The Public Information Officer and Today’s Digital News Environment
By Patrick Davis, M.S.
Over the past 20 years, the nature of the news media business has changed dramatically. Such innovations as the invention and expansion of 24-hour cable news coverage, camera phones, and Internet applications add to the ever-expanding field of information contributing to news reporting.
At the same time, media organizations continue to streamline their operations, commonly sharing resources between print, television, and radio. Many markets have seen older, more seasoned reporters replaced with much less experienced (and cheaper) ones who often serve in the roles of reporter, photographer, and editor of their stories. Consolidation in many markets also can mean that journalists must turn around more stories more quickly.
For law enforcement and other public agencies, this trend can cause frustration and hardship. Public information officers (PIOs) now must do much more than simply respond to news. Today, they have expanded abilities and responsibilities, which include providing on-the-scene reports and pitching stories to Internet-savvy news representatives.
REPORTING THE NEWS
Reporters will write various stories about law enforcement. However, when they easily can access the information, their primary concern lies with presenting developing crime incident stories.1 Lights, sirens, and confusion can draw many media representatives eager to report first on a breaking incident. News directors want to showcase their organization’s ability to be first on the scene and to have exclusives.
When a big story develops, PIOs anticipate the phone calls from seemingly every outlet in town asking the same questions. However, savvy reporters may bypass an agency PIO by calling their own sources to obtain information. To this end, with cars equipped with mobile data terminals and other computers, many agencies allow officers in different areas or those off duty to log on and read the details—even when unsubstantiated—of an incident. Some reporters know how to develop them as sources, and many have favorite officers who will provide them with details. In an age where technology often propels information faster than people can control it, PIOs must continue to embrace technology and its benefits or risk becoming obsolete.2
Mr. Davis, a former police lieutenant, currently serves as the public information officer for the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“Organizations that…control media images and promote issues consistent with their own interests have power, and losing this control is detrimental to their legitimacy….”3 Effective PIOs know how the media in their community works and how to release information quickly and accurately. By virtue of their authority, police agencies generally are considered reliable sources and, thus, information they provide can be easily reported, often without additional verification.4 But, making phone calls to every news outlet in a community takes time, especially when each one wants to conduct a formal interview. However, if PIOs embrace modern technology and use it appropriately, they will gain some relief and some control over the message.
Nearly every news organization has a 24-hour assignment editor or news director watching wires and rival television newscasts and reading web logs (blogs) and feeds. Even non-24/7 outlets, such as alternative papers and weekly editions, still demand access to information about incidents that occur outside normal business hours. PIOs can exploit this by developing their own news-producing feeds online that can become the official message of an agency during routine days, as well as crises.
EMBRACING TODAY’S TOOLS
Subscribers to Real Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds automatically receive notification when a website they follow is updated; they also choose the type of content to which they want to be alerted.5 For example, RSS users who subscribe to CNN’s site can elect to receive notification only when a new story posts that contains the word police or their town name. They do not have to manually check each site of interest or stay logged on and click “refresh” every few seconds. RSS feeds take away all of this work. Similarly, journalists can avoid being inundated with news releases and story ideas by controlling and monitoring the feeds. This proves especially helpful in large markets where reporters with different assignments can subscribe to separate feeds from the same website; a crime reporter can opt to learn about arrests and investigations, while a school reporter may select only new juvenile intervention programs.
Law enforcement agencies can use this valuable tool to communicate information quickly and fairly to all news outlets in the community. For instance, on its website, a police department can post news releases of upcoming events or initiatives and alert the community to developing emergencies, all from the same source and at the same time. Agencies choosing to employ this system should use it regularly, at least weekly, to ensure that news gatherers become used to following the feed to get information and referring to it in an emergency.
