Knoxville Police Department produced a brochure to communicate its story to three target groups: current community residents, potential residents and businesses, and as a recruiting tool for new officers. The brochure, which purposely has little writing and does not have the legalistic trappings of many police brochures (patches and badges), relies on the eight photographs to market the desired image of the department: police personnel are integral players in the community's quality of life, are approachable, and fulfill many roles.

    Two of the photos were taken inside the police station but the others were taken at identifiable locations in the community. Department personnel are depicted interacting with the public, from the youngest to the most senior residents, which highlights the four principles printed on the cover and back page: service, communication, understanding, and cooperation. Another concept valued and portrayed is the need and importance of community partnerships

    The Knoxville police brochure has a horizontal design and uses color to maximize the message in the photos. The only writing of any length is the department's mission-vision statement, which is the agency's most important document. The mission-vision statement is always referenced and serves as a guide during budget preparation and organizational planning processes, as well as a measurement tool for commendation and disciplinary action. This statement not only defines the values of the organization and its employees' purpose as public servants but also spells out what the department's employees seek to do and become and succinctly describes the behavioral attributes that are expected of its employees.

    The brochure became a collaborative project during the early stages of its development. The brochure concept was shared with a vice president in charge of marketing at a locally owned and managed community bank. The vice president, whose marketing expertise also involves design and production, immediately and enthusiastically offered both financial and technical assistance. The bank paid half of the production costs, and the vice president worked closely with the photographer and printer in a support role. In addition, the bank volunteered to provide further financial assistance in future printings of the brochure. Development of the police department's brochure met the bank's criteria of a special project in which budgeted funds could be directed toward meeting the needs of the community and nonprofit organizations.

    The street superintendent with the City of Knoxville Public Works Department, who is also an award-winning photographer, agreed to conduct the photo shoots free of charge. Selection of participants and locations of the photo shoots were arranged. One series of photographs was taken in a middle school library with students. Permission slips with parent or guardian signatures were obtained before pictures were taken.

    When undertaking these projects, consider the assistance available from businesses and citizens. Many are willing to help; they just need to be asked. Usually these projects can be done at little cost, involve the department and community working together on a fun project, and make everyone a winner.

    The Knoxville brochure was distributed strategically throughout the community to reach specifically targeted audiences. The Knoxville Chamber of Commerce was provided with a large supply to send to prospective businesses wishing to relocate or start their business operations in south-central Iowa. These brochures were also available to potential residents drawn to the area. Additional copies were delivered to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum, which is in the background of the cover page. The ticket office at a nearby racetrack and the city's municipal airport terminal were provided with copies. The intended target audience at the three locations is the same as that of the chamber office: visitors, potential residents, and businesses. Other locations where the brochures were placed for distribution include restaurants, the public library, professional offices, banks, and retail outlets. Although visitors to the community may see the brochures at these locations, for the most part the targeted audience is local residents. Knoxville's Welcome Wagon coordinator was given a large supply to distribute to new residents.

    The brochure is used as a recruitment tool and is provided to a targeted audience of people seeking a law enforcement career. The brochure is sent to area colleges with criminal justice or police science departments as a means of putting the agency's identity in front of potential recruits.

    Continuous Marketing Is Necessary
    It is important to remember that defining and selling your agency to your community is a constant endeavor. Marketing efforts by the chief executive officer are paramount to maintaining the positive vital connection between agency and community. Partnerships, as a result of developed relationships through communication and understanding, are necessary to a community's well being.

    The need for continuous marketing efforts cannot be overstated. Those that do not wish to define themselves will be defined by the various media. Conversely, agencies that positively market their operations and effectively tell their story will become integral partners with the community and recipients of valued support through their communication efforts, which leads to greater understanding and cooperation. ■


    Knoxville, Iowa Quick Facts


    1 IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center, "Police-Media Relations," a model policy (February 2003).
    2 See Jeffrey H. Witte, "Identifying Elements of Customer Satisfaction in the Delivery of Police Service," The Police Chief 71 (May 2004): 18–21.
    3 Robert Spector and Patrick D. McCarthy, The Nordstrom Way: The Inside Story of America's #1 Customer Service Company, reprint edition (San Francisco: Wiley, 1996).
    4 See Gary J. Margolis and Noel C. March, "Branding Your Agency: Creating the Police Department's Image," The Police Chief 71 (April 2004): 25–34.
    5 Deb Van Engelenhoven, "They Give Up a Lot to Protect and Serve," Knoxville Journal-Express (April 2, 2004).

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    From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 9, September 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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