Taking Ownership of the Local Law Enforcement Brand
By W. Michael Phibbs, M.H.R., and Frank A. Tait, J.D.
When organizations offer goods or services to the public, their brand often is interchangeable with the name and logo of what they sell. A good brand identifies what is unique about the organization, how it relates to the community—down to the citizens’ level—and what membership in its ranks can mean to potential recruits.1 The past few decades have seen branding evolve beyond products to include public image and workforce values that create emotional ties and engender buy in from employees and the community.
Organizations outside retail now recognize the importance of branding and have sought to expand their visibility. However, unlike today’s investment houses and colleges, law enforcement has a built-in brand through its use of the Blue Line Creed—“To serve and protect”—along with its universal call to action—“Lay down our lives to protect others.” Some law enforcement organizations, over time, have acquired their own individual brands through their histories, customs, and traditions. When someone mentions the Texas Rangers, LAPD, or FBI, an image comes to mind.
Branding an Agency
A local law enforcement agency exists within a given jurisdiction to perform safety and security services that are both professional and personal for its citizens. When people respect and trust their local law enforcement agency, it becomes one of the factors that keeps them in the community. When they do not value or respect the agency, they may relocate to a jurisdiction that they perceive as safer. In effect, they are shopping around for better law enforcement, such as families do for schools.
One key to success is to have a clear branding message that sets an agency apart as uniquely superior to other organizations, making the brand more than a slogan. It goes beyond a person saying “I work in law enforcement,” and it entails more than crime statistics. The brand should mirror the soul of the organization and inspire pride in officers while evoking images that connect at an emotional level. An effective brand differentiates one organization from another, creates a call to action, and lays out the impact every officer can make. It leads a retiree to say “I worked for years in that agency, and I am proud of it; I would not have traded it for anything.” A forward-looking agency can take ownership and develop its own realistic brand, preventing outside entities or circumstances from imposing a brand on it.
A law enforcement brand must be more than an image. It should emotionally connect and engage current officers, attract potential employees who will be a good fit, turn away those who will not, and energize residents and businesses within the community. As a strategic tool, the overarching brand should engender positive perceptions from citizens, helping to ensure an atmosphere conducive to business retention while enticing others to relocate into the agency’s jurisdiction.
Mr. Tait is a retired engineer and attorney in Richmond, Virginia, with extensive experience in public policy.
Projecting a professional image of law enforcement while focusing on the citizen as the customer can create a greater emotional connection between the citizenry and the agency and its officers. An agency that has the support of its community can compete better within local government for shrinking resources during difficult budget periods. Also, an organization branded with a professional reputation can help influence legislation at both the local and state levels in a positive way.
Applicants to law enforcement agencies turn to the organizations that they feel most align with their interests and fit their expectations. A successful brand can allow an agency to target and effectively recruit not only higher quality applicants but ones already prepared to make a commitment of engagement to that agency. How well that commitment is sustained by each officer, to a considerable extent, is determined by how realistically recruiters portray the organization to potential applicants. When their expectations are not met, they may become frustrated, angry, and disengaged. However, when officers have emotionally bought into an honest and positive brand, they create a high-performance organization that keeps them engaged in the overall mission.
Creating the Brand
The law enforcement brand is more than a paint scheme on a patrol car, an attractive patch, or motivational posters in headquarters. It is the reflection of the organization’s culture and the daily actions of its employees that imprint the brand onto the public. All officers, from command level to the front line in patrol, are equally responsible for maintaining the brand. Leaders influence it through internal communication, employee and organizational development, and disciplinary practices. The frontline officers exemplify it in every encounter they have with a citizen.
An agency’s brand must honestly reflect the intersection of its mission, culture, officers, and other personnel with the expectations of the individual residents, business leaders, and potential employees in the community. No one person can determine the image or success of the brand. A positive brand will answer the question of why the organization exists. The first step is to critically evaluate and understand the authenticity of the brand. The following areas of inquiry can assist in this effort.
- What differentiates our organization from others?
- What images do current personnel, potential employees, and the community have when they think about our organization?
- As an agency, are we primarily enforcers of existing laws or concerned with extensive community involvement and prevention of crime? How does this impact our image and overall brand?
- Do our officers go to work knowing the agency brand and understanding how every interaction with citizens will affect that image for good or ill?
Are officers willing to take ownership of our brand when they come to work?
After answering these questions, a long-term strategy can be implemented to change the agency’s culture and enhance the brand. Because the variety of challenges faced by law enforcement organizations is so diverse, every agency is solely responsible for its own unique brand image, as well as its positive development and maintenance. To succeed in branding, any changes must be viewed as sincere by all stakeholders and not simply a reinvention to gain short-term attention and publicity.