PIOs responsible for watching daily news clips will find RSS feeds valuable. Web-based search engines, such as Yahoo! and Google, allow users to create their own Internet searches for specific terms. For instance, subscribing to Google Reader allows PIOs to create feeds to continually scan and generate alerts for terms, such as the name of their department and chief or sheriff or any other words they choose. These feeds can turn up such items as news stories, personal blogs commenting on the agency and its officers, community newsletters from neighborhood associations, and even some chat-room posts. A reader who spots a blog complaining about speeders in a neighborhood could direct officers to increase visibility and enforcement in that area, even without submitting a formal request.
Moreover, RSS feeds exceed geographical limits; many PIOs find it amazing how far stories about their agency can spread. Using these feeds in such a broad sense is perfectly legal and in many cases eye-opening for an agency and its leadership. If a reader can avoid the temptation to respond to every criticism, the information gleaned can prove educational for a department’s leadership and PIO, who may learn more about how particular messages play to the community. Google Reader, for example, provides tracking of subscribers’ feeds, demonstrating how often a particular term shows up in the news and even on what days of the week or time of day terms first appear. PIOs can use this to track the spread of a news release or story involving the agency and to gauge the newsworthiness of stories.
However, RSS feeds may not find content in subscriber-only pages, including many news sites that require paid access to read full articles. They also cannot search audio or video for terms but are very useful in tracking how well an agency’s message is spreading and how it is being received.
A relatively new Internet phenomenon, Twitter use is spreading quickly, especially among younger people. Users—either an individual or an organization—can create a profile and provide instant updates on daily activities, breaking news, and even mundane details. Followers, or subscribers, can view a user’s postings, also known as “tweets.” For instance, they can see current happenings in an organization in real time.
Among social networking sites, Twitter is unique in that it limits postings to 140 characters; information must be short and to the point. During times of crisis communication, PIOs can take advantage of this; instead of preparing, editing, and distributing a full news release, they simply can use Twitter to put the basic facts into a single, short message. Further, PIOs can continue to provide information in a timely manner through regular updates and, if necessary, schedule a full news conference and prepare a news release, all from a command post or office. For less serious incidents, PIOs can give directions and information to the media without ever leaving the office and without the trouble of calling everyone individually with the same information. Agencies using the Internet as part of their public information strategy should incorporate Twitter into their websites to provide live tweets without requiring readers to subscribe.
Of all the social networking websites, Nixle is the first to target municipal agencies. That approach has earned it some unique partners. In June 2008, Nixle became the first public networking site to partner with the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS). Because of this relationship, Nixle can house its servers in NLETS’ secure facilities, resulting in an enhanced level of security and reliability for municipal agencies.
Similar to Twitter, Nixle allows users to send short 140-character messages to subscribed users through “wires,” or communication networks. Much like other networking sites, anyone can set up a wire and send messages about their activities, breaking news, or other details. However, Nixle offers municipalities the ability to have their own wire that allows them to send secure instant emergency messages to all users in a designated geographic area.6 This works well in communicating directly to those who need the information quickly. Municipal users simply log in, enter their message, and then select an area on a map affected by the incident. The message goes only to users who choose to accept alerts in those areas. This ability to limit information distribution to only those who need it offers a big advantage over other networking sites. Reducing the number of messages ensures that readers pay attention when they receive one from law enforcement because it likely will be immediately relevant to them there and then.
Although relatively new, Nixle has demonstrated its usefulness to law enforcement. For instance, an elderly resident in a California community failed to return home after she went out for a brief trip. Local police quickly sent out a description to all subscribers within one-half mile of her home and a short time later expanded the message to include more information and more subscribers within a larger search area. The woman soon was found safe and returned to her family.
Other agencies, particularly those in major metropolitan areas, will find Nixle useful during major events. For example, during the 2009 G-20 meetings, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Police Department command staff used Nixle’s secure group text-messaging abilities to send secure messages about developing incidents to partner agencies providing security at multiple event locations. Because the messages between municipal departments were routed through NLETS, they were secure enough for sensitive information and could be targeted to specific law enforcement teams or agencies working at a single site.7 This flexibility proved critical to their success and ensured that persons receiving the messages did not tune out the information, as often happens when officers monitor citywide alerts not relevant to their individual assignment, or that people did not change the message as they passed it through the grapevine.
