Milwaukee Police and the New Face of Law-Enforcement Media
There was time when, if a municipal department such as a police force felt it wasn’t getting a fair shake in the local press, it called a media conference and spoke its own version of the story.
In 2013, however, that same agency or department can just publish the story online. Gone are the days when it requires an outside reporter to reach readers.
In Milwaukee, the police department is doing just that.
“We’ll correct the news stories that got it wrong, and we’ll highlight the ones that got it right,” the blurb at Milwaukee’s police blog, The Source, reads. “Most importantly, we’ll create our own content, so you can see what the Milwaukee Police Department is really accomplishing in the community.”
When we talk about branded content, we often talk about companies and corporations. But content marketing and the strategies that come with it apply to the municipal and law-enforcement world as well.
Police departments across the country are changing how they communicate with, and respond to, the communities they serve and the news media that covers them.
‘The Source’: Municipal message control
In recent years, the Milwaukee Police Department perceived that it was facing a media-relations hurdle dealing with the way the city’s news outlets covered the force.
“This way we can get a good news story right out to the public and hopefully put a bit of a positive spin on a police department that’s often criticized.”
“I wouldn’t say a dysfunctional relationship, but I’d say a challenging relationship,” said Sgt. Mark Stanmeyer, public-information officer with the MPD. “I understand the need to process news in a certain sensationalistic or ‘sexy’ way. Unfortunately, when that news is processed it doesn’t always get across the message that we were trying to get across.”
And so, in April 2012, the police department became a publisher. It connected with a local advertising agency and secured some pro bono design time. It stopped its morning press conferences and replaced them with The Source.
Still in its first year, the site had received 814,469 visits from 619,235 unique visitors as of March. Stanmeyer writes the pieces with the help of two other civilian employees within the department. Readers find both hard-news style pieces such as crime statistics and “Chief Flynn Call For Reasonable Gun Laws,” but also softer stuff such as “MPD and Wendy’s Start March Book Drive.”
“Good-news stories don’t always make it onto the 10-o’clock news,” Stanmeyer said. “I understand that completely . . . This way we can get a good news story right out to the public and hopefully put a bit of a positive spin on a police department that’s often criticized.”
“They want to control the news — but they can’t. We’ll continue to follow the truth wherever it takes us.”
Stanmeyer said the lion’s share of any criticism in question comes from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which he described as taking an aggressive investigative angle with the police department. And the Journal Sentinel has taken the department to task in its pages for the nature of The Source.
“Milwaukee Police Department administrators continue to resist efforts by independent news sources to fairly and accurately report what’s going on without their filter and spin,” Martin Kaiser, the paper’s editor, said to a reporter in a Journal Sentinel stories about The Source, last year when the news broke that the morning pressers would be replaced by the website. “They want to control the news — but they can’t. We’ll continue to follow the truth wherever it takes us.”
Stanmeyer said he doesn’t fault the newspaper for paying close attention to the department. He suggests that perhaps there’s room for both publications in Milwaukee.
“They’re doing their job,” said Stanmeyer. “I’m not criticizing them for doing their job, or any other outlet in town. But this is a good way to get our message out, [one] that may have been lost somewhere on a reporter’s or on an editor’s desk.”
Changing landscape: Police blogging
What The Source is up to in Milwaukee — as a reactive online publication that’s taking its perspective directly to the public — is one part of a developing picture, nationwide.
The change in how police departments approach blogging may have started to gel in the mid-2000s, according to Elaine Driscoll, former director of communications at the Boston Police Department. Driscoll helped steer the BPD’s blog to approximately 250,000 visitors per month. She left the department about eight months ago to manage communications for a different state agency in Massachusetts.
Driscoll said that, circa 2005, public-information officers — herself included — began to meet and talk about where to take the concept of publishing law-enforcement news online.
“We put our heads together about leveraging social media for law enforcement,” she said of those early conversations, meetings that included officials from Milwaukee. “There was a switch in mentality where many of the departments started to realize that it would be very beneficial to start operating and running a media-relations office as if it was a public-safety news outlet.”
Other law-enforcement bloggers and public-information officers say that the Internet is newly empowering their points of view, but that not every step of the process is as simple as pressing publish.
For example, police-department blogging could open law-enforcement agencies to less than rosy community relations. Imagine a circumstance in which a reader — or even a reporter who’s story “got it wrong” according to a department — sues the police for impugning their personal or professional reputation?
“Departments started to realize that it would be very beneficial to start operating and running a media-relations office as if it was a public-safety news outlet.”
“There are many angles that are considered before a department makes a choice to publicly expose themselves the way that Milwaukee has,” said Brian Cain, a sergeant with the PD in Holly Springs, Georgia (and a self-styled “new-mediapreneur” and online publisher of resources for police officers).
Cain spoke about the process of vetting and approving information before it goes online, in general, as he suggests it happens in police departments: “It is carefully scanned for legal compliance so as to not open up the department for a civil suit. It is not a choice that is made in the heat of the moment.”
Driscoll echoed that sentiment, and she also said that while addressing facts and accurate details are one thing, blogged reactions to the press on other levels is an issue that officers shouldn’t approach lightly.
“There is a delicate balance that you have to achieve,” Driscoll said. “For example, if a crime stat is inaccurate, it’s appropriate to correct that. But there’s a difference between correcting a factual inaccuracy, and responding to a piece that maybe you just don’t like. There’s a difference between the two.”
Next steps at ‘The Source’
As for Stanmeyer, he said the Milwaukee Police Department’s next challenge is to align the public face of the department more closely with its vanguard blog.
“The police department still has an old website that fits the city template,” Stanmeyer said. “A challenge as we move forward, in 2013, is to merge into one website. Maintaining two websites is difficult, and also I think it confuses the public. We need to drive it all to one consistent format that people can go to.”