To get the brand message out, an agency must accomplish two equally important tasks. The first is telling the story of the organization and why it is important. Through a story, an organization can transform its culture while connecting its officers to past successes, emotionally galvanizing them through a call to action.2 This is accomplished by telling the individual stories that most impact the target audience while also showing officers how to be productive participants in continuing the organization’s success.
The second task is to ensure that the story can create energy and enthusiasm for the resident, business or community leader, and employee. For this to occur, the story must answer the question “What’s in it for me?” for each listener.3 Once this is successfully established, the agency’s brand then serves as the basis to tailor subbrands at the division and precinct levels using the same two-task approach. Each subbrand must be consistent with the overall umbrella brand and engage individual officers to take ownership of their parts of the brand.
Promoting The Message
If an organization assumes a new proactive approach for policing, the message used to convey the new approach would be different for reaching out to a small business owner than to a college student or retired senior citizen. To reach these different groups, the organization must create strategically targeted messages from its overall brand message. These specific messages serve as a psychological contract from the agency to each group. If the messaging is accepted, the agency must live up to it. Failing to follow through on those expectations will breach the contract being established and may foster mistrust between the community and the agency.
An organization on the cutting edge of technology uses different websites and social media platforms as part of a unified communication package to promote their brand and engage employees and the community. Most people start to research an organization at its website, which makes it invaluable to the organization’s success. The easier it is to navigate, the more likely citizens will see the positive impacts of the agency. A website set up to require potential applicants to read about the organization, its requirements, and the lives of its officers helps establish realistic expectations and sets the stage for sustained engagement over a career. Additionally, an interactive website subdivided to provide information about a division, precinct, or shift can become a pipeline for direct communication between citizens and command-level officers.
Social media websites build upon the idea of two-way communication and transparency and provide an integral avenue for branding efforts with greater visibility. Sites, like Facebook and YouTube, involve photos, videos, and messages to the public and can be updated in a matter of minutes. Other social media platforms, such as Twitter, only allow for messages with a set number of characters to be sent out at a time—used properly, these short bursts of information promptly can inform citizens of upcoming community events, road closures, impending natural disasters, or details on wanted suspects. As social media constantly evolves, an organization must understand its proper use for sending a message and keep appraised of recent software changes to maximize community investment in that message.
Traditional media formats, such as newspapers and television news, continue to be outstanding vehicles for making connections with the community. Public safety announcements on an agency’s latest initiatives can be crafted via press release with the brand message in mind, representing how officers are protecting citizens daily. The media can be invited to do ride-alongs to see daily life from the perspective of a law enforcement officer. When a crime is solved, the branding message can be reinforced in the corresponding press release by adding, “The apprehension was made through the efforts of highly skilled professional officers who seek to improve their community every day.” Media outlets are receptive to stories that show how individual officers make positive impacts on people’s lives.
Engendering Buy In
It sounds simple to say “We will reinvent our brand to increase engagement and gain a competitive advantage over other agencies.” Realistically the input of many diverse parties with different perspectives is needed to develop a brand and help build connections and overcome resistance. An effective branding campaign requires the participation of all stakeholder groups, including naysayers who feel it is a waste of time and money. It is natural for some citizens to be skeptical. In return the organization has an opportunity to educate critics about the brand’s benefits to local law enforcement and the community it serves, demonstrating the agency’s commitment to making the brand a success.
Citizens have a vested interest in the outcome of a brand when given the chance to become active participants in its development from the ground up. The brand can become more than recruitment posters, decals, patches, and community flyers; it can be a catalyst for pride and commitment for both the officers and community to the point where negative behavior that tarnishes the organization’s image will not be tolerated.
Community buy in translates into support for the organization. For example, when the community recognizes and believes in the brand, its citizens may show up at government meetings requesting pay raises for officers or reestablishment of their local law enforcement agency’s budget. Effective branding helps put the agency at the forefront of the local community and its leaders and gives it a stronger voice in community affairs. A positive and respected image can influence prospective residents and businesses to move in, thus, generating a higher tax base to help sustain services. The brand also connects current law enforcement culture with both the community and the next generation of officers.
Every law enforcement agency already is covered by the overall brand for its unique product: protecting the public from harm. The brand of the individual agency is an all-inclusive reflection of the entire organization—its culture, philosophies, and operational structure—coupled with the interactions and expectations of officers and citizens. Recognizing this by consciously capitalizing on its brand, an agency can engage its current workforce, attract applicants who share its values, and energize the community it serves. The synergetic effect creates a safer community bonded by mutual trust and respect.
Sergeant Phibbs welcomes readers’ questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“A law enforcement brand…should emotionally connect and engage current officers, attract potential employees who will be a good fit, turn away those who will not, and energize residents and businesses within the community.”