Cover: Amplifying the Speakers

Amplifying the Speakers

Identifying High-Priority Needs for Law Enforcement Public Information Officers

Published Sep 8, 2022

by Michael J. D. Vermeer, Jeremy D. Barnum, Siara I. Sitar, Dulani Woods, Brian A. Jackson

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Research Question

  1. What are the highest-priority needs of law enforcement PIOs for improving law enforcement public communications?

The ability to communicate effectively with the public is critical to the success of law enforcement agencies. Especially as the public increasingly expects law enforcement to exhibit transparency and rapid responsiveness to community concerns, communications proficiency often has a significant impact on an agency's overall success. Public information officers (PIOs) and other staff with public communications responsibilities are often the focal point for this engagement with communities, and it is vital that agencies use them effectively. Despite the importance of law enforcement PIOs, their needs have received relatively little attention.

To better understand the needs of law enforcement with respect to PIOs, RAND researchers and the Police Executive Research Forum convened a workshop to identify high-priority needs to improve the law enforcement PIO profession. Through a series of interviews and group discussion sessions, the researchers gathered input from various subject-matter experts, who identified and prioritized a total of 26 needs related to PIOs. Of these 26, nine needs were identified as high-priority. These high-priority needs addressed issues related to responding to civil unrest; gauging community sentiment; engaging in rapid communication; establishing the value of PIOs beyond information dissemination to the public; developing guidance on characteristics of effective PIOs; proactively addressing community issues; effectively addressing community criticism; and building professional development opportunities and training for public communications staff.

Key Findings

  • PIOs can provide a wide variety of benefits to an agency beyond just disseminating information to the public. PIOs can be used to improve internal communication, improve recruiting, engage the community to guide policy and strategy, gather data in support of budgetary requests to municipal stakeholders, and more. Police executives would benefit from training and guidance on how to optimize the role of PIOs within their agencies.
  • Agencies need to invest in their PIOs as they invest in their officers. Public communicators have a significant impact on the agency, and PIOs need regular training, networking opportunities, and guidance to perform well in the role.
  • There are benefits and trade-offs when using either sworn or civilian staff in public communications roles, but it is key that an agency maintain continuity in the role and that staff treat public communications as a core part of their responsibilities. It is critical for a PIO or those with public communications responsibilities to invest in building long-term relationships with the community and within the agency, and it is detrimental to the agency to regularly cycle staff through the role.
  • Protests and civil unrest create a distinct and enduring challenge for police PIOs. These events carry the risk of adversarial interactions that can damage trust in law enforcement. They also can serve as opportunities to demonstrate that an agency is willing to listen to the community's concerns and invite community leaders to provide input.

Recommendations

  • National organizations should create regionally focused case studies identifying potential pitfalls and effective strategies for public communications specifically related to protests, civil unrest, and other challenging events.
  • A guide to regularly gauge community sentiment and priorities should be disseminated, including a list of different tools that could be used (e.g., surveys, social media, apps, audits), estimates of the resource investments that they require, descriptions of their benefits and limitations, and potential alternative funding sources for them (e.g., grants, philanthropy).
  • Guidance should be created for rapid response strategies for leadership and public communications staff that establish consistent, clear timelines for information release (e.g., critical incident checklist, crisis communications plans, better use of social media, policies that facilitate rapid release of information).
  • Communications plans should be created that provide tactics that a PIO can authentically adapt to local sensitivities to give constructive responses to known criticisms.
  • Professional networks and information-sharing for PIOs should be built through networking and information-sharing events, such as association memberships, conferences, Zoom meetings, or webinars. These could be promoted or disseminated through existing regional, state, and national organizations and associations.
  • Low-cost training or partnership opportunities should be created for law enforcement PIOs (e.g., shadowing similar agency PIOs) on building comprehensive, consistent communications strategies spanning multiple platforms, engagement types, and types of media.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was supported by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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