February 11, 2021

Focus on Social Media

Effectively Managing Messages

By Gail Pennybacker, M.C.J., and Kenneth White, M.A.

A stock image of a male looking at a cell phone and laptop.

Managing the message effectively during a critical public safety event begins with remembering that unlike in the past, law enforcement never talks to the media. Rather, agencies speak directly and continually to the public.

Historically, the media served as law enforcement’s sole conduit to the community during any event. Now, by leveraging the power of a credible social media voice, law enforcement liberates itself from the media’s interpretation of events for public consumption. Instead, agencies are empowered to articulate the narrative of events and not solely respond to the media or public account. Law enforcement agencies now participate in writing the history of critical events.

By committing to break their own news to the community and media simultaneously via social media platforms, law enforcement agencies now can represent themselves in an unedited fashion in near-real time. This will allow them to shape public perception with an enduring social media voice, as well as face-to-face media engagement, and to become a beacon of truth in a sea of “white noise.”


Keeping Up with the Pace

Critically, agencies must view communications as a tool to advance law enforcement effectiveness, not as an afterthought or inconvenience. They should envision it as law enforcement’s primary method to compel the public to think, feel, and act in ways that support public safety mission accomplishment.

Experienced crisis leaders report that they often are consumed by operational considerations to the exclusion of the vital communication element. This often proves a significant risk to how the public perceives—and the media reports—a law enforcement response.

Some considerations are helpful to keep in mind.

Twitter currently is the best tool to represent a law enforcement voice to the media and public simultaneously and continually. An agency tweet is instantly source-credible, rereported by the media, and at the same time ingested and repurposed into the public conversation.

It may be 2 or 3 hours after an event before law enforcement partners conduct a formal news conference. Meanwhile, Twitter enables an agency to speak for itself at will with actionable messages, ensuring that a false narrative does not take root before the appropriate parties are ready to give out information. The agency then can set a media briefing when it has some details, even if not many, to offer the public.

Agencies should schedule a media briefing after discussing a time with partners and media representatives. They also ought to engage their media representatives when selecting a location for this briefing. In doing so, the media is confined to the agency’s timeline, not the other way around. Additionally, these conversations fill any perceived silence and offer a promise of information soon.

It is vital to share whatever can be said and be as transparent as possible without jeopardizing the response and investigation. No agency will know everything in the beginning. But, if nothing else, it can reassure the public that law enforcement is working diligently on the case and will get answers as soon as possible.

Delivering Appropriate Messages

Messages developed and delivered to the community through the lens of the media during news conferences in the wake of critical events should—

  1. make an emotional connection to gain a foothold with the public;
  2. reassure the public about the form and nature of the agency and wider partner response;
  3. direct public emotion in ways that prove productive for law enforcement and that deputize the public to assist with the case; and
  4. repurpose news conference messages in social media postings.

In the midst of a crisis, tension is high, and the public may feel worried, scared, or helpless when they want to be involved. One way to curb this is to ask the public for patience, tips on information that could help the investigation, and compassion for the victims and their families.

When agencies request patience, people likely feel reassured that they will get answers. In soliciting tips, law enforcement not only empowers community members and makes them feel involved but also connects to valuable sources. By asking for compassion for victims and their families, agencies appeal to the public’s softer side and may deter them from using social media to harmful ends.

Social Media in Critical Events

Twitter serves as a vital law enforcement tool in response to critical events. Currently, there exists no better crisis communication platform than Twitter. Like a megaphone, Twitter enables law enforcement to quickly and continually represent itself simultaneously to the media and public without the expectation of a question-and-answer session with the public.

While Twitter does not command the largest social media following in terms of enduring users, media worldwide use it as a source for reporting. Commanding a voice on Twitter helps control the media narrative.

For example, the Boston Marathon bombing incident had a huge impact on social media use, showing both law enforcement and the public that verified law enforcement information can be channeled directly to the public rather than solely through news media.

Benefits of Twitter

Using social media, particularly Twitter, to shape a voice in an evolving narrative provides a level of enhanced accountability, as well as the ability to take rumors, misinformation, and disinformation to task in a public forum. Gone are the days of relying on the media to correct their reporting without public scrutiny.

“Twitter enables an agency to speak for itself at will with actionable messages, ensuring that a false narrative does not take root before the appropriate parties are ready to give out information.”

By using a platform like Twitter, agencies bring the public “into the huddle” and make themselves a continual, direct source of trusted information. This type of enduring engagement is a trust fortifier for law enforcement, both during critical events and everyday operations. Using Twitter also diminishes continual pressures from the media for updated information to report in the hours after a crisis, when wall-to-wall news coverage creates a persistent thirst for new content.

Once engaged on Twitter, the public and media have allegiance to an agency’s voice as long as in the initial hours of a crisis, the agency represents itself with messages of reassurance to allay public concern, describes what capabilities and resources are being brought to bear on a response, and directs community behaviors to benefit the investigation. This ongoing engagement not only lets citizens know that law enforcement is there but also assures them that the agency is committed to updates as the incident unfolds and that it will not go dark on them.

