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No PIO? How small police departments mitigate communication challenges without a dedicated public information officer

Implementing effective stakeholder communications is achievable by using the relevant resources and the correct planning

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Larger police departments have dedicated public information officers (PIOs) to handle proactive and reactive communications with an array of stakeholders, including the public, the media, businesses and community groups. But how do smaller law enforcement agencies, without the luxury of a dedicated PIO, handle similar communication requests from the media and the public?

I decided to find out by speaking to two police departments located approximately 30 miles apart in Central New York’s Onondaga County. Chief Michael J. Crowell heads up the Manlius Police Department, which has 40 sworn and six non-sworn officers on its team. Manlius police patrol a 54-square-mile jurisdiction with a population of 32,000 residents. Located to the west of Manlius is the Village of Jordan. Ed Healy is the officer-in-charge of the seven part-time officers and one civilian volunteer responsible for keeping approximately 1,300 residents safe in a jurisdiction covering 1.15 square miles.

What challenges has your police department faced regarding communicating with the media and the community that you serve?

Michael J. Crowell, Chief of Police, Town of Manlius Police Department.jpg

Chief Michael J. Crowell heads up the Manlius Police Department, which has 40 sworn and six non-sworn officers on its team.

Chief Crowell: There are a number of communication issues that we have faced and are addressing. Primarily, it is the lack of a qualified and dedicated PIO. In the past, we did have a few officers who were signed on as PIOs and while they may have been dedicated officers, they were not what I would term “active” PIOs.

We need a full-time PIO to communicate exclusively with the public in our jurisdiction. The PIO must also be a bridge between us and the media and have the skills to control the media narrative when dealing with all different types of journalists in our jurisdiction. They have to be able to share all relevant news, especially all the good stuff that we constantly do.

Edward Healy, Officer-in-Charge, Village of Jordan Police.jpg

Ed Healy is the officer-in-charge of the seven part-time officers and one civilian volunteer who serve the Village of Jordan Police Department.

The second challenge we face is the impact of inaccurate information distributed by the public in our jurisdiction via social media before we can share official communication. This puts us in a position where we must correct what the public is talking about and what the media are reporting.

Another challenge we are busy dealing with is our public input process, which is basically how the public can communicate with us.

Officer Healy: For some time, our village has had to deal with the challenge of the dissemination of information to our residents. As a small police department, we maintain a website on which we post information and news, but we frequently hear complaints such as, “I never heard that.” The challenge is the same as everyone else: to distribute information on platforms that will be viewed by our residents.

Has Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 203 impacted or changed your community relations and media relations? If so, how?

Chief Crowell: Executive Order 203 (EO 203) has not had a major impact on our community and media relations. We had already started to look at how we could improve our community and media relations in 2018, three years before the George Floyd event, which was a driver behind EO 203. I put together a community policing group (CPG) to determine if they want to keep the Town of Manlius Police Department, and what they would want us to do better. The group response was exceptionally positive, yet they declared two areas that they wanted us to improve on – social media and telling the community what we do and how we do it!

As you know, EO 203 has an objective to change local law enforcement policies and strategies to prevent police-involved deaths and law enforcement that is racially biased. It is very clear that communications, particularly from a community perspective, is one of the solutions to these objectives.

In 2020, immediately following the issuing of EO 203, our own town government formed a Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC). This committee was tasked with gathering community input to identify the services needed by our community, reviewing our police procedures and practices, and presenting a plan of recommendations to the Town Board. A key suggestion that came out of this valuable process was the need for better community relations. In fact, it was recommended that we also create a position in the department to handle community relationship building, media relations and social media.

CPG, PSAC and EO 203 all showed us that we have one core area of opportunity: improving how we communicate with our various communities.

In line with EO203 requirements and the outcome of CPG and PSAC, and following the necessary consultations within our county and fellow police chiefs, we will soon be launching a specialized community support unit (CSU). They will be tasked with strengthening our community bridges; opening and maintaining new channels of community, social and media communication; and reporting back to the community and media.

Officer Healy: We have not had a significant change in our operations or community relations as a result of EO 203. I prefer to believe we have maintained an excellent working relationship with our residents based upon openness and transparency, so the EO didn’t really affect us greatly. We closely monitor our community relations and will move quickly to implement new processes and policies should something necessitate this.

Without the presence of a full-time PIO, who is responsible for media and community relations?

Chief Crowell: I am primarily responsible for all media and community relations. Obviously, I don’t reserve all the communications for me, and I cannot be at the department all the time, so we do have backup spokespeople. These are usually one of the two captains who head up our operational and administrative divisions. In fact, our current general orders system allows for any sworn officer to act as a PIO. The more regular communications are handled by the captains and as issues and events become more complex, it moves up the chain of command to me. We also work as a team and support each other, which is very important when dealing with the media.

Officer Healy: The mayor of the village is ultimately in charge of all media relations. He delegates routine media matters to me. As the officer-in-charge, it is my responsibility to keep him apprised of all developments in the matters I am handling on his behalf. Obviously, if we are dealing with a critical event then we will work together as a team until the issue is resolved.

