The Role of Strategic Communication in Transforming Police Departments

Cynthia Hartman
By: Cynthia Hartman
Date: November 06, 2020

Many organizations often struggle with transformational change and police departments are no different. Unlike other large organizations, police departments usually do not have an internal communications function within their leadership structure. Most will have a Public Information Office (PIO) or media relations specialist, but no role devoted solely to internal communications. The lack of such a role can hinder transformational change, whether it is technology based or organizational in nature. Furthermore, the lack of an internal communications role within any organization often points to a lack of a strategic approach to communications in general.

With a strategic approach to communications, law enforcement agencies can better respond to emerging situations, align actions to policy, and build trust within their own organizations and with the public. Keeping citizens safe starts with officers and staff understanding the “why” behind key leadership decisions and receiving the right guidance and support to execute on those decisions as effectively as possible. In addition to the challenges inherent in maintaining public safety, today’s law enforcement community grapples with the additional challenge that organizations in the private sector also face, namely, how to keep the workforce informed and connected in a remote world.

Adapting and adjusting communications strategies can have an impact on officer safety, the ability to coordinate appropriate emergency responses quickly, and the likelihood of positive outcomes. Internal communication is challenging for police departments, as employees are dispersed across a city or region and work varied shifts on a 24/7 schedule. Keeping officers and staff connected, however, is of vital importance in a profession that, until recently, has been slow to embrace new technologies. Although police departments across the country are now investing in new technologies to help them gather and interpret crime-related data as well as technologies that help connect them digitally to their workforces, they still struggle with how to effectively deploy these tools for the greatest return on investment. Much of this struggle can be attributed to poor internal communications practices.

Leveraging a strategic approach

As with any organization, but particularly within law enforcement agencies, there is a critical need for clear, consistent, comprehensive communications. Using technology that is already available coupled with a strategic approach and transformational leadership, police departments can leverage internal communications tools to build and nourish employee relations, establish trust, provide timely and reliable information, and ultimately better serve their communities—especially during times of stress and change.

A fundamental focus of leadership should be on how to strategically and proactively communicate with employees to achieve the outcomes listed above and to guide their workforce through the inevitable transformational changes they must face as a modern-day police force.  Police departments typically do well with imparting day-to-day operational and tactical information (think daily roll calls, top-down messaging from command staff, and daily reporting requirements), but struggle with organizational messages that support the policies and procedures—and behaviors—that cops are expected to learn, understand and implement in their work.

Deploying strategic practices

With the explosion of media outlets that influence perception of police departments and the myriad communications tools that now exist to disseminate information (both internally and externally), it is increasingly critical for police departments to have strategic communications plans that address both external and internal communications needs. Such a plan must be developed, resourced, and maintained at the command level. Here are some strategic practices that police departments can implement now:

  • Establish communication leaders. Establish a point of contact with a leadership role in the department who can streamline communication efforts. Team members will know who to contact with questions and know to keep an eye out for updates from the assigned communication leaders. Better yet, hire a strategic communications director—someone with a background and experience in communicating across organizations and who understands the latest communications platforms, tools and technologies.
  • Nurture and support open and transparent communications. Transparency in communication builds trust in leadership. By approaching communications as a strategic leadership initiative, a police department can map out ways to support organizational transparency, through frequent leadership updates, easy-to-access communications platforms (e.g., employee intranet), and opportunities for dialog (think virtual town halls or regularly scheduled “talk to the police chief” online events). Open communication encourages employee participation in employee-leadership dialogue, which can lead not only to improved employee satisfaction, but also to improved policies, procedures, and practices.
  • Use tools and technologies that support communications. Leverage the best tools and technologies that support your communications goals and objectives. These tools can be traditional methods, like face-to-face meetings and email and paper announcements, but also newer technologies such as social media and internal communications platforms. Review your communications objectives (e.g., improve employee morale) and choose the tools and technologies that best help you achieve those objectives.

For departments that are embracing digital or organizational transformations, one key to change adoption success is a comprehensive, strategic approach to internal communications. If you are a law enforcement agency facing transformational change (and which agency is not?), consider evaluating your internal communications structure and goals and reviewing change management strategies that will not only help your people adapt to change but also to understand, embrace, and support the change.

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