Roundtable: 20 best practices for policy-related public communications
Proactive communications about policy changes demonstrates to your community that you are responsive to their concerns and continuously improving
As law enforcement agencies navigate shifting community expectations, many organizations have been pressed to adapt policies and reimagine policing.
Many law enforcement processes and protocols have evolved over time and rely on best practices to support the safest outcomes possible, so the idea of changing in response to public demand can be frustrating. Before rejecting the notion completely, consider what information is actually available to our communities.
For the average person with no public safety experience, the mechanics of police operations are largely invisible. Individuals who, fortunately, have never been in a situation that requires tactical decision-making would have no way of knowing what goes into calculating variables and acting, often in seconds. Combine this with the entertainment industry's oversimplified running-and-gunning portrayal of the police. The gap between perception and reality makes more sense, and it's clear that we need to help paint a clearer picture.
To combat the proliferation of inaccurate or incomplete narratives about law enforcement, agencies must shed light on not just practices, but also the policy that supports them.
A number of national initiatives continue to make calls for police reform. As questions about the efficacy of law enforcement operations arise, agencies can approach these situations as opportunities rather than obstacles. Silence is not a successful strategy. Instead, transparently engaging in deeper discussion will help mitigate misinformation and illuminate the landscape so communities and agencies can shape the future together.
— Kate Kimble, Public Relations Manager, Fort Collins (Colorado) Police Services
In this roundtable, law enforcement communication professionals from around the nation share their best practices for communicating policy changes. Our participants are:
- Yael Bar-tur, a social media consultant who previously served as the director of social media and digital strategy for the New York City Police Department.
- Sarah Boyd, a public relations specialist for the Kansas City Missouri Police Department.
- Christopher Cook, Deputy Police Chief – Chief of Staff for the Arlington (Texas) Police Department.
- Carissa Katekaru, social media coordinator and PIO for both the police and fire departments in North Richland Hills, Texas.
Kate Kimble, Public Relations Manager for Fort Collins (Colorado) Police Services.
20 best practices for policy-related public communications
- Be proactive with information sharing: With the ever-increasing eye on law enforcement and the call for police reform, it is essential to remember to maintain communication on your departments' positive changes. Generally, many agencies shy away from sharing policy, but that can no longer be the norm. In today's times, the call to action is to show what and how your department is making substantial modifications that will impact police and community relations. Remember, a request for your policy can generally be obtained through a FOIA inquiry. Why not consider being proactive by sharing it ahead of that request? — Carissa Katekaru
- Make it a big deal. My agency has created and revised numerous policies since June 2020 in response to community concerns. They had slipped out periodically, posted to our website with little fanfare. As I looked through them and realized the totality of what we had done, I knew it was time to call attention to all the work our department had put in to better serve the people of our city. This included drafting a news release with links to all the new and revised policies, a news conference, social media posts and coordination with Community Interaction Officers to take the message of our reform to neighborhoods throughout the city. — Sarah Boyd
- Be proud of your policy evolution: As a rule of thumb for the North Richland Hills Police Department, a more progressive approach is taken regarding transparency with the community. We are proud of the advancements we've made in our policy and the changes we executed many years before the call for reform. During 2020’s civil unrest, our agency readily shared many of our policies publicly, highlighting those that already aligned with several of the public requests such as the "8 Can't-Wait" campaign. Be proud of your improvements in policy evolution. If your agency knows you have work to do, recognize that openly. Your transparency and honesty will develop a more effective rapport with your community by acknowledging your desire to improve for them. — Carissa Katekaru
- Have engaging conversations: Engage with your community via social media and through in-person events. It's more important now than ever to ensure you are active and vested in these mediums. Regularly share your advancements in policy development, training and community engagement. This is your chance to continue the conversation about how you are improving your team to serve the community better. Do not use social media as a one-way avenue to simply push information out. Ensure that you engage in the conversation that follows and be ready to answer the tough questions. This is how change happens – through listening and joining in the dialogue. — Carissa Katekaru
- “Convert” policies into products: Just because you make your policies public by putting them on your website or social media, doesn't mean people will take notice. Try to promote the policies by "converting" them into products that are easily understood in the age of information overload. This includes creating bullet points, publishing short summaries, and even using simple graphics to ensure that the information is easily absorbed by the majority of the public that isn't going to take the time to read through complex paperwork. — Yael Bar-tur
- Share information online: The next step to consider is publishing policy online. The North Richland Hills Police Department is actively working toward the goal of distributing the department’s general orders online. This didn't come without a substantial discussion between the leadership team and legal. However, after a thorough review, we felt confident that sharing via this avenue would build upon our community's trust in our agency. The general orders are a comprehensive guide for what and how we conduct our work. We took care to omit anything that would give tactics or sensitive investigation strategies away. This ensures that we maintain concern for victim and officer safety in active incidents and case integrity through the investigative process. — Carissa Katekaru
- Avoid police jargon: PIOs should strive to use language that is easily understood by the public. This means changing certain words from police jargon aimed at officers to words the public understands, as well as spelling out acronyms and explaining any internal terms that most people will not be familiar with. — Yael Bar-tur
- Explain the bureaucracy. Policy changes take time, and if your processes for that change aren’t explained clearly, it will look like the community’s cries for improvement fell on deaf ears. Public Information Officers (PIOs) should explain the steps and timelines of drafting new policies and revising existing ones. If your agency solicited public input on these policy changes (and it should) PIOs should highlight that. This public education on policy process can take the form of everything from a flowchart graphic for social media to a virtual town hall meeting. — Sarah Boyd
