Controlling Crime Through Media and Public Relations
Law enforcement and justice agencies get to tell their story through proactive media and public relations. We decide how our story is told. We are no longer dependent on the media. This is revolutionary!
The public needs to be involved and take ownership of crime problems.
I am doing a seminar on proactive public and media relations for InTime. 500+ public safety agencies trust InTime with their scheduling.
The article below supports the seminar.
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“Success With The Media”
What’s below is based on my book, “Success With The Media,” available through Amazon and additional booksellers.
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.
Lip Sync Challenge2
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.
More From My Book, “Success With The Media”
“Success With the Media,” is available at Amazon and additional booksellers.
Understanding Our Limits
Public affairs professionals (and hopefully their executives) are good at understanding the following limitations. They:
- Understand that they are limited in their ability to reach a segmented audience with a specific message. I didn’t say it was impossible, just challenging.
- Acknowledge that without money, marketing plans are somewhat useless. Putting it on paper doesn’t make it happen. True marketing plans are well-funded entities with the resources to accomplish goals within precise timetables.
- Recognize that they cannot control the flow of media efforts thus they will not be hitting their target audience three times in three different ways during a specific time period.
- Know that they are limited in producing measurable results that indicate progress or lack of progress.
- Understand that marketing is a function that will take place almost entirely in-house. Their research and their creative team will draw from resources at hand or on the Internet. This will be a time-consuming process.
- Are successful in advising executives about the limits of marketing with limited resources. Some executives and others can be clueless about the organization’s ability to market effectively without a significant infusion of funds. Sometimes, executives need to be “brought back to earth” with regard to what is possible without spending significant sums of money.
- Are very aware that marketing efforts, regardless of how successful they are, are limited in their ability to change public opinion or to get the public to accomplish a specific task. They understand that measurable changes in public attitudes come as a result of sustained advertising efforts. That takes money. Without funds, marketing efforts, regardless of how creative, may be capable of only limited results.
What We Can Do
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:
- Understand that they can get on the front page of major newspapers, often with compelling photographs. My organizations have been on the front page of the Metro section of The Washington Post with a positive story where a third of the page was taken up by verbiage and photographs. This is not unusual.
- Know that they can be a primary story on a television broadcast reaching hundreds of thousands of homes.
- Realize that a good story can receive multiple radio plays on targeted radio stations at the best possible times.
- Are aware that they can do any of the above multiple times, and generate hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars of positive marketing.
- Fully understand that they can accomplish feats of advertising that professional public relations firms can only dream about. Even the best advertising firms in the world cannot buy access to the front pages of major newspapers or be lead stories on television or radio.
- Know that they and their executives can be regulars on the talk show circuit.
- Are constantly on radio station public affairs shows.
- Know that with donated radio studio time and with a minor expense of copying CDs they can create a radio network and reach audiences throughout their target area.
- Realize that cable access or university television stations will often create shows for a very reasonable cost and distribute them throughout their markets. With my current organization, we get 600 television airings a year. We have over 50,000 views on YouTube. We have had as many as 1.4 million page views on our radio and television website.
- Create their own audio and video programs in-house and place the products on your website or distribute to radio and television stations. I create 30-minute radio programs in my own studio. We are in the process of creating green screen videos to complement the television shows we record in a public access station.
- Have excellent contacts with reporters in their market. They know the interests of news people and editors and pitch stories that will likely get attention.
- Know that the story you pitch does not necessarily have to be “favorable.” If media examines an aspect of your operation, and you wind up on the front page of the local newspaper with a story that is neither positive nor negative, then you have won. As strange as it sounds, it does not have to be a positive story to produce a positive result, especially if media connects it to your website and materials you control.
- Develop lists of employees or volunteers that have unique skills or knowledge that will be useful to reporters when a particular story breaks. Pediatricians at your hospital could be very useful in helping media understand child health issues in another country. Amateur historians can be a good resource in helping local reporters grapple with a subject. If one of your executives worked in Bosnia, and that country happens to be back in the news, then he or she may be of assistance to journalists, and at the same time reflect favorably on your organization.
- Understand that sometimes we market to the media and not the public. The press release may have limited public appeal yet it’s in your best interest to make sure that media are notified of the event or accomplishment. Awards to your leadership fall into this category. Sometimes you want to reinforce the fact that you represent honorable people doing an honorable job regardless of its public merit.
- Acknowledge that the issue or item they are trying to promote will not work now, yet it may be successful later if you promote it during times when the media needs stories (like weekends). The summer months or the weeks immediately preceding or after major holidays such as Christmas or the Fourth of July may be prime times for advancing stories that would not work during busier times of the year.
- Acknowledge that timing is everything. A promotion that went nowhere is suddenly a big hit because of related national news. Always be ready to act on new events.
- Know that there are major differences between markets. What you cannot get in a major regional paper is a delight for the smaller publication. Market your opportunities where they will have the greatest effect. The “smaller” paper can still place your story on the Associated Press wire. You may get lucky with your “local” story and suddenly get regional placement.
- Understand that they can have considerable influence regarding a particular issue. The Fire Marshall in Maryland will demonstrate the burning of Christmas trees in different parts of the state to warn people that they need to exercise caution with lights and to water the tree frequently. They obtain tons of publicity because of the timely nature of the event, a dynamite visual plus a dose of news.
- Know that versatility can have a tremendous payoff. You may pitch a story to a television reporter yet it does not work because your proposed visual is less than compelling. Your willingness to return to your executives and brainstorm alternatives to an interesting photo opportunity may take a sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse.
- Approach their website as the perfect opportunity to market an organization. Regardless of your fellow bureaucrats who see the website as the perfect opportunity to place a long and boring overview of the history of the agency, you see your website in terms of its service and marketing potential.
- Are wizards in finding people to assist marketing efforts. Tom Sawyer would be envious of their ability to find helpful people. You discover that Fred in Accounting is a crackerjack amateur photographer. Sue in Accounts Receivable has a bachelor’s degree in English and is a good writer. You find an electrician who once majored in advertising. It’s not unusual to find all sorts of creative people looking to use their former or present talents in other ways.
- Establish a dollar figure for their proactive efforts. An advertising firm estimated that my Maryland Department of Public Safety efforts generated between two to four million dollars each year in proactive marketing. I never hesitated to advise my superiors about the amount produced to gain support for future projects.
Finally, you understand that the most important aspect of all your marketing efforts is to be seen as a willing participant in the public discussion of your organization and its issues. You’re constantly “out there.” Even in large and cumbersome markets, individual members of the media will notice your efforts. They hear you on the talk shows. They will see your media releases. They will be aware of your public affairs radio shows. They will see your organization on the 6 o’clock news.
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.
Please visit my website at Crime in America.
Please see my personal website at Leonard Sipes for information about me.
Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Former advisor to the “McGruff-Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. You can contact me at [email protected]