Public relations in law enforcement: Is the PIO obsolete?

With police-public relations more complicated than ever, a highly trained public relations department can help manage an agency’s image

This article is reprinted with permission from North Carolina Police Chief

By Dan Grossi

We have all seen a police department’s public information officer (PIO) standing behind a podium providing an update on an officer-involved shooting or the capture of a high-profile criminal. For many years the PIO was the face of the agency and would provide interviews for the media or release statements to the public. The PIO was the liaison between the police and the public, and it was their job to maintain the positive image of the agency.

Increasingly, public statements now come directly from the chief, sheriff, or another high-ranking member of the department.
Increasingly, public statements now come directly from the chief, sheriff, or another high-ranking member of the department. (Photo/Pixabay)

Increasingly, public statements now come directly from the chief, sheriff, or another high-ranking member of the department, and a brief statement from a PIO is often not sufficient to satisfy the public or the media. With police-public relations more complicated than ever, a highly trained public relations (PR) department can help manage an agency’s image.

Here are five ways a PR team can assist your agency:

1. Build a positive public image

The 24-hour news cycle, the Internet and social media have made it possible for isolated news stories, good or bad, to represent the policing profession around the nation. Once these stories break, it is too late for an agency to respond, especially when the story is controversial.

Law enforcement agencies should be deploying public relations strategies to establish a positive relationship with the community before an incident occurs. Over the last few decades, law enforcement agencies in Europe and Australia have shifted away from the traditional public information officer and moved toward a PR team to help them build a positive public image. [1] In the United States, agencies have turned to PR/marketing companies to increase recruitment numbers, but few use them regularly to build or maintain their public image. [2] With the increasing complexities involved in police-public/media relations, agencies should, at a minimum, be consulting with PR firms if not developing a PR department within the agency. 

Events dating back to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, Rodney King, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and others have been covered extensively in the media and have tarnished the reputation of many agencies. The public relations team must establish or repair the image of the agency within the community. A PR team can begin by rebranding the agency and promoting a positive brand to the community. Marketing and advertising experts can tie the brand, as well as the mission and values of the agency, to the website, social media posts, news stories on television and in print and paid advertising. A solid foundational relationship with the community will go a long way when the next negative news story breaks. 

2. Monitor your agency’s online reputation

Do you know what people see if they “Google” your agency? People turn to the Internet to find information about your department, and if it is not on the first page of the search results, they will never see it. Managing the information on the internet is crucial, and the PR team can monitor what is being said about your agency online. They can also make sure your official page is at or near the top of the search results through search engine optimization (SEO).   

Targeted marketing campaigns can deliver messages to the appropriate audience. If you want to reach college students as part of a recruitment effort, the PR team will know the best way to reach them. If you want to reach a certain neighborhood or age demographic, a targeted marketing strategy can deliver the message to the right audience at the right time. Marketing and advertising have become very specialized, and the traditional press releases or public service announcements do not have the same effect they once did.

3. Adjust marketing strategies to accommodate tech trends

Technology and trends are ever-changing, and the PR team will be ready to make adjustments as they do. As apps become more popular with the public, the team can invest more time in that app and less time in others. The majority of internet consumption occurs via a mobile device, not personal computers. [3] Given this trend, the agency’s website must be designed to look good and function on a mobile device. Text messaging is becoming more popular as a way to receive information, updates and even apply for a job. Monitoring the trends and adjusting the marketing strategy is a time consuming and specialized job. 

4. Interpret market research data

It is always important to stay informed and conduct accurate market research. What is the current public perception of our department? What can we do to attract recruits to the agency? What strategies have been successful for other agencies throughout the country? Public relations professionals are skilled at collecting and interpreting data and altering marketing campaigns based on the results. 

5. Assist with crisis management

With a solid foundation, the PR team can assist with crisis management. If a negative incident damages the relationship between the community and the agency, the PR team can assess the damage and establish a plan to repair the relationship. Crisis management goes far beyond holding a press conference and delivering a prepared speech. PR firms have years of experience managing and mitigating the effects of a negative news story or corporate scandal.

As law enforcement in America continues to evolve, the traditional role of the PIO may become obsolete. Agencies should consider reaching out to a PR or marketing firm to begin a public relations campaign. Ultimately this could become an internal team of PR or marketing specialists who understand how to brand and promote the agency in a positive light. 

1. Lee M, McGovern A. Force to sell: policing the image and manufacturing public confidence. Policing and Society, 23:2, 103-124.

2. Zimmer A. New Mexico agency focuses on engagement techniques to boost recruitment. Law Enforcement Technology, 46(1).

3. Broadbandsearch. Mobile vs. desktop usage (latest 2019 data).

About the author

Dan Grossi is a retired chief of public safety of one of the largest colleges in Florida. His law enforcement career includes serving as a corrections deputy, patrol deputy, property crimes investigator, K-9 handler, hostage negotiator and patrol sergeant. Dan holds a BS in Criminal Justice and an MA in Criminal Justice with a concentration in Terrorism Studies. He is currently employed as a training coordinator with the North Carolina Justice Academy where he develops and instructs in the leadership center. 

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