- Create a communications calendar: PIOs should create a communications plan and short-term calendar to communicate the policies effectively through social media. The plan should include which policies to highlight, how often to post them on which platforms and which language to use, as well as how to respond to questions from the public. The calendar will ensure the messaging is disseminated even when the PIO is busy with unexpected events and will ease the burden of trying to create messaging on a particularly busy or overwhelming day. — Yael Bar-tur
- Carve out space on your website: Policies and standard operating procedures can seem like foreign concepts to many community members. With increasing calls for transparency and accountability, many law enforcement agencies are wrestling with how to publish policies to their respective communities to bolster citizen awareness and foster mutual trust with those they serve. One of the easiest ways to share important policies and procedural updates is to carve out some real estate on the department's website. A one stop shop of valuable and relevant information can include policies that cover important topics such as use of force, discipline process, pursuit management, racial profiling, fair and equitable policing practices, and training standards along with many other topical areas that the public routinely has an interest in. The dedicated webpage should be easy to navigate and searchable. The goal is to provide ease of access as well as having a place to point citizens towards when questions arise in the community or during citizen forums. — Christopher Cook
- Tailor your messaging: Be aware of what your community is interested in and tailor that message to them. Often police priorities and community priorities are different, and a particular policy that may seem commonplace to the police is actually quite intriguing or controversial to the public, and vice versa. Avoid misunderstandings by anticipating which policies the public will take a heightened interest in and take the time to craft the messaging around those carefully and effectively. — Yael Bar-tur
- Share QR codes: As with other communication objectives, public information officers and chief executives should carefully weigh each option to maximize public reach and return on investment related to publishing policies and updates to the community. One innovative way to communicate policy changes and updates is through the creation of a small business card that contains a QR code. The card can be easily housed in a uniform shirt pocket and find its way in the hands of citizens through routine community interactions. This card should contain a photo of the policies contained on the webpage and the QR code should allow any smartphone to access the material. — Christopher Cook
- Prepare for criticism. Despite your agency's best efforts to create and adapt policies to address community concerns, some will criticize that it wasn't enough, particularly on social media platforms. Others will say you should have had those policies in place all along. There is little to be gained from engaging in a Twitter battle with a determined hater. If they have questions about what items are included in the policy, provide them with a link to it rather than trying to outline all the provisions yourself. Community members who seek to have a productive discussion about the new and revised policies should be put in touch with someone at your agency who can engage with them directly offline. — Sarah Boyd
- Use news releases when appropriate: When dealing with large policy changes that impact the community, a news release may be a suitable option to convey changes. The news release should contain the basic information surrounding the changes along with some availability for sound from the agency head or public information officer. An example of this could be a change in hate crime reporting. This type of change would be important for community members and may lend itself to a good story at the local community level. — Christopher Cook
- Use social media wisely: Social media can also be a useful tool with some policy changes. An agency should be careful to not get drawn into the weeds on controversial or emotionally charged policy changes on social media. This could lead to unintended consequences of encouraging debates that can turn challenging for agencies to moderate. An example would be a change in the department’s use of deadly force policy. If the change was posted on social, the agency would likely receive a lot of adverse comments surrounding the topic. In the same vein, a change that would be likely viewed as positive in the community may work well on social media distribution. — Christopher Cook
- Make policies available: Except for tactical information that could jeopardize safety, policies should be made available to the public. The conversation around police reform will continue with or without law enforcement participation, so sharing these basic building blocks will provide valuable information about the current operations in your community. — Kate Kimble
- Make policies accessible: Availability and accessibility are two very different concepts. If your policies are available upon request, provided via fax only, or buried on an obscure corner of a government website, your community members will never find them. Accessibility means posting them online, linking on your home page, and incorporating links into conversations on social media when questions about your policy arise. This also means making policies available in the primary languages spoken in your community and providing file formats that can be translated by screen readers (i.e., not JPEGs or scanned PDFs). Agencies who use a third party to manage policy should inquire to see if a public-facing module is available to ensure that updates are reflected in real-time. — Kate Kimble
- Make policies digestible: Policies typically provide the “what” but may not always include the “why.” Providing context will help community members understand the literal requirements, as well as the spirit/intention and agency values behind them. While this may be built into policy introductory sections, context is best served in conversation. This is often a component in community police academies, but law enforcement agencies must find ways to share with a wider audience. The Mountain View Police MVPDx and Albany Police T3C3 programs are examples where community members have the opportunity to learn and discuss the nuances of policy while getting firsthand experience in some of the operational elements. — Kate Kimble
- Let your community know you hear them. The most drastic policy shifts in law enforcement typically come after a negative incident and accompanying community outcry. In the thick of these incidents, it is important to acknowledge the pain and anger members of your community are experiencing. Empathy should always be the default posture, not defensiveness. This is the time to communicate with your community via the media, social media and, ideally, in person that you are listening to their concerns and will consider them. — Sarah Boyd
- Change happens together: As we move forward collectively navigating police reform, we should remember that change happens together. Simple steps to proactively share your policy can benefit your departments and communities through open and honest discussion. — Carissa Katekaru