What media training has your spokesperson or department received? Would you know how to deal with a hostile journalist?

Chief Crowell: As the primary spokesperson for our police department, I have been fully media trained. Through my affiliation with the New York State Chiefs Association, I have attended executive-level training events on the media and that is where I get a lot of my media insights. I also chair the Onondaga Chiefs of Police Association where we do training for our members. Incidentally, one of the benefits of COVID-19 has been the major amount of online training opportunities which we have taken advantage of. Regular interaction such as speaking to print, online, radio and TV journalists definitely helps me with my media skills.

Officer Healy: I have attended several training courses on media relations and maintain communications with media outlets in our area. As for hostile journalists, I would like to think I would handle the issues presented professionally and calmly, but it’s hard to say how one will react when the lights are on!

Do you proactively communicate with the media on a regular basis?

Chief Crowell: Yes, we do communicate proactively with the media. We use press releases that are emailed through to all media. I also make myself available for all media interviews as a result of these news releases, or any current developments that the media may look for comment on. If there is a major issue that I want to proactively communicate on, we usually issue a media alert to announce a press conference and invite the media via a media alert that is sent out to all print, online, and broadcast news media.

We constantly look for ways to add value to our media communications as this is a very important channel for us to work with and build and maintain relationships.

Officer Healy: Yes, I try to keep in touch with the local print and broadcast news departments. We chat through Facebook with the media at times, and the reporters in the area know I can be reached for comment on a particular issue at any time.

What is your biggest concern when dealing with the media?

Chief Crowell: Miscommunication and narrative control! When it comes to critical incidents, the media wants a comment and additional information for their news story. During active investigations, we often cannot provide specific answers to their questions. Sometimes the “I am sorry, I cannot answer that question” pushes journalists to find answers to their questions and sources of information.

In one instance, we had a suicide of a well-known resident within our jurisdiction. I provided all the standard information to the media that we are allowed to in a case such as this. When a reporter came back for more information, I refused to provide it because it was not information that I could release. The journalist went on to write a story that positioned me as insensitive, upset the family of the deceased, and portrayed a negative and totally inaccurate image to the general public who had no idea what had transpired. And, because the journalist had additional sources and provided frequent updates, she controlled the narrative. The family of the deceased was deeply upset.

From bitter experience, I have learned to ensure that irrespective of the situation, we must have media statements ready that provide more than just the basics and to issue regular updates within the parameters of what we are allowed to release to the public.

Officer Healey: My major concern is the use of clickbait headlining and sensationalizing issues to garner clicks and views. Like most things in life, most issues or incidents have many components and perspectives, and highlighting the most outlandish to generate interest helps them sell advertising but doesn’t help us get the correct information and context out to the reader or viewer. The rise of partisan “news” outlets also concerns me; journalism is about reporting the facts and supplying context about what matters and why it matters. There is an increasing number of outlets purporting themselves to be “news” when in fact they are cherry-picking issues and events to promote one particular view.

If your police department has to deal with a critical event, does your police department have a communications plan/strategy in place?

Chief Crowell: Yes, we do have a communications plan in place that provides guidelines to every member of our police department. It is a written directive that specifically talks about media relations and what information can and cannot be released to the media and the public and under what circumstances. It is important to note that the parameters of these types of documents must be flexible because certain crimes may necessitate us releasing information to the media and public that we may not have released for other crime types.

Officer Healy: We have a plan in place, but the nature and size of the event will dictate how much of the plan is used. As a small agency, any serious or major event will entail bringing in larger agencies for assistance and these could include the Onondaga Sheriff’s Office or the New York State Police. They have their own PIOs and processes and we have an established relationship with each agency, so coordination isn’t usually a problem.

How has the nationwide wave of anti-police sentiment impacted how your police department communicates with all its stakeholders?

Chief Crowell: Like all police departments, we have been watching the nationwide wave of anti-police sentiment closely. Part of the strategy and approach to dealing with issues in the community is better communication and dialogue. I think that our soon-to-be-launched CSU is going to be a positive catalyst in how we communicate with stakeholders and how we listen to them.

As police officers, we need to do a better job of not only telling stakeholders what we do but why we do it – clearly there has to be a strong educational aspect to it so we build a better understanding of a law enforcement officer’s job.

I think that some of the events that we have seen on the news could have potentially been avoided or even de-escalated had there been clearer and better communication with and education of the public. We have to get more information out to the public.

Officer Healy: It impacts all of us as citizens. As a society, we need to determine how we want to have the rules of society enforced. We in Jordan enjoy excellent relations with our citizens, so we haven’t had a serious problem with the anti-law enforcement rhetoric being bandied about, but there are always those who want the rules enforced differently, or not at all, especially against them! We try to always manage the expectations of our citizens and act professionally so we don’t engender ill will against our department.

What public perception issues would you say many of the smaller police departments have to deal with?

