Blue Line

Communicating as police agencies in the midst of COVID-19

You are considering the worse-case scenario in your operational planning but are you working with your media relations or corporate communications staff to develop messaging to go along with those scenarios?

March 16, 2020  By Roxanne Beaubien

Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

If your service has a crisis communications plan, the time to pull it off the shelf and dust it off is now. The COVID-19 pandemic is going to put it to the test.

A crisis is defined by some as an incident or issue that affects the safety, security or confidence of your community. And with more and more cases of COVID-19 coming to light each day, communities across Canada are quickly recognizing that this fits that definition.

So, as you are stocking up on protective personal equipment (PPE) and working out operational plans for the worst-case scenario, here are some tips on the communications-related issues you should be considering as well.

1) First and foremost, talk to your members


Using all the communications channels you have available – internal email, intranet, parades briefings, video messages – talk to your members.

If you haven’t already, set up a COVID-19 page on your intranet and promote that as the main source of information and updates. Be sure to include:

  • information about use and availability of PPE, provisions being made for non-operational personnel who come into contact with the public;
  • links to credible sources of information on the virus and its spread in your community (your provincial or municipal public health site is a good place to start);
  • what to do if they experience symptoms; any provisions if they have to self-isolate related to pay/benefits;
  • what is being done in your facilities and vehicles to sanitize against spread of the virus;
  • all organizational orders/directives related to COVID-19

This should be a one-stop shop for everything they need to know about what your service is doing. If your officers don’t have remote access to your intranet, make sure there is a reliable method of getting the information to them.

2) Talk to the community

In times of crisis, the public want to know that they are safe, that you have it under control and what they should be doing. Unfortunately, there are a lot of unknowns right now and you are limited in the assurances you can make on any of these points.

If you are changing your service access – i.e. temporarily reducing access to in-person services – use your social media channels and the media to encourage people to use your online services. Just be sure to use care in how you frame this type of messaging – talk about what you are doing to make it safer for citizens to access services, instead of about ‘closing’ services.

This is a public health emergency so in most communities, your public health agency is the lead. Let it talk about the medical issues.

3) Use of social media

Review any social media posts you may have pre-scheduled for the next few weeks and consider if they are appropriate at this time. For example, the time to promote a recruiting event is not when public health officials are warning people to avoid group situations. Also, be very careful about trying to use humour – unless you know your community very well, it is probably not wise to make light of the situation.

Obviously, use your social media channels to share any policing-related updates. But if you aren’t already, ensure you are sharing the credible sources of information in your community.

If you need to reach a wider audience that your current followers, consider paying to boost or promote your posts on Twitter and Facebook within your geographic area – in the case of a true emergency, it could be money well spent.

4) Prepare ‘just in-case’ messaging

You are considering the worse-case scenario in your operational planning but are you working with your media relations or corporate communications staff to develop messaging to go along with those scenarios?

For example, do you have a message prepared for employees to inform them that a member has tested positive for COVID-19? Or if there is a curfew or lockdown imposed in your community? It will serve you well to have some messaging thought out in advance and have it in your back pocket, just in case.

The above are just a few of the communications-related factors that need to be considered as you are planning/reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a health crisis – public health and medical officials are, and should be, at the forefront of the issue. But in times of crisis, your members and the public want to be assured that your service is prepared as well. It is important to take the time to tell them you are.

Roxanne Beaubien is a former crime reporter with nearly two decades experience in corporate communications in the policing sector at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. She was most recently the Corporate Communications and Media Relations Manager with the London Police Service. She now owns and operates Duty Calls Communications. Her opinions are her own.

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