Crisis Communication for Law Enforcement: Crafting a Successful Strategy Using Social Media

Angela Coonce


The police-involved shooting that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 was a watershed moment that launched the national Black Lives Matter movement into the public spotlight around the world. The depth and breadth of the influence of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube on the incident is discussed in this thesis. This influence highlights the need for law enforcement agencies to have a strategy for the use of social media in crisis communication, especially after use of force incidents. This thesis examines a two-fold research question: (1) What best practices or principles of crisis communication from the private sector might be applicable to law enforcement? (2) What should a social media crisis communication strategy for law enforcement look like?
The socialization or increased accessibility of information through technology advances has enabled more people to share information instantly and across global systems. This sharing is a change from the older, “top-down” structure of information dissemination and provides an opportunity for narratives to be influenced by a larger population. The increased speed with which information can be shared has created opportunities for law enforcement to respond more quickly in crises, but doubles as an obstacle when this pace is accessible to individuals in the community as well. Social media allows agencies to communicate quickly in times of crisis, which may lead to improved control of the narrative. It is important that law enforcement agencies consider accuracy of information, not just the quickness of the response. Agencies that have a social media communication strategy in place prior to crisis events will be better equipped to balance speed and accuracy. With social media moving from a communication platform to one that drives community action, this strategy becomes even more vital.
It could be argued that law enforcement officers are especially well-suited for communication due to their training as storytellers. Part of an officer’s duty is to craft a police report that captures all the details of a given scene; a record that may end up impacting the lives of those affected by the incident described. Capitalizing on this skill should allow agencies to craft stories that help influence narratives, especially after use of force events. However, hurdles arise that are sometimes genuine and other times self-inflicted.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides law enforcement guidance on what information must be released, when requested, and allows for exclusions designed to protect the integrity of ongoing investigations. Sometimes agencies use the exclusion clause to delay or avert the release of information that may be outside the scope of the intention of FOIA. This inclination to withhold information, while appropriate in some cases, may work against agencies in other instances when releasing information can provide the community with much-needed transparency.
A majority of law enforcement agencies lack goals for social media use. Only one third of the agencies polled by the International Association of the Chiefs of Police indicated they had goals in place related to social media. More than 80 percent of these same agencies find it somewhat challenging to very challenging to adapt to new social media trends and train personnel on the effective use of social media.
Regulations and guidelines for users producing content on social media are lax to non-existent, which creates an environment where information is shared almost instantly and is often considered to be accurate, regardless of the source. Social media content, especially images, can trigger strong emotions and can have a mobilizing effect on individuals and groups. This mentality can have real consequences on the street for law enforcement and is a motivating factor in understanding how crisis communication can influence narratives.
An evaluation of crisis communication theory provides some insight into human emotions during crisis. Situational crisis communication theory was derived from attribution theory, which describes a need to make sense of events and behaviors by assigning cause and striving to determine motivation. This theory highlights the importance of providing information to the community after a use of force incident to help citizens make sense of the crisis. Image repair theory informs that a damaged reputation, which can occur after a use of force incident, will require repair as a part of the recovery process. Research has shown that the perception of law enforcement can be improved through the use of social media. Social information processing theory suggests that computer-mediated communication can be as effective as face-to-face communication, which allows law enforcement to use social media to reach members of the community not otherwise be accessible in person. However, social presence theory warns that social media interactions should retain a human voice to maintain an effective connection.
An evaluation of the existing research on social media-specific crisis communication found the best practices to be very similar to traditional crisis communication. The platform from which someone communicates after a crisis is evidently less important than the content of that communication. The best practices identified in the research closely resemble those garnered from an evaluation of successful crisis communication strategies employed by the private sector. While reputation management in the private sector is conducted to improve sales, the public sector is typically driven to improve or repair credibility. The strategies to regain either customers or credibility after crises are similar, even across disparate organizations.
Southwest Airlines, Taco Bell, and GitLab were all able to leverage social media to navigate crises successfully. Southwest Airlines prepares for crises with extensive training and foresight. That preparation was likely the biggest driver in their ability to respond to their first passenger fatality; an event that passengers began to record and report within minutes. The speed of their response, coupled with their compassionate and honest voice, were other keys to its success.
Taco Bell focused on honesty and transparency when faced with a lawsuit questioning the quality of their beef; potentially, a huge blow to their reputation. It used an aggressive social media strategy to communicate a defense of its reputation that ultimately led to a restoration, and perhaps an improvement, in its status. GitLab was the first to admit an error on its part that negatively impacted customers and used language that was open and apologetic throughout its social media response. Accepting blame circumvented the customers’ need to assign blame, per attribution theory, and allowed GitLab to begin the image repair process.
Private sector examples of crisis response failures were uncovered in incidents at Papa John’s and BP. Papa John’s released a written statement that was perceived as inauthentic and remorseless in response to racist language used by the company’s CEO. A video later posted to social media offered no apology or expression of understanding that the language used was wrong. The image of Papa John’s was tarnished and was not successfully repaired with its social media response. BP had no strategic crisis communication plan in place to handle a crisis that occurred when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, which caused employee fatalities. The response showed indifference to the loss of life, did not accept blame, and failed to use compassionate language. BP did, however, seem to learn from the misstep and subsequently used social media to increase communication and outline plans for improvements moving forward.
The analysis of private sector crisis communication case studies revealed seven common threads that can be applied to a social media strategy for law enforcement. Agencies should establish protocols and form a crisis communication team with specific team members identified and a reporting structure that includes management. Law enforcement should identify high-risk incidents, such as use of force incidents, and prepare through training and scenario-based drills. Crisis communication teams should respond quickly and regularly after crises. Agencies should utilize the experience and technological savvy of digital natives for their social media communication team. Organizations should engage in both social monitoring, to ensure direct responses are accurate and timely, and social listening, to allow for a broader understanding of the concerns of a community after crisis. The language used by law enforcement on social media should be a human voice, as opposed to an organizational language, to allow agencies to connect with their audience. Finally, communication teams should emphasize compassion and honesty in their content and strive for transparency.
The importance of influencing narratives is critical for law enforcement during crises. After the Ferguson demonstrations, the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that law enforcement needed a “better and more immediate grasp on the use of social media during emergency situations” if they wanted to handle crises more effectively moving forward. Obstacles to overcome include procuring funding, securing resources that can be available at a moment’s notice, and deciding the appropriate personnel, law enforcement versus civilian employees. The tension that exists between the media and law enforcement may be abetted by agencies circumventing the traditional approach to communicating with the public through an increased use of social media.
Social media allows agencies a faster and more effective communication platform with the public after use of force incidents. Law enforcement should embrace the opportunity that the digitalization of society offers through social media. With the creation of a social media crisis communication strategy that incorporates the seven common threads, law enforcement leaders can tell their own stories firsthand, in a thoughtful and transparent manner.

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