Force Science News #299:

Social media during a crisis: Is your strategy in place?

 

In this issue:

 

I. Social media during a crisis: Is your strategy in place?

II. How to "DWI" with mainstream media: More tips for crisis success

III. Our humble thanks for the kudos

 

I. Social media during a crisis: Is your strategy in place?

 

When a crisis slams your agency like a battering ram, here are two realities of today's law enforcement world which, as an administrator, you ignore at your peril:

 

• Social media may already be spreading a viral anti-police narrative before you even hear of what's happened. Time is not on your side.

 

• Stiffing reporters and your public with "No comment" is archaic and self-sabotaging, regardless of how unfavorable the facts may seem.

 

So, what to do...?

 

Melissa Agnes, an internationally recognized expert in emergency communication, recently shared insights on that formidable challenge.

 

President and cofounder of Agnes + Day Inc., a Montreal-based crisis management firm, she was among the featured speakers at the debut WINx training event [see FSN #293 -- Click here to read it.], produced by Force Science graduates Brian Willis and Roy Bethge last month in the Chicago area.

 

Energized by the event's format of 18 minutes per presentation, Agnes wasted no time in getting the meat of her message across.

 

DIGITAL SHIFT. The digital landscape--and especially social media--has transformed the demands of crisis communication, she explained.

 

"All it takes now," she said, "is one person on the sidelines with a smart phone to take a picture or video and share it on social media with their truth of what happened attached, not your truth. Before you even get back to your department, that can be going viral, with the community demanding answers.

 

"If you want to get ahead of the cycle, you barely have 48 minutes to respond. Whether you like it or not, this is reality. If you don't respond, things can quickly spiral out of control with someone else's narrative.

 

"How are you supposed to get ahead of the story when the story is instantaneously ahead of you? How can you rise above the noise and become the source of trust? Just saying 'No comment' isn't going to cut it."

 

PROACTIVE STEPS. Agnes cited three things that need attention now, to build an operational foundation before a crisis strikes.

 

1. "It's time to change the culture law enforcement has developed, because it's not working," she declared. "This begins with a change of mind-set."

 

You can choose to see a potential crisis as an overwhelming challenge and look away from it. "Or you can see that challenges present unprecedented opportunities to make changes. Change your mind-set and see opportunities through the challenges."

 

For example, "powerful voices in the community" might be viewed as people who "care enough to voice concerns" and explored as potential collaborators in making constructive change, rather than being dismissed, demonized, and ignored.

 

2. "Work every day to find opportunities to build trust with your community."

 

She offered that announcing on Twitter where officers will be assigned to run radar each day is one small gesture that can help departments demonstrate that police are devoted to making the community safer, not just to bagging citations and arrests.

 

There are limitless other "simple, proactive steps that can build a base of trust over time," Agnes said. "The community won't trust you in a crisis if they don't trust now."

 

3. "Start right away to embed community communication as part of your agency culture and your crisis preparedness," Agnes urged.

 

Find out what social media your community uses on a daily basis--Twitter, Yik Yak, WhatsApp--and create a presence there with information and dialog. "Then you'll know how to streamline right to them in a crisis."

 

Boston PD did this superbly when the Marathon bombers struck, Agnes said, using social media to promptly correct misinformation, provide public updates, and solicit photos, videos, and leads to aid the search for the terrorists.

 

"They became the credible source of information by embracing the communication platforms of their community," Agnes said. "That's how you get through the noise and above the noise in a crisis."

 

She posed this question in parting: "Can you say what your community expects of you in a crisis without a shadow of doubt?

 

"If not, you need to ask them so you can meet their expectations. Social media allows you to ask questions and get feedback in real time," and used creatively it can help you "become the voice of leadership in a crisis."

 

Melissa Agnes can be reached at: Melissa@melissaagnes.com

 

Note: Video of Agnes' presentation and others at the WINx event is expected to be available shortly. Another WINx training day has been scheduled for Nov. 16 next year. For more information, contact Brian Willis of Winning Mind Training at: winningmind@mac.com.

 

II. How to "DWI" with mainstream media: More tips for crisis success

 

Another crisis management expert in a different venue recently offered multiple practical pointers on handling mainstream media in the face of a potentially incendiary use of force, like an officer-involved shooting.

 

"Any OIS--no matter how righteous--is going to be a critical incident for your organization," said Rick Rosenthal, president of RAR Communications. "When the media come knocking, you have only one choice: DWI--Deal with It.

 

"Engagement is inevitable," he said. But depending on your approach, "victory will be optional."

 

A leading consultant on the media for North American law enforcement, Rosenthal was on the faculty last month when the Force Science Institute launched its two-day course on Body Cameras & Other Recordings at its Training Center near Chicago's O'Hare airport.

 

Much of his two-hour presentation to the capacity crowd dealt with the "worst-case scenario," when camera footage seems to confirm that an officer's use of deadly force was unjustified. Other speakers explored in depth the legal, technical, and human performance factors that should guide efforts to dig out the truth during an investigation. Rosenthal confronted how to meet media demands--for "information, sound bites, and pictures"--in the meantime, across three phases of "an ugly situation."

