The principles of communication, transparency and trust run through every agency regardless of size. As we found from Anthony Guglielmi, Public Affairs Bureau Director of Fairfax County Police department, it's about understanding the community you serve and building long term relationships. There will always be challenges in communication and it's how you overcome and learn from them that makes the difference to everyone.
You have an enviable background in public affairs that is diverse and high profile. Why did you choose a career in this line of work?
The challenge and ability to use information to educate constituencies and change perceptions is what attracts me most to public affairs. I went to school and started my career in television – working as an assignment desk for a major city news station. I also did some internships in broadcast news as well and took an entry-level job at a late night show in NYC. After a downturn in the television industry, I ended up with a job in public information for the State of Connecticut. There, I learned how transparency and proactive information sharing can change public perception and build strong connections by informing residents about the actions and plans of their government.
What are your aims as chair of the Public Information Committee for the Major Cities Chiefs Association?
The Major Cities Chiefs Association is an organization that represents more than 70 of the largest police agencies in North America. The Public Information Committee consists of the primary spokespeople for these departments. Our shared goal is to provide support and training as well as consistency in how we provide information. I believe this committee should be a space to brainstorm a variety of new ideas and challenges. Committee members have an opportunity to share what works — and what does not. MCCA PIOs are regularly faced with communications challenges that seem insurmountable. I believe the solution to these problems is working together.
Listening, communicating and sharing information is the best way to build strong relationships and achieve the highest level of success.
You clearly have an interest in furthering the skills of PIOs. What do you want to see happening to the role of a PIO in the coming years?
Government PIOs and private sector communications professionals need a seat at the leadership table, because effective communication must be strategic and baked into everything that organizations do. This goes for both internal communications consumed by employees and other stakeholders, as well as external communications that are meant for the public. Whether you are a private corporation or a government agency, success is predicated on how well PIOs serve their communities. Listening, communicating and sharing information is the best way to build strong relationships and achieve the highest level of success. The best way to achieve these goals is to work side-by-side with leadership in the earliest stages of the decision making process.
You’ve worked for two very high profile police departments that have seen hugely challenging and difficult times. How do you cope with the pressure this brings when it comes to communicating with the public and stakeholders?
Both Baltimore and Chicago have had incidents where officers violated their oath of service and created long-standing trust issues between police and the community. While those incidents rightfully captured national attention and focus, they also overshadowed the heroic work done by the vast majority of police officers. I have seen firsthand the incredible personal sacrifices men and women in uniform make to safeguard those cities. The only thing that can repair and rebuild public trust is honest and transparent communication. It is my responsibility and duty to facilitate that on behalf of those hard-working police officers. I often remind myself of their stories. This is the reason I do this work, and it provides ample motivation regardless of the situation.
You’ve balanced emergency response with strategic communication throughout your career. What is it about the work in these two areas that excites you the most?
The part of my job that I truly enjoy is developing effective communication plans that successfully change perceptions. Working in communications for police agencies is very different from traditional corporate communication and advertising roles. Working with police departments requires a cultural understanding of the profession and involves the management of media and messaging as opposed to trying to garner it. Emergency response and strategic communications are both paramount for modern law enforcement agencies as they work to build trust and legitimacy with those they are sworn to serve and protect.
The only thing that can repair and rebuild public trust is honest and transparent communication.
What is your most memorable success in your career?
One of my proudest professional moments was building a world-class team of communicators. These professionals didn’t come from Hollywood or New York film schools. They were police officers with an incredible talent and passion for telling the stories of their department. We paired officers with former journalists to maximize their reach and potential. In 2019, this team became one of the first police agencies to win an Emmy award for their ability to use video to share compelling stories.
Which event did you learn the most from and how did it shape the way you handled communication strategy from that point on?
Despite the excessive amount of media attention, the case that actually taught me the most about how strategic communication can help reputational integrity and brand was the 2019 investigation into actor Jussie Smollett in Chicago. While we didn’t know it at the time, this was a well-orchestrated publicity stunt that prayed on the racial pains in the city of Chicago and stood to attack the reputation of the police department. The use of a strategic media opportunity in this case actually helped detectives obtain the confession from the two co-conspirators.
When you look for a great Public Information Officer, what do you want to see in terms of skills and personality?
When building a team, I look for people from diverse backgrounds with different (often opposing) viewpoints. PIOs must develop effective communication that can reach a variety of audiences. Thus, I want my staff to reflect the variety of opinions within the community. I also look for strong writers, creative story tellers and individuals who can juggle multiple issues at the same time. It's important that you have a healthy sense of humor too, as days in the bullpen of a police department press office are long and stressful. I’ve found these days to be extremely fun and gratifying as well.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to be a PIO?
Trust but verify everything. All we have in this profession is our name and integrity. When you are alerted about a breaking incident or a new program, it’s best to check the source and check again. Of course, mistakes happen. But we owe it to our audience to take the extra step to ensure we put out the truth. The entire organization suffers when the community and/or media no longer trust the police department’s PIO.
Are there any books, podcasts, websites or any other resources you would recommend for the comms pro?
The best resource for me has been speaking to others in the trenches. The professional organizations for PIOs within the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA); International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP); and National Information Officers Association (NIOA) have been invaluable not just for networking but for problem solving. These are folks who are facing the same issues and have the same concerns. Their insight is incredibly helpful. It’s also good to see and hear from those that work the same crazy hours and lay awake at night thinking about the same things I do.
All we have in this profession is our name and integrity.
What would you say to anyone else in a leadership role about having a PIO who might not have one?
Any effective leader needs a strategic communications professional. You can operate an organization in line with all of the industry best practices, but none of that will matter if nobody knows about all the hard work being done. A good PIO will tell your story and the stories of those who work day and night to keep the community safe. Critical incidents are bound to happen. Your agency may even have its integrity called into question. A police department must have a strong voice to navigate these situations. This voice should be forward thinking and armed with all of the knowledge the decisions being made and the conversations that led up to those decisions. Transparency is more than a buzzword. It is the foundation that community trust is built upon.
You can connect with Anthony on LinkedIn. Find out more about the Major Cities Chiefs Association here.
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