Because You’re Worth It
I am absolutely delighted to host this blog from public relations advisor and fundraiser Gemma Pettman.
Gemma has previously worked within police corporate communications and a large police charity, but now runs her own company helping charities to raise their profile and increase their income.
Gemma has very kindly given the Red Button Project the benefit of her experience and offers her view on how the police might better communicate with the public at a time when it seems they can’t do anything right.
When I started as a police press officer, the learning curve had a 1:4 incline. I was one of the first ‘civvies’ in Media Services (my chair had previously been occupied by a serving officer, fast approaching retirement), many police officer colleagues were sceptical about the role (others were completely scathing) and local newspapers, radio and TV stations were well-staffed to the point that they were on the phone to me pretty much 24/7.
But, as time went on I got to know my local journalists, built trust amongst my colleagues and got used to expecting the unexpected. Importantly, media relations were mostly positive. It wasn’t all rosy, but we could be candid with journalists and often took them into our confidence.
Fast forward *cough* years (not that many, honest!) and the picture is vastly different. I could easily wallpaper my house and next door with the negative police stories that have appeared in the papers this year alone. Relationships with certain publications or individual journalists seem fraught. The police are, at any given moment, lazy / racist / overpaid / overweight / useless / all of the above, apparently.
Cynics suggest there has been a sustained smear campaign against the service. Others shrug their shoulders and say it’s simply the police’s turn for bad press. If the latter is the case, I can only conclude the job is struggling to throw a six; it’s been your turn for long enough.
So, when I was approached to write a post for the Red Button Project on how police could ‘do comms better’ and ultimately improve the image of the service, I was hesitant. Policing and indeed police press offices have changed significantly; the arrival of social media being one of the greatest challenges, for officers and comms folk alike. As it turns out, social media was my starting point for this post, because as much as it presents challenges, it offers opportunities too. And once I metaphorically slipped back into my police press officer’s chair the thoughts kept coming:
Firstly, to improve communications, keep talking
Be relentless in pushing the good news. Keep sharing your results. Show people what you’re dealing with. It is an inalienable truth that from a media perspective good news is rarely ‘great’ news – but please don’t let that stop you. You now have more opportunities than ever to speak directly to your audiences. Sometimes it’s like shouting into the abyss, I know, but I promise you people are listening.
Did you see this recent Facebook post from the West Yorkshire Police team at Leeds Inner East Division?
It reads as though it was posted in frustration but the principle is sound and an overwhelming number of people who have taken the time to comment on it seem to agree – ‘keep up the good work’, ‘you all do a fantastic job’. At the time of writing, more than 14,600 people have liked the post and 1800 have shared it.
When you release information like this there is a balance to be struck with regards to the fear of crime, but firstly, I would rather know my local officers were out there ‘doing something’ and secondly, I would suggest the prevalence of 999 accounts on social media (where members of the public discuss the sirens they have heard, or speculate about incidents they have seen) do more to raise the fear of crime that factual reports from an official source.
While we’re on the subject of official sources…
When a big story breaks, or an issue becomes the focus of a lot of media attention – such as the rise in knife crime, or the debate over whether police should be armed – a force will be approached for a comment, or an individual with responsibility for that area of policing will be asked to give an interview. Sometimes the answer must be no, but unfortunately this does create a vacuum; a vacuum you can be sure someone else will fill at a moment’s notice.
I have noticed an increasing number of interviews being given by former officers who have positioned themselves as police commentators. It is my personal opinion that while these individuals may not be bound by many of the same ‘rules’ as an official police spokesperson, they do have a responsibility to their audience. To my mind this means they should be well-informed, have done their homework, speak only on the topics they have a good understanding of and use appropriate language. I wouldn’t seek to detract from what someone has learned or seen during a long career in policing but there will be those readers and viewers who take a commentator’s personal views and experiences as gospel. They will be seen by some as ‘the police’.
I don’t profess to know what relationship forces have with the commentators in their areas, but I would hope the lines of communication are open in a similar way as for card-holding journalists.
Ensuring you can respond to media opportunities, particularly on a national level, requires co-ordination, which brings me to my next point…
Now here’s where I think the police service can learn something from the private sector and this follows on from the local approach I have concentrated on so far.
I appreciate we don’t have a single UK-wide police force and completely understand the difficulties this brings from a comms perspective, but I genuinely think there are lessons to be learned from the co-ordinated approach taken by large corporates.
Let’s take Sainsbury’s as an example. Stick with me because there are similarities between the police service and the supermarket giant (aside from the 4% wages increases, obviously): most towns have a branch; they differ in size and staffing levels; the communities they serve are hugely varied; they have to be one step ahead of the wants, needs and desires of a broad customer base, and have to meet those expectations as best they can.
