It’s vitally important, especially for law enforcement officials, to prepare statements carefully before speaking
The punctuation meme – “Let’s eat grandma” versus “Let’s eat, grandma!” – is a simple, yet humorous, way to show how punctuation matters. Even more important are the words we use before and after punctuation.
You may remember the firestorm United Airlines faced in 2017 when a passenger was literally dragged off a plane because the flight was oversold. United's CEO (or more likely his PR team) used the term “re-accommodate” when referring to the incident. It became an instant meme and drew more attention than the incident itself.
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0— United Airlines (@united) April 10, 2017
Simply put – words matter, and they matter more today than ever before. With social media, people have a chance to decontextualize (a fancy term for edit) speeches, interviews and written responses, which often results in an angry and polarized community – two of the three most important ingredients for going viral in social media (the third is humor).
Law enforcement’s challenge is to communicate clearly to myriad stakeholders, each of whom perceives our words through their own lenses of experience and biases. Before we speak, we must think carefully about how others will process our message. Doing so isn’t easy, especially when speaking “off-the-cuff.” That’s why it’s vitally important, especially for law enforcement officials, to prepare statements carefully before speaking. More than one public figure has been called out recently for misuse of words.
So, how best to avoid misspeaking? Two strategies: preparation and positive language. By taking time to prepare your message before a news conference, interview, or community meeting, you have a chance to think about the people who will be hearing you speak and how they will perceive your statement. Plus, you have time to think carefully about the words you will use. It is especially important to do this even when under pressure to deliver a media statement immediately following a major incident.
Let’s use an example of an officer-involved shooting where officers kill a 12-year-old male who pointed a firearm at police. Upon investigation, the gun turns out to be a replica.
Think about the words you may use to describe the 12-year-old. If you say “boy” and the male was Black, that word has significant racial connotations for many people. One of your audiences in this incident would be your BIPOC community, along with the family of the 12-year-old, your officers, your community in general and advocate groups. Each of these groups will hear that word differently.
Continuing in that vein, if you used the word “child” to describe the 12-year-old, that word implies innocence, just as the word “suspect” implies guilt. So, what to use? Find neutral language – in this case, “12-year-old” would work, or perhaps youth or teen.
Now consider the phrase “replica firearm.” What picture do those words paint for you? Something that looks like a real gun, right? But if someone mistakenly said “toy gun” when talking about this incident, what would people see in their minds? Most would say a nerf gun or some brightly colored plastic toy, which would lead your audiences to think, “If it was a toy, why did your officers shoot?”
So, you see, your words are constantly framing the narrative. By taking time to prepare your statement carefully and weighing the inferences or nuances of words and phrases, you can avoid misframing your narrative, or even worse, having your comments seen as something you did not intend.
Using positive language makes it extremely difficult for someone to take a statement out of context and assume it means something you did not intend. However, avoiding negative terms and phrases is challenging.
Here’s an example: A reporter asks about racism within the ranks of your department. Someone who was unprepared would likely answer using the negative. A typical response could be something like this: “We must accept that as humans we have biases. There may be racist cops in this country, but it’s hard to quantify. Trying to do this using traffic stop data doesn’t work. We’re trying to find a way to determine if biased practices are taking place so we can fix them and demonstrate that racism is the exception, not the norm.”
Now, we all understand what the police chief or sheriff is trying to say. But because the chief used the negative terms “biases” and ”racist,” the pull quote for the social media meme or news headline may very well be “Chief says they can’t quantify the number of racist cops.” Now, is that what the chief meant? No. But because negatives were used, it was easy to decontextualize the answer and come up with a pull quote that is explosive and divisive.
However, if the chief had used the “stay positive” strategy, the answer would look more like this: “Our focus on just and impartial policing today is greater than it has ever been. We are working to ensure that every interaction with our community is fair and constitutional, and speaking for our department, we are proud of the partnerships we have developed with all our residents.”
So next time, before you speak publicly or issue a statement, think carefully about how different audiences will hear and perceive your words, choose your words carefully and always speak using positive language. Run your statement by a diverse group of people who may point out unintended meanings. It may save you, or your agency, from becoming the next divisive viral video.
Read next: Why the MOP approach to public statements may serve chiefs well
One possible approach to public statements after a controversial event is to state what the mission was, and why the police were called to respond to it.