As Public Information Officers, we routinely tell the public about incidents that have occurred. As the PIO, we must report and meet the state's Freedom of Information Act requirements and we are also protective of our agencies when the news media comes to us with inquiries.

The Society of Professional Journalists released a study that stated public information officers are a problem for journalists. Specifically, they have stated that this "Censorship by PIO" works in tandem with other assaults on free speech, including restrictions on public records, threats, and physical assaults on reporters, prosecution of whistleblowers, and threats of prosecution against reporters.

This statement is simply a byproduct of Public Information Officer's doing their job, as it evolved over the last twenty-five years.

In this time, PIOs in law enforcement agencies have grown exponentially. Early on, the PIO was undoubtedly a sworn member of the agency, to who the head of their agency had assigned the position. Most might not have taken the assignment if they had a detailed understanding of what the job required.

I suspect that the PIO was a fierce defender of their respective agencies in the earlier years. The PIO believed at the time that the news media could not be trusted. The adversarial nature of the relationship between the media and the public information officer causes a reduction in transparency, resulting in strained relationships.

Over time, those in the role of PIO received training, learned the value of working with the new media, and developed working relationships with individual journalists. Law enforcement agencies across the country began to see the value of the public information officer, embracing them inside the leadership circle to be at the table to discuss a course of action when releasing information.

The largest law enforcement agencies in the nation created PIO positions with leadership roles, such as the Deputy Chief of Public Information at the New York Police Department. In 2004, the Boston Police Department moved a 30-year police veteran to be the Director of Media Relations and placed a veteran Boston Herald reporter to Director of Communications.

The creation of a Director of Communications position was a step forward to help "define the image with both the public and the police." Efforts in this direction swept across the country larger law enforcement agencies quickly as the obvious benefits.

The largest agencies created entire media relations divisions, training staff in districts, precincts, and bureaus across their jurisdictions. As social media began sweeping the nation, law enforcement agencies began embracing the new medium, quickly identifying its value in communicating directly to the public. At times, side-stepping the news media and breaking stories themselves.

Breaking stories by agencies was never more evident than in the Boston Marathon Bombing. Social media used by the Boston Police Department to put-out surveillance images that quickly helped identify the Tsarnaev brothers. Boston Police did not have to wait for the news media, and they put the information out via their social media platforms, which were highly robust to that time.

As PIOs, we need to realize that we are competing with advertising firms, businesses, and other organizations that are marketing themselves to the public

Law enforcement agencies quickly learned how valuable social media is to connect with their community directly. Through the last ten years, countless activities have generated positive will and connections to the community. The activities included #ALSchallenge, #lipsynchallenge, which allowed law enforcement to connect with the community on a level they could never achieve with the traditional news media.

We seemed to have been satisfied to have social media and only to put things out when needed. Social media moves at an overwhelming pace. The social influencer Eric Qualman, @equalman, who annually puts out a video on the impact of social media on the world, states that, on average, a person's attention span has been reduced to a mere seven seconds. That is seven seconds to catch a person's attention from your agency so that you can connect to them.

Now I understand that there are heads of agencies and other leadership members who say, "So, What?". But as PIOs, we need to realize that we are competing with advertising firms, businesses, and other organizations that are marketing themselves to the public. We in law enforcement need to realize we have to do the same. We need to market our organizations to the public.

Larger law enforcement organizations may have a media car on the street during all or most shifts. Their job is to respond to calls, not necessarily crimes of great media interest, but to calls in which an officer is highly likely to do an act of great community interest. Other organizations solicit staff for information about events, activities, and stories that mildly hold public interest. Those stories might require planning, equipment, as well as editing once it is recorded.

Those stories you tell are the ones that build public trust, engage your community, and will assist your organizations later in weathering the storm brought on by a controversial issue.

To find these stories, the PIO must connect to the line supervisors and officers. If they have staff assisting them, they should regularly check with the line supervisors and officers. By doing so, the staff will eventually come to you with an idea. They will be pitching a story idea to you!

Human interest stories are always compelling stories; imagine if you were to try to pitch a story to the news media about a human-interest story involving your department. They may take it, they have other stories in the works, but there is no guarantee that they will take the idea you pitch.

But if you do not have to rely on the news media to publish your story. You can create your story, do the interviews, edit the video, format it properly, and then uploads it to your video to your social media accounts.

Once that happens, you can promote it across all your platforms, breaking your story, pushing it out multiple ways, at different time frames, increasing your exposure to far more than one or two-cycle news stories.

So, search for your stories, tell your stories, and break your stories.

January 25, 2022
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