How to get ahead of a police news story before it gets sensationalized

There is a divide between police agencies and their communities today and this divide needs to be bridged

The following article is the essence of one of the seminars being held at the upcoming WINx: Inspiring Excellence in Law Enforcement event, a new seminar created to help law enforcement professionals think differently. PoliceOne is the exclusive media partner for WINx, which will be held November 18 in Lisle, Illinois.

By Melissa Agnes, Police1 Special Contributor

The 21st century has brought with it what often may seem as insurmountable challenges when it comes to crisis management and communication. For example, while the media has always been great at sensationalizing police (and other) crises, today’s social media and real-time news cycle make it increasingly difficult to get ahead of the headlines and position your organization as the voice of trust, credibility and leadership in a crisis. 

Meanwhile, mobile technology has put every choice and every action a police officer makes under scrutiny. There’s always the risk of someone standing in the not-so-distance, taking a picture or recording a video that risks being taken out of context and going viral the instant it gets shared to social media – which simply requires the click of a button. 

The fact is that today’s crises have the ability to transcend borders in mere seconds, and the noise that ensues can be deafening, overwhelming and can sometimes feel as though responding is counterproductive; as though attempting to manage through the noise and be heard above it is a useless effort that detracts from the important tasks that need to be undertaken when managing a given crisis. 

Choosing to Engage Via New Channels
The longer police officers and agencies choose to see today’s crisis challenges through this lens, the more we’ll continue to see events like the Ferguson catastrophe take shape, further damaging the reputation of the police industry as a whole. 

It comes down to a choice — and this choice is yours to make. The choice is to either see today’s crisis management realities as challenges and to continue to resist this already changed world, or to choose to see today’s crisis realities as opportunities. Opportunities to connect you to your communities in powerfully engaging ways. Opportunities to build trust and become the voice of leadership and authority in a crisis. 

While getting ahead of the story can seem an impossible task, it isn’t. Just ask the Boston Police Department, who within 10 minutes from the bombs going off, managed to position their agency as the source of credible news and updates throughout the management of the Boston Marathon Bombing crisis of 2013. They did this by leveraging social media to their advantage, and it paid off, resulting in the identification and capture of the two terrorists responsible for the bombings in no longer than a week.

Changing Mindset and Corporate Culture
Today’s tools and technology provide police agencies with unprecedented opportunities in crisis management and communications. But in order to leverage these tools to your advantage, you first have to commit to changing your mindset and corporate culture. Where you were once able to silently investigate an incident, today requires a proactive approach in communication and transparency. Where once a statement issued to the press with few details might suffice, today requires round the clock, real-time updates as the investigation progresses. 

A commitment to transparency and communication is key. And this commitment needs to be deeply woven into your agency’s corporate culture. It needs to be instinctive and proactive and accomplishing this requires practice. 

And what better time to practice but when there is no crisis to manage and all is fine and dandy within the community?

Cultivating the Right Instincts
Understanding where your community spends their time, both online and offline, is your first step. While many of you know your community on the streets, today you must also strive to know their digital habits and preferences. These online channels will be where they instinctively navigate to in a crisis, whether it be to discuss the events occurring or to seek help and guidance. These online channels will provide you with insight into better understanding your community’s expectations of their police force in a crisis, and how you can strategize and plan to meet these expectations.

Knowing where to find your community is the first step. Choosing to actively listen and engage with them on these channels is the second step. By engaging with them regularly, prior to experiencing a crisis, you can begin to develop a relationship. You can set a precedent of engagement and set expectations of dependability that helps your community feel safe and heard. 

Choosing to take these types of proactive steps now, will help you build a “bank of community trust,” as Captain Chris Hsiung of the Mountain View Police Department likes to call it. And the more trust your community has in you, the more they’ll be willing to listen and understand your point of view, as well as the challenges you face, in a crisis. 

Asking the Most Important Question
When we think about the current state of the policing industry, we think of both the importance of your role within your community and the struggles you’ve been managing through for the past couple of years — struggles that depreciate your importance, your responsibilities and your well-deserved honor. These struggles that to be put to rest once and for all. There is a divide between police agencies and their communities today and this divide needs to be bridged. 

Ask yourself, “What’s important now?” to begin to mend the broken trust and the industry’s damaged reputation. The answer begins with the way you choose to perceive the challenging realities you’re forced to face within your crisis management. Choosing to see these challenges as opportunities will empower you to take the right steps moving forward. And it is by taking these steps that you’ll begin to change the narrative. 

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