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The absence of a police marketing mentality

In a February 1992 media relations article I wrote for Law and Order Magazine, then captain and now retired police chief Frederick A. Thompson of the South Brunswick Township (NJ) PD lamented the fact that the "police haven't learned to market themselves."  The absence of a police marketing mentality was true in 1992, and I think it is still the case in 2005.

While other segments of our society (private corporations, non-profits, etc.) knock on the door of the media in a bid for positive coverage, the police are still reticent to do so.  For law enforcement to thrive and serve the community, particularly in the new media world of the Internet, an adoption of the marketing mentality has to take place.

Chief Thompson further related in my 1992 article (which may be read on my website www.policearticles.com) his belief that, "we will be better cops if the public sees what we do and knows how to assist us in our service to the community."  Again, a correct assertion that is even more relevant today.

We are among the most misunderstood of professions.  We serve divergent constituencies who have no idea what complexities law enforcers face in a democratic society.  I am not advocating that the public be schooled in the intricacies within an agency.  Instead, a healthy respect by the community for the professionalism needed to do the job should be developed by the entire LE industry and not just by an isolated agency here and a lone department there.

Marketing mentality example

The medical industry is an example of where years of a unified marketing front in a bid for their survival have made a difference.  Doctors make life and death decisions with their service population (although not in the time crunch faced by most patrol officers) much like law enforcement people.  Even in this Internet savvy era with people consulting Web MD, there is a historical lack of questioning by their patients.  Medical professionals are not nearly as second-guessed as law enforcement folks.

Doctors have changed with the times as they sensed the growing public dissatisfaction with harsh bedside manners.  Medical schools now train their residents how to be more customer service oriented and to explain options that are available and why one makes sense over another option.  More importantly, the veterans of the industry had to buy into the concept in order for their practices to survive.

Similarly, dentists who were once the fodder for scary childhood memories, now boast patient selected music and movies during dental exams, along with sedation and patient requested cosmetic dental enhancements.  They have embraced marketing measures aimed at combating their long-held negative public image.

Not only did the industry adopt this horizontally across all organizations, they implemented it vertically, from the top down, within medical practices.  Everyone from the doctors to the appointment setters bought in to the marketing mentality.  People upset today with the state of health care are less upset with their doctor as they are with their health insurance provider.

The health care field established early on that even though they are there to serve their patients and take an oath, they are also an industry to be marketed.  They have some competition and so, as an industry, they were forced to one up each other and, in effect, created an across the board marketing image. 

Marketing for officer survival

The police are, in most areas, a monopoly.  They do not have competition and few callers for police service have the option to "agency shop."  The cop industry has resisted the notion that they all must change to survive.  The prevailing thought has been: There's crime, so there's job security.

Officer survival instructors call that complacency, and it is not a healthy mindset.  The crime/job security approach is a flawed way of thinking as evidenced by the layoffs of officers in many cities across the nation.  Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are examples of states where the police recently lost jobs and were not viewed by the public as THE budgetary priority.

If the public, and in turn their elected representatives running the political machinery that makes the staffing decisions, truly were targeted with the adoption of a nation-wide police marketing mentality, then layoffs and budget cuts would be curtailed.  The politicians would know that the police budget was a sacred cow not to be slashed.

Much like those bandied about regarding community policing, proactive measures have to be taken in order for the cop marketing machine to have an impact.  The reactive mold of public information has to be broken and recast.  We need horizontal and vertical integration within all agencies of this new marketing approach that involves each member of the department.

We need to step forward and take advantage of the inordinate interest that the public has in police matters.  Just look at the lineup of primetime TV shows and best-selling books.  For years the fictional police have been the centerpiece and have captivated the public's attention.  The same holds true for the Internet's websites and blogs, as well as television news.

Proactive news appearances

Doctors have become a staple of morning news shows extolling the virtues of everything from cardiac health to plastic surgery.

Question: how many police chiefs and public information officers do you see on a regular basis that appear on local and national TV news programs? How many even know how to convey their message in a natural and camera friendly manner?  Answer: perhaps a handful.  The majority of the time you see a PIO it is in response to a criminal investigation.

The police have a built in advantage in our society that lends itself to the success of a marketing mentality.  Not even the medical profession can lay claim to such an opportunity.  Not every newspaper has a medical correspondent, but they all have police reporters.

With a police marketing mentality, the positive stories on policing and those hardworking men and women who serve should vastly outnumber the crime driven and negative, department scandal driven items.  We would finally keep pace with and perhaps surpass the fictionalized version of policing embedded in society's psyche.  Only then would the true nature of law enforcement's service to the community be known and believed by the public.



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