Optimizing Community Relations with Law Enforcement Through Social Media
A conversation with Carol Lin, Director of Strategic Communications at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
University of Florida: Your presentation will discuss how good crisis communications can aid law enforcement in reaching the public effectively while highlighting programs and efforts to help the community. Can you provide a preview of what attendees can expect to learn during this session?
Carol Lin: This is a very complex time for law enforcement. The last time law enforcement experienced this kind of social tension with the public was the 1960s. Now instead of black and white film reels on the evening news of the 1960’s, a video can go viral via social media in a matter of minutes.
At the Summit, I will share how the nation’s largest sheriff’s department is experimenting with a new kind of speed, transparency and compelling narrative that is not always in the comfort zone of this 166-year-old organization. I will share some of the challenges and solutions, ways we are being more strategic in our messaging and outreach, and how making strategic decisions about information sharing with the public can stop a freight-train of misinformation from taking hold in today’s 24/7 media cycle.
UF: How does your journalistic background contribute to the work you perform today?
CL: My 20-plus years of work and traveling to different parts of the world for ABC News and CNN taught me about the very distinct rhythm of news cycles, narratives and the logic of how reporters put stories together under deadline. There is a structure to news stories. If you understand how reporters build that structure you can better assist public understanding. I absolutely must understand what my audience wants to know, why and who would be the most credible source for the answers.
Broadcast news in particular is about building an electronic (and today, digital) relationship with the people you are trying to influence. The LASD is emerging from a very difficult period in its history. The journalist in me feels so privileged to witness history behind the scenes and be a part of the next big stories of great impact such as our role in combating child sex trafficking and the role of technology in crime fighting.
UF: Why has social media become such a useful tool for law enforcement in communicating within their community?
CL: The secret sauce in the digital age is to be concise, visual and shareable. Social media takes our message and helps us accomplish all three at once. The challenge is guiding a government entity to accept that the contemporary audience does not want to just hear or read about what we are doing. They want to see what we are doing. Social media helps us package the message. Our digital ambassadors do the rest! At the Summit, I will show some of the stories we posted on our Facebook page (with about 80,000 followers) that achieved five times the audience online than we would have achieved on the top-rated local news show! The Pew Research Center even confirms this observation across the board for now and the future.
UF: Can you share a recent event or two in which you believe your department communicated effectively?
CL: We are mindful of sharing positive stories with a personal, human element such as the deputy who needed a kidney transplant and discovered his partner was the life-saving match, or the heroic, life-risking rescue of our Special Enforcement team who went in, face first, sans body armor in order to crawl under a mobile home to reach an armed mentally ill elderly woman. Stories like these occur almost on a daily basis in a department of our size with 18,000 personnel. However, it has been a cultural anathema to share them, as if publicizing them was a form of immodesty.
UF: What are some obstacles that your department faces in effectively communicating with your key stakeholders? What are areas you are targeting for improvement?
CL: We need a new department website that will get our positive stories and points of views on major issues to surface on major search engines. One more often sees an issue through the filter of a news reporter than on our website. We also hope to provide more support and media training for our personnel. They are our subject matter experts and our best spokespeople. We need to figure out how to make communications a budget item priority to digitally advertise to Millennials and Generation Z recruits, and create billboards and radio ads to drive audiences to recruiting and other events. Historically, public information and media relations resources are the first areas that most law enforcement reduce when budgets get tight, but it can take years to recover the good will and brand building that you lose in the interim.
UF: How can other law enforcement agencies across the country follow your lead?
CL: I think law enforcement agencies across the country are doing great work. We can learn from each other. For example, our Sheriff’s Information Bureau collaborates with jail public information officers across the nation, and we are involved in an April 2016 webinar to discuss how to cultivate and promote stories out of custody operations. For example, Los Angeles has the largest jail system challenged with a growing inmate population of mentally ill. Out of this challenge are some amazing stories of heroism, compassion, and innovative programming.