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When media releases and tweets don’t do the trick

I was at a party a while back and someone asked what I do. “I’m in corporate communications and media relations with the police service,” I responded.


April 2, 2019
By Roxanne Beaubien

The reaction? “Oh, so you lie for the police.”

Well, ah, no. Most times, I quip back to that type of comment with, “I tell the truth in the most favourable light” with a laugh. But this time, it really got me thinking about how misunderstood the work of corporate communications professionals is and the value they add to policing service.

So what exactly is corporate communications? While it incorporates media relations and social media, it is so much more than press releases, talking to reporters and tweeting. If your organization is only focused on media relations and social media, you need to ask if you are missing the mark?

The news media are crucial in telling our stories to the public. Of that, there can be no question. We use them to talk to citizens about what is going on in the community – the good, the bad and the ugly. We need them to share information to help those we serve be and stay safe.

But dealing with reporters is only part of the full picture of corporate communications and if your service isn’t using the full range of tools available, you are missing great opportunities to build and maintain trust and confidence in your police service.

Corporate communications is not about writing letters, emails and speeches for senior officers – although we do that sometimes. At its core, big “C” communications, as I call it, is about strategically building goodwill with a variety of stakeholders including the public, government (i.e. funding bodies) and your employees. It has been said that goodwill is like a bank account – you want to bank credits in good times so you have a reserve for when the bad times hit. And in policing, where anything can happen, there are always the potential for bad times just around the corner.

Building that credit is a responsibility of everyone in the organization and is done on a day-to-day basis in every interaction with the public. But at the organizational level, it is a primary corporate communications responsibility.

That means your corporate communications should include a co-ordinated, strategic approach to all major external and internal communications.

So, if you are only focused on media relations and the volume of your social media posts, here are a few things you are missing.

Managing emerging issues  
One role of the strategic communications professional is to monitor the issues related to policing that are percolating in the community, and preparing your service to either proactively head off the issue or respond in a fulsome, transparent manner.

For example, how prepared was your agency to respond at the local level following the 2017 publication of the Globe and Mail’s “Unfounded” series? In this situation, when the freedom of information request for ‘unfounded’ rates were received by services across the country, the involvement of a strategic communications professional would have you prepared to respond when questions rolled in from media and other stakeholders.

Talking to your people
Internal communications is, unfortunately, often treated like the poor cousin of media relations. Without a strategic approach to communications, too often those we fail to communicate with are our own people, often to the organization’s detriment.

Do your employees know the organization’s strategic priorities and the role they play in achieving these goals? Does your senior leadership regularly update the membership on the direction of the service? Provide a heads up on major developments before they hear it on the news?

Ensuring your people are ‘in the know’ through strategic internal communications goes a long way to ensuring your members feel they are part of the team (i.e. better morale) and that they are your strongest supporters.
 
Winning the budget battle at the kitchen table
In many communities police funding is a topic of public discourse once a year. Whether your service is funded at the municipal, regional, provincial or federal level, it is usually only discussed in any meaningful way during budget deliberations. That is when we see the annual ritual of senior officers, hat-in-hand, asking for additional funding, often just to keep up with the increasing costs of providing service at the same level.

However, as a former colleague framed it, if the citizens you serve are not talking about policing issues and the related funding at their kitchen tables throughout the year, budget deliberation time is too late to be raising the issue.

Government bodies set funding priorities, in part, on the priorities of the citizens they represent. If the politicians are not hearing from citizens that policing is a priority, it is too easy for them to not place enough importance on it at budget time.

A well-developed, strategic communications plan can help inform this discussion. And put policing issues front and centre in your community throughout the year.

To tweet or not to tweet – that is the question
The vast majority, if not all, police services have social media accounts. This is obviously critical in today’s world but how strategic is your use of FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.? Some agencies invest significant staff time in social media but there is often little analysis of the impact.

Does the constant tweeting and posting help increase understanding of an issue in your community? Does it change behaviour? What is the cost (think staff time spent) vs. the benefit (think impact on behaviour or increase in understanding)?

A communications professional helps to change the focus from outputs to outcomes to help determine value instead of just volume.

These are just a few examples of what a communications professional can bring to the table and what you might be missing if you are focused only on media relations and the volume of your social posts. There is no question that it is a significant challenge – particularly for small and mid-sized services – to widen your focus to big “C” communications.

An investment is needed to ensure you have someone who is educated in strategic communications, not just media relations. That investment could be in civilian positions, or in training your media relations officer in strategic communications. But, at the end of the day, it is an investment that is required in today’s policing environment, and one that will help build the credit in that bank account.


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 is the Corporate Communications and Media Relations Manager with the London Police Service. Her opinions are her own.