Sainsbury’s, like any other large company, has a very strategic marketing strategy. Branding, pricing and their unique offer is determined nationally and rolled out across their network. You can go into a store in Brighton and find the same core products you can find in Bridlington. It’s generic, it’s consistent and it’s what customers expect and feel comfortable with.
Alongside that overarching national strategy is a localised plan. Stores operate within the generic framework set nationally, but have the freedom to undertake activities within their own community: fundraising collections, family days and so on.
The point is: could police forces (and bodies like the Police Federation and National Police Chief’s Council) do more replicate national/local model within their communications activities? Are there are core issues that warrant a coherent message up and down the country? Is it practical to develop national campaigns that can then be localised? Occasionally forces release information on the timewasting 999 calls they receive; indeed some like GMP live tweet details of EVERY call they receive in a given 24 hour period as part of a special campaign. Would these activities have greater impact if all forces took part?
I would be really interested to explore this further and I’m keen to hear your views.
Make friends with local reporters
So imagine the aforementioned national/local coordination was in place. As a force, or a division within that force, there would be a strategy to work to, stories/campaigns/messages that could be localised and therefore provide opportunities to engage local media and in turn, reach the wider community.
Local media, and newspapers in particular, still play an important role in community life and their reach shouldn’t be underestimated. Local reporters are generally exactly that; they both live and work in the community they serve. There is a confidence and trust in local publications which doesn’t always extend to national newspapers.
There will undoubtedly be times when an incident occurs which attracts national media attention. It will be a manic few days/weeks but those journalists will ultimately move on to the next story whereas local reporters remain. I would place as much, if not greater, importance on maintaining relationships with local journalists, as with those from further afield.
Work with them to tell more of your stories, share your successes and in turn, put your hands up when things don’t go so well. The police are the public, but in many ways local media are the public too; or at least are their eyes and ears. As with the police service, newsrooms have been cut to the bone and journalists are over-stretched; you might have more in common than you think.
Be sure to challenge poor reporting, at all levels
A friend of mine works in a comms role for the NHS. Increasingly fed up with how they were being represented in the media, they took steps to redress the balance. Statements they put out were being edited down to the point they were no longer in context, so each time they gave a comment to the media, they also posted it on their website – in full – and shared the link via their social media channels. This has continued and seems to reassure their audience, but that benefit aside, why should incorrect information, or comments taken out of context, go unchallenged?
Of course there are times, when cases are ongoing, that is impossible for the police to act in this way. But why not follow this up as soon as it is appropriate to do so? Corrections may be buried somewhere around page 23 of a paper – they may not appear at all – but don’t leave it at that. At the very least consider using your website and social media to get the facts out.
Don’t be boringly corporate
I’m giving serious side-eye to those forces that tweet the same message, from multiple accounts across their force area, at exactly the same time of the day. This does not constitute a conversation. Why not grab yourself a megaphone and shout at people instead?
Of course you have to share vital information and offer advice but you also have to understand your audience and ask yourself what they want to gain from following you. Allow your teams to be your ambassadors; a recent guest blog written for me by @NathanConstable explains the many benefits of empowering your staff to use social media.
And lastly, increase the size of your comms team
This is less about hiring more staff and more about mobilising the troops on the outside. Who can help to share your success stories, promote your activities and circulate appeals? Which partners can enable you reach those ‘hardest to reach’ members of your communities? West Yorkshire’s Facebook post reached around 15,000 people – how many more could have seen it if key partners helped to circulate it? Sharing your content with those who can share it even further builds trust in a really cost-effective way. These communication partnerships are likely to become even more important as the next round of cuts begin to bite.
There is always an alternative. The police service can simply hunker down and get on with it. They can try to ignore the media missiles that are lobbed in their direction. But ultimately that would only further damage the most important relationship of all, the police-public relationship. And while it’s easy to lose sight of (particularly if you venture ‘below the line’ and read the Daily Mail comments section) police officers are still valued by the majority within the communities they serve.
And you should absolutely remind them of your worth.
The Red Button Project is intended to allow front line practitioners, the public and people who work alongside the police to contribute ideas and thoughts on what a police service would look like if you had to design one from scratch.
Previous blogs can be viewed on our blog site
You can follow us on Twitter @OldBillRebuilt and the hashtag #OldBillRebuilt. If you would like to contribute ideas, blogs or suggestions then please use the comments section below or contact @NathanConstable, @DedicatedPeeler or @EmWilliamsCCCU
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