From rising crime rates and dropping recruitment rates to broadsides of negative publicity, law enforcement agencies are facing unprecedented challenges as we enter the new year. Although conversations are often focused on larger metropolitan areas, smaller suburban police departments face the same hurdles. Like it or not we live in a digital world where narratives are written in the blink of a snap and the ding of a tweet. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will—and fast. Public relations challenges in suburban policing are real, and overcoming them requires a well-executed cohesive communications strategy.
Protecting your agency and fostering its image requires proactively painting a picture of who you are, what you do, and how you do it. Sounds simple enough, but actually it’s a bit of a high wire act when you factor in the variables. Several years ago, business leaders in a town on Cape Cod became upset when the police department started posting updates of arrests and other criminal activity on social media. The business group believed the posts were painting the town, which has a heavy tourism industry, in a negative light and were deterring visitors. The police department countered that it was simply bringing needed attention to serious community issues while simultaneously demonstrating the success and hard work of its officers. The situation garnered local media attention and highlighted an important impasse.
Every suburban cop has heard, at one time or another from both civilians and fellow officers, “So it’s pretty quiet over there in Mayberry right?”… “Yep, it’s all good, the cows are in the pasture, the traffic light works and Otis is sleeping it off in the cell.”[Insert eye roll] Truth be told that’s exactly where I’d want to live and exactly what the residents, businesses owners, and town council want to hear. It is not, however, the reality of the situation. Suburban police officers face the same issues as their urban counterparts. While the call volume might be lower, the danger remains the same.
The ever-evolving police reform movement in the United States has spawned some good conversations as well as some previously inconceivable and foolhardy notions like “defund the police.” The importance of pushing back on these narratives is critical in suburban communities where the perception among some is that there is little to no crime so little or no need for the police. Obviously, the police aren’t going anywhere, but these sentiments could have a realistic negative impact on budgets and staffing levels. This is where the high wire act comes into play. How do you highlight the important police work you do without triggering crime wave hysteria on the “Everything Mayberry” Facebook page or getting a call from the town manager who just got a call from a business owner or concerned resident?
The short answer is balance, control, and consistency. Utilize the big three platforms—Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Each are suited for different purposes and serve as excellent tools for law enforcement to communicate directly to the community. Create engaging content that includes photos or short videos of positive community contacts—social media users love media content. Traffic alerts are a great example. When a department is consistent about tweeting road closures, construction detours, and delays, the residents consider that a quality of life service. Build a solid base of followers. Your numbers aren’t just for bragging rights, the larger your base the faster your message gets out. With a consistent and coherent flow of information including quality of life posts, traffic alerts, and a showcase of positive community contacts, you develop a solid base and an important backdrop.
The posting of significant arrests and critical incidents is now a little more palatable and more in service to its intended purpose of highlighting the important, necessary and often dangerous work officers do on a daily basis. The posting of significant arrests, criminal activity and critical incidents should be done with purpose, consistency and fairness. Before posting consider the purpose of the post and applicable laws, for example, anything connected to a domestic, a juvenile or any other sensititive information. Your social media platforms can also be effective investigative tools. Appealing to the public for information via traditional media outlets and social media is extremely effective. People want to be involved.
Suburban police departments are also struggling to recruit qualified candidates. Dollars to donuts most prospective candidates have already checked out your social media to get an idea of what your department is all about. How much time and effort you want to expend on recruiting media should be based on your situation. If, for example, you are a suburban Massachusetts police department governed under civil service it may not be worth your time and effort to make a major production unless it’s a drive focused around the time of the state civil service test. For departments that conduct their own testing, however, investing in media based recruiting efforts could pay dividends.
Once considered an afterthought in the suburban law enforcement community, effective public relations strategy and execution have become crucial to the present and the future of the profession. Every department, no matter its size, should have a cohesive public relations structure in place. You need to tell your story. Convey the facts and stop the fake narratives in their tracks. Don’t get caught flat footed, because what happens in one department can quickly affect the national conversation. Although it might be a high wire act, suburban departments can effectively use public relations strategies to showcase their hard work, boost morale and build community support without compromising the town’s reputation.