PRSAHR Gets Crisis Communications Lessons from a Local Police Chief

    “Historically, police departments haven’t put an emphasis on communications,” said Julie Hill to begin the discussion about police public relations at the January meeting of PRSAHR.
    Hired in March of 2015, Julie is the Communications Director for the City of Virginia Beach. She is a former university professor and director of the University of Maryland University College graduate school public relations program.
    In the hour that followed, she and Virginia Beach Police Chief James A. (Jim) Cervera discussed how that city is putting a new emphasis on outreach and communications, how they are doing it and why. They also talked frankly about the role, for good or ill, communications practices played in several high profile cases.
    The reasons for the new approach, according to our two guests, are the climate and the attention being placed on police work today.
    “Everything a police officer does is scrutinized,” says Julie.
    “Police are the visible arm of the government, and the one difference between police and every other part of the government is that we are allowed to use force,” says Chief Cervera. “It’s a lot of responsibility and results in a lot of scrutiny.”
    A 32-year veteran of the Virginia Beach Police Department, Jim Cervera was appointed Chief in 2010, and leads a department of more than 800 sworn staff plus about 100 civilians.
    “I have worn a badge for 40 years and 20 days. I am a cop and have always been identified as a cop,” says Chief Cervera with obvious pride when asked about how police respond to issues that gain national attention and reflect poorly on police. “High-impact cases generally deal with the use of force and how to explain it. People are heightened to police activity. It effects the entire profession and we are all feeling it.”
    Our guests explained that in Virginia Beach, the primary communications response protocol for police is to gather the facts and, as quickly as possible, hold detailed and open pubic briefings.
    “At media briefings we present the ‘fact pathway’ in a rational, non-emotional way to the public," says the chief.  “That’s difficult to do sometimes.”
    Julie discussed how the department now uses technology to help tell the story, including streaming important briefings online in their entirety. But she admits while they can monitor media and public attention to a case, they don’t have unlimited resources.  And in the middle of a developing incident they generally resist responding before a media briefing has been fully prepared.
    “When we jump in to correct the record, it often just becomes a lightening rod,” says Julie.  “We need to be patient and authenticate the response. Often the information self-corrects.”
    Creating additional challenges to the police narrative, according to our speakers, are television dramas.
    “On TV, police solve every issue in an hour with commercials,” says Julie, citing research that most people have not had any contact with people within the last 12 months, other than through television. “It’s a communications challenge, the misconceptions of reality.”
    “The profession is a lot more complicated than on TV," says Chief Cervera. “If it’s 2am and you call 911 you’re going to get a cop and he’s going to need to know how to handle everything from a zoning issue to an active shooter situation.”
    The Chief and Julie talked about a few cases over the last several years and some of the challenges that police faces both from the media and the public. Among the cases discussed were a bank robbery, a recent shooting involving a police officer and the now infamous “Beach Weekend” in 2013.
    The response in 2013, says the chief, was to admit there were issues and meet with the public face-to-face in the wake of the incident.
    “We told the public at meetings after that we planned for A and got B, and we are going to fix this,” said the Chief. “We interacted with local groups, upped staff, and 2014 was quiet.”
    Chief Cervera says considering the audience that was expected for Beach Weekend, they added another approach.
    “We turned it into a recruiting event,” he says. “And added 16 African-American applicants who took the police test.”
    Both the chief and Julie discussed the more proactive approach they are now taking in the community including appearances before groups like PRSA, in an effort to communicate the “nobility of policing.”
    “We have done a terrible job marketing our profession,” says Chief Cervera.  “It’s better to sit down with a group of people and have a conversation. It’s hard to dislike up close.”
    January 20, 2016

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