Chief Crowell: Many smaller police departments are dealing with public perception issues for a number of reasons. These include not having a dedicated PIO, not communicating regularly to prevent the media from being the only communication source to fill the void, and not having the ability to correct the misinformation being fed to the public by the media. This actively contributes to the creation of false perceptions that include “all police are brutal and not caring.” As we know, this is simply not true. Ultimately, spokespeople like me must step into the void to clear up the false narrative.

Officer Healy: I suspect many agencies have the same problem of “small-town cop syndrome,” where people perceive that if we work for a small agency, we are somehow less trained or less professional. We all have the same training and are held to the same standards as any big-city police department. Another often-heard comment is that smaller agencies target less serious issues such as traffic infractions, noise complaints and other minor offenses. I prefer to believe that it is because we aren’t rushing from call to call or have severe staffing concerns that we are able to monitor all types of issues, including quality-of-life and traffic concerns. Smaller agencies often have a better resource-to-incident ratio where they can more effectively respond to more than just serious crimes in progress.

What programs, if any, has your department put in place to build its relationship with the local community within its jurisdiction?

Chief Crowell: Overall, we have always had a great relationship with our local community due partly to our policing style and to the community programs that we have run, and it is obviously important for us to continue this and invest in the relationship. COVID stopped a lot of what we were doing except for our car seat check program. Historically, our programs have included being hosts for a blood drive and bone marrow screening, DEA National RX Drug Take Back Day, Citizen Police Academy and an open house.

A significant portion of community relationship building and certainly maintaining this relationship will be handled by our soon-to-be-launched CSU and this means that we are moving into new territory, which will still be familiar to us as a police department that is community-oriented, and we will be able to roll out new programs and events.

Officer Healy: Our agency has a presence on Facebook and Instagram. We also periodically hold “Pizza with the Police” events so our citizens can come over to our local pizza shop and chat about issues in law enforcement and concerns of the community. My email address is also pretty well known, so I get a lot of input from our residents directly. We also use the village website and community bulletin board to distribute information and announcements as needed.

List the communication assets that your police department uses to communicate with the public and the media

Chief Crowell: Facebook remains our most important communication asset at the moment, and we are building out our Twitter feed and that will also become an important source of community information for us and the public. We also use press releases, email blasts, press conferences and one-on-one communication with journalists.

We also have a range of community events that allow us to build relationships and communicate with the public. Our School Resource Officer runs a School Information Resource Officer program and officers do outreach work to the children in the local community to teach them the rules of the road to enhance their bike safety. Our Citizen Police Academy is another great communication channel for us.

Officer Healy: The Village of Jordan Police Department uses its Facebook group page as a key communications platform. We also use our Instagram feed, e-mail and the town website, as well as a community bulletin board. We also fax press releases to local news outlets on appropriate topics of interest.

What challenges do you see ahead, from a media and community communications perspective, for smaller police departments – or yours?

Chief Crowell: The tail of the tiger that needs to be tamed will be social media because so many people are active on it and it is almost impossible to control the narrative. All police departments have had to deal with situations where an event happens and before they can release an official comment, the event is on social media channels and is being spoken about. This creates a challenge for us and it is in instances like this that relationships with the media count significantly.

How can you control everything? By having a team of dedicated specialists on duty all the time to monitor social media channels and then adjust and correct messaging. It is not feasible. The use of more traditional PR methods to communicate the correct news and information to counter some of the challenges caused by social media must not be underestimated.

Officer Healy: The challenge facing society is the use of critical thinking to listen to the information being blasted across the internet on all these platforms, and make educated, responsible decisions about what type of law enforcement you want to have. I firmly believe that this wave of issues that we have been seeing over the past few years has occurred because citizens have failed to follow the directions of law enforcement, which results in escalating conflicts with sometimes disastrous results. While law enforcement can sometimes be its own worst enemy, such as the case of George Floyd, if people complied with instructions and complained later, you would not have as much friction and conflict as you see now. When people don’t respect the law and law enforcement, this is what sadly happens. People need to be better with one another and stop expecting the government and police to solve all their problems.

The solution for the PIO

Smaller police departments do face a public information challenge. However, implementing effective stakeholder communications is achievable by using the relevant resources and the correct planning.

Police departments that have no PIO must avoid the fatal mistake made by businesses that have no formal marketing or PR manager – doing nothing or the bare minimum. Regular and open communication contributes to reputation protection, boosts an understanding of your police department by the media and the public, and can certainly contribute to building informed supporters. In the next article, I provide a 10-point action plan for smaller police departments to build their stakeholder communications. Read that article by clicking here.

Additional communication resources

Evan Bloom is CEO of Fortress Strategic Communications (FSC), a public relations consultancy that represents companies whose services and solutions manage and mitigate all types of safety, security and risk. Typical clients are active in law enforcement, public safety, physical security, homeland security, risk management and emergency management domains. FSC also helps small police departments enhance their media and community relations. Contact Evan at