It’s law enforcement’s job to keep our communities safe, but they can’t do it alone. Officers must work with community members to create a team approach to the crime fight.

One way they can engage their community is through a strong media presence. First, they must both establish communication as a core value and believe that open communication is critical to the success of their mission. In practical terms, agencies need a clear and consistent pattern of releasing information that the community can depend on. This constant communication builds faith in the department, which ultimately impacts the tone of the local news coverage about the police.

These efforts also put the agency in a stronger position to weather the inevitable critical incidents that are part of the dynamic nature of policing. How an agency handles a high-profile controversial incident can make or break its community relationships. If releasing information is swift, organized, and proactive, it builds community trust for policing itself and “doing the right thing.” However, if an agency is slow, disorganized, and reactive, the media and community will often criticize the department, which demoralizes frontline officers. Every agency should develop a crisis communication plan to ensure they are managing their public messaging during an incident.

Police departments also benefit from adopting a proactive approach to sharing human interest stories. The agency should become its own newsroom—generating stories that demonstrate how it lives its mission, values, and goals. The public information officers facilitate this approach by arranging interviews, researching facts, and creating content for both local media and social media. This motivates people to get involved with their police departments, builds public confidence, and promotes community and officer safety while fostering more accurate reporting.

With these goals in mind, the St. Louis, Missouri Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) requested help to strengthen its messaging and enhance its relationship with the media and the community. The National Public Safety Partnership and the Bureau of Justice Assistance National Training and Technical Assistance Center provided training from communication strategist Laura McElroy, McElroy Media Group. The sessions focused on three objectives: fostering trust between SLMPD and the media, improving the accuracy of media coverage, and managing public messaging during critical incidents.

McElroy evaluated the department’s Public Information Office and identified several ways to streamline and strengthen SLMPD’s media efforts. Her recommendations built upon the progress the Public Information Office made in managing breaking news and its proactive social media engagement. One important suggestion was using commanders to establish a 24-hour system for keeping the media informed.

Most news organizations operate around the clock so it’s simply not realistic for a small public information office to handle all media inquiries. Agencies that maintain this outdated model fail to keep up with the pace of information, which results in the slow and inconsistent release of information. This frustrates the media and creates tension that can lead to antagonistic relationships and aggressive reporting focused on a department’s missteps versus its progress.

McElroy provided commanders with scenario-based on-camera training so they would be prepared to handle the ever-evolving stories in the media. Empowering field commanders to conduct media interviews improves the accuracy of news stories and maintains a productive working rapport with the media. It also helps supervisors expand their perspectives on community issues and builds their confidence in managing media at scenes. The training showed supervisors how to develop key messages and express them during interviews.

During the on-camera training—the portion of the day-long sessions that participants felt was most beneficial—each participant was given a critical incident with developing twists and turns like a real-life scenario. After 15–20 minutes of preparation, the members conducted a mock news conference while McElroy and fellow class members role-played as reporters. McElroy provided constructive feedback and suggestions to each participant. The classroom provided a safe setting for supervisors to overcome performance jitters. They learned different techniques for communicating while the pressure was on.

The most significant benefit of this type of training was not the “how-to” aspect but, rather, the robust discussions prompted by the complicated scenarios customized to their city and its challenges. Refining the thought process necessary to navigate such interviews is where the real learning took place. The course encouraged commanders to see issues from a multitude of perspectives: community members, the media, politicians, key stakeholders, and police administrators. The instructor-led discussions pushed participants to consider solutions that may be unorthodox to police but expected by others. This type of problem-solving advocates leadership and a broader understanding of the community they serve.

In the post-training surveys, most participants expressed they learned a lot in the “much overdue” training. One commander stated that “it was a great platform to showcase how commanders handle themselves in pressure situations” and suggested that the training “should be required as part of the promotion process.” Most participants highly rated the training and said they would recommend it to their colleagues. All 30 participants said the skills taught are necessary for lieutenants and above.

Reflecting several months after the training, SLMPD says that the most important outcome of McElroy’s visit is that more commanders are doing on-camera videos, and they are confidently informing the public at scenes where timely information is of utmost importance. They are able to promptly respond to questions from the media and also ensure that the department’s official message is getting out quickly.

The training enhanced SLMPD efforts to share its own story with the media and the community, while also improving how the department manages the public messaging side of critical incidents. There’s no doubt these efforts have paid dividends in helping SLMPD reach its goal of growing public trust and support.

If your jurisdiction is in need of training or technical assistance related to media and messaging, or if you know of a community that would benefit from this type of assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov and we can connect you to the appropriate training, assistance, TTA partner, and/or resources.

If you are interested in submitting the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration in a future TTA Today blog post or in obtaining information related to a particular topic area, please email us at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov.

Points of view or opinions on BJA NTTAC’s TTA Today blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, BJA, or BJA NTTAC.

Laura McElroy

Laura McElroy

As a technical advisor for U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Laura McElroy shares best practices in building collaborative partnerships and trust through community engagement, media and social media strategies. She spent eleven years as the Director of Communications for the Tampa Police Department and sixteen years as an award winning reporter and anchor.
Laura McElroy