 

IGNITION PHASE. "The instant when mainstream and social media find out about an incident, that's ignition--the clock has started," Rosenthal said. "The longer you wait to respond, the longer you give them time to beat you with sticks."

 

Within two hours maximum, your agency should have a "full-dress, indoor news conference," complete with lectern ("don't meet the press sitting"), flags ("to enhance the overall professional appearance of the speaker"), and a photographically desirable background (no vending machines or other eyesores; "watch your back"), in a facility with ample parking.

 

"In an ugly situation, the on-camera spokesperson must be the top person in the agency," Rosenthal advised, "dressed in civilian clothes to separate him or her from the uniform. (In good situations--cops rescuing people from a burning building--that's when to wear the uniform.)"

 

Confer with your legal advisor about what details can and can't be released, but in an ugly situation at least acknowledge that "what appears in the video is extremely disturbing." That's not the same as agreeing that whatever seems to have gone wrong did go wrong.

 

In lieu of incident details, talk about the process that will ensue.

 

"Voice your care and concern about what happened and your commitment to a thorough, chips-fall-where-they-may investigation, in cooperation with an outside agency," Rosenthal suggested. "Tell them, 'Whatever the findings and conclusions, I will be back here reporting to you on the outcome and what actions I will take as a result.'

 

"Don't just deliver your statement and refuse to take questions. But spend time in advance crafting answers to the five questions you most fear the media will ask. Even if you really can't do much more at this stage than talk about the process and the three Cs (care, concern, and commitment), that's better than a stonewalling 'No comment.'

 

"The greater the degree of threat you're facing, the greater your preparation should be. And in your statement and in answering questions, don't try to 'spin' the facts and never speculate about what happened."

 

INVESTIGATION PHASE. While investigators are working to reconstruct the incident, someone other than the top administrator should deal with the media, Rosenthal said. Even in lieu of an official PIO, someone who's articulate, personable, and enthusiastic about the job should be appointed to supply the media with information.

 

This contact should be as forthcoming as possible with reporters but "help them understand that while the investigation continues to be the agency's top priority, there are some things that can't be released right now. Let them know that you understand they're in a hurry, but emphasize that 'We're going to do it right and then do it fast, not the other way around.' "

 

Of course, the quicker you can legitimately move through this phase, the better "since that cuts down on the amount of time your critics can attack you, and minimizes innuendo, hearsay, and speculation," Rosenthal said.

 

RESOLUTION PHASE. When results of the investigation are known, their announcement requires another full-dress news conference, with the top boss again in charge, Rosenthal said. How evidence was collected and analyzed and what conclusions were reached should be fully explained.

 

"If the officer involved was wrong, he's punished--disciplined, reassigned to a less sensitive position, or dismissed--for the good of the agency," Rosenthal advised. "In an ugly situation, if you've messed up, you 'fess up--and then explain what's going to be different in the future to prevent a recurrence."

 

During his animated presentation, Rosenthal cited an engrossing example of "masterful media relations" involving a West Coast sheriff who faced an angry community after deputies fired 120 rounds at an unarmed offender at the end of a wild pursuit in a residential neighborhood, damaging multiple homes and "terrorizing" innocent residents in the fire zone.

 

After an initial news conference that mirrored the tone and format Rosenthal recommends, the sheriff (with media in tow) personally called door to door in the neighborhood, seeking out homeowner concerns, promising compensation for damage that would be double the actual cost of repairs, and promising results of a thorough investigation within 30 days.

 

Inevitably the Sharpton-Jackson bandwagon blared into town, but, Rosenthal said, "they never gained traction with the media because the sheriff had skillfully gotten so far out in front of them."

 

As Rosenthal told Force Science News, "An ugly situation will rock your boat. But you don't have to let it sink your boat."

 

Rick Rosenthal can be reached at: rarcomm@sbcglobal.net

 

Note: At this writing, FSI's upcoming courses on Body Cameras & Other Recordings in Law Enforcement are scheduled Feb. 24-25 at Delaware State U. in Dover (DE) and Mar. 22-23 at the Force Science Training Center in suburban Chicago. For more information visit: www.forcescience.org/cameracourse.html, e-mail: training@forcescience.org or call: (312) 690-6212 ext. 2

 

III. Our humble thanks for the kudos!

 

A reader writes:

 

I wanted to express my appreciation to all of you at the Force Science Institute for the great work you are doing. If there was ever a time we need professionals doing such work, it is now.

 

In my classes, I refer to your research to help dispel misinformation about policing in America. Having spent nearly 30 years working in law enforcement, I am thankful to have your scientific work to back up my real-world experience. Please keep up the good work!

 

Ron Meek

Assoc. Prof. of Criminal Justice

Rend Lake College

Ina, IL

© 2017 Force Science Institute Ltd.