As many municipalities begin to look for cost-effective and reliable means of emergency messaging, Nixle likely will see increased attention. Its extensive usage is growing rapidly. Schools, universities, search and rescue teams, and other municipal agencies increasingly look to Nixle because of its security and reliability during an emergency, and this likely will generate increased users in areas where municipalities begin promoting their own use of the system.
Because it is so new, the full benefits of Nixle likely have not been realized. But, its unique partnership with municipalities, particularly law enforcement, is promising and has proven successful. Because of its support by private users and advertisers, the service is generally free for agencies.
By far, YouTube is the most prolific personal media site available. Many departments use it to publish recruiting videos and news conferences. The primary attraction to YouTube is that agencies can have a department profile and create and post videos for free. This allows large agencies to focus media dollars on production and smaller ones to establish a web presence. In addition, PIOs can use YouTube to promote new initiatives that are sometimes difficult to have covered in the traditional media.
Because users control the content, departments can create their own videos profiling agency accomplishments, officers of the year, and new initiatives without time constraint limits imposed by television reporting. Departments even can integrate YouTube video into other media strategies to create a better-controlled and more thorough approach. YouTube videos can be included in department websites and Facebook pages and linked to Twitter messages. Further, many media outlets that have a web presence often will point viewers to an agency’s YouTube page so they can find more information on a particular story and, thus, the department as well.
Facebook boasts millions of regular users, more than half logging on at least once a day looking for some type of information. Agencies can harness Facebook’s power by understanding how it works. Departments can provide information, videos, news (or status) updates, and event information to other users who choose to follow by becoming a “friend.” Especially important to organizations, friends can opt to receive instant notification when the agency posts new information and content, and they can respond with comments.
For example, a law enforcement agency can post a Friday afternoon status update reminding friends of checkpoints targeting drunk driving. Every friend will get this information as they make plans for Friday night activities and, thus, hopefully will remember to use a designated driver. Similarly, a single posting can spread AMBER Alerts and other breaking news around the world, both to citizens and to the media. PIOs no longer need to e-mail, fax, and call numerous news outlets to promote a story and then wait hours or days for them to air or publish it.
New features allow the integration of Facebook status updates with Twitter, blogs, or commonly used websites. This gives account managers the ability to post information one time and in one place, yet have it spread across multiple media outlets in an instant. Built-in monitoring tools can track an agency’s messages and indicate which ones get the most attention and how quickly they spread.
Public agencies find Facebook enticing because it costs nothing to create, edit, or maintain a profile. It also provides real-time information about who follows the department’s information, who shows the most interest, and what types of comments followers have had. Agencies also can promote and spread positive stories in the press by linking to it; both the department and the media outlet benefit from the publicity.
CHANGING THE PIO’S ROLE
For on-the-move PIOs and journalists alike, most news outlets now have a presence on Twitter and provide regular updates of developing stories, as well as previews of upcoming ones. RSS feeds of news stations and newspaper websites provide instant notification of new stories being posted or updated. Forward-thinking PIOs can follow these tweets and pitch potential stories to news outlets promoting similar ones. For instance, a news station tweets that a reporter plans a story about the rise of juvenile crime. A PIO could quickly call the station and suggest a story about a new truancy prevention grant recently awarded to the police department.
PIOs must remain accessible to ensure their success. Not surprisingly, a recent study found that an accessible PIO or chief executive was the most important factor in creating a positive image of an agency in the eyes of the media.8 Technology provides new ways for those who need to be accessible to remain in touch without actually being on the phone or present in person.
Clearly, public information officers need to change with the times. Modern technology offers both new capabilities and new challenges. As these innovations expand the amount of information available, PIOs must ensure they retain the ability to control their agency’s message.
Departments and their PIOs must ensure they “establish protected fronts…and communicate in ways allowing them to strategically control what is known and asked.”9 Digital media is a front that agencies must incorporate into their public information strategy. By establishing themselves in the digital community, agencies can ensure they have the best possible relationship with the media and the public.