As part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2021, PIO Alex Villarreal and her colleagues at the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Florida wanted to shine a light on the people that work in the agency and reflect the community they serve.

As a veteran broadcast journalist before joining Orange County, Alex did what she knew best and turned to storytelling through a series of engaging videos. We spoke to her about this particular project and how she is finding life on the other side of the camera.

How would you describe the demographics of the people you serve in your jurisdiction?

Orange County is a very vibrant and diverse community. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, our residents are more than 30 percent Hispanic, more than 20 percent Black and more than 5 percent Asian.

You recently created a campaign around Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month - what prompted you to do that?

We wanted to produce a video to reach out to our AAPI residents and let them know the Orange County Sheriff’s Office is always here for them. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the nation has seen an increase in attacks on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Although OCSO has recorded no violence specifically targeting Asian Americans in the years of hate crimes data we have been tracking since 2016, we know that such instances are not always reported. That is why we felt it was so important to get a message out to the AAPI community that they can turn to us if they ever feel targeted or threatened.

How did you engage with key stakeholders to ensure that you were hitting the right message when it came to your campaign?

Through our partnerships with local Asian American community organizations, we knew about the concerns facing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in our county. This video was a direct response to the need in the community for a message of support.

To better connect with our AAPI residents, we chose to feature deputies who themselves are members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, so that people could see their heritage represented in our agency. We even had several of our deputies who speak another language say “We are here to help you” in that language, adding another level of outreach.

What’s been the response?

We received an overwhelmingly positive response to the main video we shared. Thousands of people liked the video on our social media pages, and on Facebook, it had 1.5 thousand shares. This high level of engagement showed how much our message of solidarity resonated with the people who saw it.

How important is proactive communication with different audiences and communities in law enforcement?

As a law enforcement agency, we know it is vital to connect with the various communities within the larger community we serve. It is our job to protect every individual and make sure they feel heard, represented and supported. Just as our county is diverse, so is our agency.

Practically speaking, what tools and resources did you use to create the campaign?

Our OCSO Storyteller Jon Busdeker and I worked together to produce the video series, which included individual videos of each of the deputies describing their heritage and path to law enforcement, as well as the main video with the solidarity message. I wrote the script for the main video and coordinated with the deputies, while he shot the footage using an HD video camera and edited each video on Adobe Premiere.

How did you measure engagement?

We tracked the views, likes and comments on each of our primary social platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Is there anything you would do differently next time?

We would have loved to include more female deputies. The way everything worked out, we were only able to feature one.

Were there any surprising responses that you didn’t expect?

Many people who responded to the video were not members of the AAPI community, but the video struck a chord with them too. We received many messages of support for both law enforcement and those who are Asian American or Pacific Islanders.

Yours is a civilian post - how do you feel your prior experience as a TV news reporter has put you on a good footing for the move to law enforcement media handling?

Before joining the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, I worked for more than 13 years as a broadcast journalist. For the most recent five-and-a-half of those years, I served as a local TV news reporter and anchor in Central Florida, where I covered Orange County and often found myself at scenes with Orange County deputies, public information officers and even Sheriff John Mina. That experience on the media side of the media-law enforcement relationship gave me familiarity with the types of cases the Orange County Sheriff’s Office works on a daily basis.

In addition to that background knowledge, the media skills I developed over the years – shooting and editing video, taking photos, writing scripts, crafting social media messages – are all skills I continue to use as a PIO. I am still learning every day, but I am grateful that my news experience helped prepare me for this role.

What is something about the role that you were not expecting?

Before I started here, I never realized how much national media attention the Orange County Sheriff’s Office receives. We field numerous requests from national news outlets, which makes sense, considering OCSO is one of the largest sheriff’s offices in the country with nearly 2,500 employees.

What do you love about your role?

What drew me into broadcast journalism was the desire to help people – to serve the community by researching and delivering critical information that they may not have known otherwise. That is also the role of a PIO. Our messages inform people and help keep them safe. Through our media partnerships and our social media pages, we are able to enlist the public’s help in extremely important ways – finding missing people, raising awareness of key issues and getting dangerous criminals off the streets. I also love that we are not just a media relations office. We do our own storytelling too, showcasing the good work our deputies do in the community every day.

What’s one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to be a PIO?

My biggest piece of advice would be to consume as much news and information as you can. Be familiar with current events and the way the conversation about those events is flowing on social media. Strategy is so important when it comes to mass communication, and you have to be informed to strategize.

Are there any books, podcasts, websites or any other resources you would recommend for the comms pro?

One of the best resources for learning the dos and don’ts of PIO work is completely free: the Internet. Follow the social media pages of other agencies or organizations. See how they craft their messages. If you see a campaign or an idea you like, do your own version. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes the best ideas are inspired by others.

What would you say to anyone in a leadership role about having a PIO who might not have one?

Now that everyone has the Internet at their fingertips, the right communication is more vital than ever before. Having a PIO to help craft an agency’s messaging is extremely helpful, because knowing how the media or the public will interpret things is their job.

What’s the hardest thing about your job?

For me, the hardest thing about being a PIO for a law enforcement agency is the seriousness of the cases our deputies and detectives work. They are often life-or-death, scary and devastating – everything from murder to child abuse. Knowing the details of such cases can weigh on you. That is why it is so important to have a good relationship with your team. We are all in this together.

June 8, 2021
PIO People

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