Trending Topics

From backlash to bridge-building: PIO lessons from the NYPD Dance Team controversy

A 10-step response strategy for public information officers when faced with a viral news story

By Robert Tornabene

If you’re unfamiliar with the “controversy” surrounding the NYPD Dance Team, I encourage you to read more about it here. The NYPD Dance Team is a voluntary initiative within the department’s Health and Wellness Unit. Funded by the officers’ rather than taxpayer dollars, the program has sparked debate. Critics have targeted the team with body shaming, disparaged their dance skills and expressed general disdain for the NYPD.

NY State Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioned the allocation of resources, asking, “How many school music programs were defunded for this?” Nicole Parker, a former FBI agent and Fox News contributor, questioned the appropriateness of the initiative amid rising violent crime in New York City, suggesting such activities should be pursued in one’s own time.

The backlash intensified online, with detractors criticizing the team’s skills, appearance and the program’s fiscal responsibility. In response to viral controversies, opinions on how to react vary. Some suggest silence, while others would advocate for defending what is being criticized. The right approach depends on the specifics of the controversy. Viral issues on social media tend to be fleeting, overshadowed by the next trending topic.

However, this incident drew public figures and politicians into a debate over the ethical use of department funds, questioning the program’s contribution to crime prevention. Mayor Eric Adams defended the team, emphasizing its value in providing a creative outlet for officers to express themselves and bond, aligning with New York City’s hardworking and vibrant spirit.

The debate highlights the importance of strategic communication by Public Information Officers (PIOs). It’s unclear if the Deputy Chief of NYPD’s Public Information’s Office was timely informed about the team’s media appearance that kicked off the controversy. Keeping PIOs informed can enhance communication strategies, emphasizing the program’s voluntary nature and its support for officers’ health and wellbeing. The NYPD Dance Team, among 46 athletic teams for NYPD officers, offers a positive experience. Its criticism, particularly given its predominantly female composition, overlooks the diversity and representation it brings to New York City.

A PIO roadmap for responding to viral news

For PIOs managing viral stories, a strategic approach is crucial that includes immediate assessment, engaging with stakeholders and ensuring transparent and timely communication. These strategies help manage public perception, maintain organizational integrity and build trust with the community. Here are some specific steps to accomplish this:

1. Immediate assessment and monitoring

The NYPD, faced with criticism from public figures and a viral backlash against their dance team, needed to quickly understand the breadth and depth of the controversy. Similar to the NYPD’s situation, PIOs should utilize social media monitoring tools immediately to grasp the public sentiment and the narrative’s spread, as the department likely did to gauge reactions from figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nicole Parker.

2. Develop a communication strategy

Upon assessing the controversy, developing a communication strategy is paramount. The NYPD’s response, highlighted by Mayor Eric Adams’ defense of the program, showcased a strategic choice to highlight the volunteer nature of the dance team and its role in officer wellness. This aligns with crafting messages that address key concerns, such as funding and the program’s relevance to the department’s mission.

3. Engage with stakeholders

Before Mayor Adams made a public statement, internal discussions likely took place. Engaging with stakeholders, including department heads and legal teams, ensures that the response is unified and considers all angles. The NYPD’s unified defense suggests such alignment was achieved, underscoring the importance of this step.

4. Transparent and timely communication

Mayor Adams’ prompt and clear support for the dance team served as an example of transparent and timely communication. He addressed the concerns head-on, emphasizing the non-use of taxpayer dollars and the positive impact on officer morale. PIOs should aim for such clarity and promptness in their responses to maintain public trust.

5. Utilize multiple platforms

The NYPD’s response, including statements to the media and possibly social media engagement, illustrates the necessity of using multiple platforms for communication. Disseminating key messages through various channels ensures a wider reach and the ability to control the narrative more effectively.

6. Leverage supportive voices

In the NYPD’s case, supportive voices came from within the department and the mayor’s office. Similarly, PIOs should identify and engage community leaders, stakeholders, or other supportive voices who can help provide a balanced perspective on the situation.

7. Prepare for media inquiries

Given the controversy, the NYPD and specifically Mayor Adams, were prepared to address media inquiries, showcasing the importance of being ready with responses to potential questions. PIOs should anticipate such inquiries and train relevant personnel on handling them effectively.

8. Continuous monitoring and adaptation

As the situation evolved, the NYPD’s strategy likely required adjustments based on public sentiment and media coverage. Continuous monitoring allows PIOs to adapt their strategies, as seen in the NYPD’s ongoing defense and clarification of the dance team’s role and funding.

9. Post-incident review

After the initial wave of controversy subsides, conducting a review of the incident’s handling is crucial. The NYPD, through internal reviews and public feedback, could identify what worked and what didn’t, preparing better for future incidents.

10. Proactive public engagement

Finally, beyond immediate crisis response, establishing a proactive engagement strategy is vital. The NYPD’s broader engagement with the community through athletic teams, including the dance team, serves as a form of proactive public engagement. Regular updates about department activities and transparency initiatives can help build goodwill and mitigate the impact of future controversies.

The NYPD Dance team is a positive experience for its members, just like the other 46 athletic teams for NYPD officers, including equestrian, paintball and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I salute its members for their courage, skill and desire to dance their hearts out — dance on, ladies.

About the author

Robert Tornabene retired as Bureau Chief with over 27 years of law enforcement experience. He has worked for the Niles (Illinois) Police Department and Forest Park (Illinois) Police Department. His law enforcement experience includes public information, community policing, school resource officer and training.

Robert holds a bachelor’s in science degree in criminal justice and is a graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Police Staff and Command. He oversaw and coordinated all department training, including active shooter training for local government buildings, businesses and the public. He supervised the Support Services Bureau at the Niles Police Department, which included records, community service officer, crime prevention bureau and traffic unit. Robert is CIT trained and was instrumental in bringing in the “We Are Not Alone” program to his department for officer mental health.