Leadership Spotlight

Information Output vs. Effective Communication

Stock image of a man speaking to the media.

As a law enforcement leader, you strive to build a strong connection with your community. How do you accomplish this? The buzz words that have come to light in the wake of the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing include “trust” and “transparency.”1

You may find yourself and the department you lead in a quandary when trying to carry out this mandate in a meaningful, substantial way. To this end, when communicating, think about what provokes you to show interest or, better yet, take action after receiving a message. Effective communication begins with messaging, and that starts the journey toward building trust with community members, media, and even your employees.

How do you build trust? What is transparency? Of course, they are linked, but as a leader you must practice transparency without compromising criminal investigations or prematurely revealing information about events, issues, and cases.

To show the public their willingness to share updates, agencies often engage in “information output,” a “Just the facts, ma’am” style of reading or posting a police report. For example, “At 1435 hours officers responded to the 1500 block of Main Street for reports of shots fired from a fleeing vehicle. Upon arrival, personnel found an unresponsive female on the sidewalk….” You get the idea.

This practice entails sharing, but not necessarily communicating. Without question, the public and media need facts, but you must do more than just push out raw factual information. You should make sure people care about the message and, perhaps more important, demonstrate that you care about it.

Before beginning any communication—e-mail, press release, media interview, or news conference—you first must answer a question: What do I want people to do with this information? Effective communication aims to get people to think, feel, and act in a specific way after they receive your message.

This can prove particularly impactful. In a crisis, citizens want to know what happened. But, for you to gain full knowledge of an event, you likely need their help.

We understand that our community and the media have many questions surrounding this incident, and getting those answers will take time. To get a complete picture of this event, we need witnesses to come forward with information or perhaps images. Please don’t assume we have all the answers. You can count on the fact that officers will be in the community not only investigating but keeping streets safe. We will provide any information we receive about this incident, so continue to check our social media for updates.

In such a message you did not share any sensitive details, but you connected with your community in a way they understand and one that allows your investigators to possibly get more leads.

This consistent connection via impactful communication displays transparency and, in turn, builds trust. Solely factoid-based information output usually does not inspire anyone to take action on your behalf. Reread that e-mail before you send it. Does it inspire or just inform? Many law enforcement leaders get frustrated when they provide details and data about an event, yet do not receive the response they hoped for. Why not? Likely, they delivered the information ineffectively.

Do you trust someone who does not communicate with you? Just outputting information does not constitute real communication. Building trust through transparency only happens when your message motivates the receiving party’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.

Kenneth D. White and Gail L. Pennybacker, instructors in the Executive Programs Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.


U.S. Department of Justice, Community Oriented Policing Services, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, May 2015, accessed July 12, 2016, http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/taskforce/TaskForce_FinalReport.pdf.