Success Stories

Local authorities in general have warmed significantly to the power of using Twitter and other social media capabilities to support law enforcement mission efficacy in crisis. It helps not only to provide quick updates but also to circumvent rumors and counteract false narratives or factual errors that unavoidably emerge in the social media conversation, which may spread rapidly.

FBI efforts in using Twitter during recent crises are cases in point. High-profile shootings at an El Paso Walmart and the Virginia Beach municipal building serve as two recent examples. Each respective FBI office effectively oriented to the crisis using its Twitter feed.

In each case, as soon as FBI assets were deployed, a public affairs specialist used Twitter to establish the office as a beacon of source-verified information. The FBI understood the value of telling its story using Twitter without compromising any future criminal investigation.

Both public affairs specialists used the Message Bases strategy developed by the authors to form their tweets and to prepare executives for media engagement.

Message Bases Strategy

  1. Feeling in the Facts: Why are you there?
    Along with the facts of the situation, acknowledge how people feel. Connect with or define an emotion of the moment.
  2. Policy: What is the law or policy?
    What is the lawful characterization of the event? What is the mission? Jurisdiction? Policy or protocol orientation?
  3. Public Safety: How do police protect and serve?
    What is the nature of the threat, and what are you doing about it? What law enforcement resources are brought to bear and what activities are ongoing?
  4. Call to Action: What do you need?
    How can the public help? Assistance might be tangible or intangible, from tips to vigilance.
  5. Kudos: Who can you thank?
    Can you offer thanks to witnesses, media, first responders, good Samaritans, partners?
  6. Bookend: Before we go....
    Summarize or restate your top message and end on your terms.

“Good communication is a team sport, and the skills of messaging effectively should not be limited to senior executives and communicators.”

Best Practices

Office Media Representatives

As history attests, the communication effectiveness realized by media representatives and public affairs specialists as lead tacticians in support of law enforcement objectives is directly related to the level of internal and external credibility they benefit from and have invested in well prior to a crisis. Internally, this means having unfettered access to and the respect of agency leaders—a variable that depends on the prerequisite of the institutionalization of communication as a mission priority, its integration into operational planning, and its rehearsal both internally and with partners well in advance of any critical event.


A critical event is no time for first introductions. Externally, a public information community of practice is a key enabler to communication efficacy. Partnership preinvestment—with various state, local, and federal public safety entities both inside and outside law enforcement, extragovernment and community information partners, and local media—is a bellwether of coordinated, purposeful communication efforts that effectively support law enforcement mission objectives. Partnerships optimize shared objectives to be timely and unified with messages and associated actions involving the media, as well as on complementary social media platforms of multiple partners.


Good communication is a team sport, and the skills of messaging effectively should not be limited to senior executives and communicators. Every agency leader potentially is in a position to act as a surrogate messenger. In critical events or everyday investigations, leaders at all levels may need to develop and suggest purposeful messages from their subject-matter-expert vantage points, regardless of whether they themselves will ever end up in front of a microphone. Thus, there exists a need for training to a common standard of sound message development.

News Conferences

Often, individuals see news conferences as a necessary evil for law enforcement in the wake of critical events. However, they prove a useful tool. Planning for a media briefing involves several important considerations.

  • While these normally are multipartner events, agencies should ensure someone is accountable and in charge. Nobody in charge means the media is in charge, and agencies must remember it is their event, not the media’s.
  • To the extent possible, agencies always should dedicate time to coordinate messages with partners before going in front of the media.
  • Agencies must recognize that they are there for the public, not the media. This should inform decisions regarding timing, setting, flow of show, and limiting the length of question-and-answer sessions.
  • The briefing ought to be held in a place that appears safe and under control. It should accommodate branding and atmospherics that add to and do not detract from the ability to message effectively. The media will come to story.
  • To the extent possible, questions should be limited to 10 minutes, allowing time for key messaging but not exposing vulnerabilities. In setting a time limit, the clock, not the agency, becomes the “villain.”
  • Wed statements to concise, actionable messages. Establish empathy first, reassure or advise about law enforcement response, explicitly direct public behaviors with purposeful calls to action, and remind or inform the public of your agency’s presence on Twitter.


Thanks to social media, law enforcement has an unprecedented opportunity to communicate directly with the community and help shape an accurate depiction of events in the midst of crises. Though it can prove easy to become overwhelmed by social media and media engagement, agencies will find it worthwhile to devote time and resources to establishing a social media voice and preparing personnel to respond in a timely, effective manner when a critical incident occurs.

“Agencies must recognize that they are there for the public, not the media.”

Ms. Pennybacker and Mr. White are instructors in the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy. Ms. Pennybacker can be contacted at glpennybacker@fbi.gov and Mr. White at kdwhite2@fbi.gov.