Photo by emples via Flickr
I can always tell within minutes of an interview how media-friendly my source is. If they engage in small talk, that indicates that they’re interested in their interviewer. If they’re interested in me, and we establish a rapport, that makes it much more likely that they’ll volunteer information. They won’t stick rigidly to my questions, and in the silence that follows an answer, they’ll speak first. (Yes, cops too. Really! Surprised?)
What does this have to do with social media?
A police source who allows him- or herself to be engaged in more of a conversation with me than an interview recognizes the importance of putting information out there. They want the public to hear it, and they trust me to help them tell it.
Contrast that with a source who, for all intents and purposes, speaks only when spoken to, answers my questions in as short a period of time as possible, and doesn’t even seem to care when I give them a date for when the article is due to run. That’s if they even call me back to set up the interview to begin with.
Now, I’m fully aware that people are busy, have bad days/weeks/months, and also that sometimes there are personality clashes. I’m not here to discuss reasons. The fact is, sometimes sources don’t trust me.
And that’s fine. (Okay, it’s a little irritating when I’m on deadline and I have to scramble to find a backup source, but you know.) It does, however, give me pause. Does this officer not trust me because of an individual issue, or is it department culture to avoid media whenever possible?
In this age of instant, constant communication, any hesitation to work with media is a red flag. How a police department as a whole views the media is an indication, in my opinion, of how it views the public at large. If officers and administrators alike don’t trust media to tell the right story or tell it the right way, they simultaneously don’t trust the public to receive the story and interpret it the right way.
In other words, knowing that the media give the public what they want, a police department that fears inaccurate quotes and bad portrayal also fears a public with a low opinion of police. The problem is, media usually doesn’t create the problems. They might exacerbate tensions, but do you really think, in a town where police are respected, that a reporter trying to show otherwise would be taken seriously?
Police who don’t trust the media either know there’s a problem in their own ranks, or are irrationally afraid based on secondhand knowledge or experience. Either way, trying to convince them to “tell their own stories” via social media will be a swim against the current going uphill.
Does it have to be this way?
The agency genuinely trying to overcome a bad image has no choice but to become active in social media, as well as with traditional media, seeking to build relationships with both: take reporters and neighborhood leaders out for coffee, tap their knowledge about problems and concerns and use it to build a sound communication strategy.
The fearful risk-averse liability-conscious agency doesn’t necessarily need to be on social media, but because of its fearfulness, it is probably one critical or high-profile incident away from bad coverage. So it, too, needs to cultivate relationships within the community.
This is not about throwing stories out there in the hopes that they’ll be well-received. It’s about finding out what worries and concerns the public has, carefully reviewing 911 calls and detectives’ work and crime statistics, knowing what information the public needs to know down to the finest detail you can release.
It’s about building confidence in your own work as a law enforcement agency and then communicating that confidence to others, not in terms of what you know you’re doing, but in terms that allay fears and solve problems.
This is how a law enforcement agency earns trust, and from there, inspires the public to want to collaborate in crime prevention. That means media-friendliness, whether traditional or social, is a force multiplier.
What steps can you take to improve relationships with media and public in your community?
Christa M. Miller is founder and co-author of Cops 2.0. A freelance trade journalist turned content creator and public relations strategist, she has specialized in public safety issues for the past eight years. She resides in Greenville, SC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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