3 steps to effective community communications during a national emergency

As the response to COVID-19 leads PDs to shift away from proactive policing on our beats, we must excel at community policing in a digital space


This article originally appeared in the March 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit COVID-19 response lessons | LE social distancing | Civilian communications, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

By Katie Nelson

As law enforcement personnel remain on the front lines when it comes to not only protecting and serving their communities, but communicating with residents while we all weather the storm of COVID-19, the focus must be one of assuredness and humanity. Now more than ever is the time to be a good neighbor.

1. Speak with emotion  

Your digital, as well as physical communities, should know to turn to you as a primary source of information.(Photo/Mountain View Police Department)
Your digital, as well as physical communities, should know to turn to you as a primary source of information.(Photo/Mountain View Police Department)

Police agencies should look to message with their community’s concerns at the forefront of their minds, but they must speak and write in a way that allays fears, not elevates them. This is the time to speak human to human, because quite simply, we cannot overpower or overcome emotion with facts. We must know how to relate to our communities, we must understand how they are feeling, and we must do our best to help them recognize that throughout all of this, we have their backs.

2. Set the tone that works for your department

It is important to help amplify messages from county and state health officials, but with your own voice and tone. These are trying times for millions of people, and your message could very well reach beyond the confines of your jurisdiction. You are speaking to a much larger audience than you may know, so whatever is posted, particularly on social media, make sure it is approachable. Many are looking for a source of comfort right now, not one that exacerbates their concerns. They want answers, but they also want to know they have someone to talk to should they need those avenues.

3. Be a primary source of information

While we may be shifting away from proactive policing on our beats, we must excel at community policing in a digital space. This isn’t just about making sure the law is enforced, and that people understand their new parameters – particularly if they are living in a county or city that has called for home isolation. This is about having a conversation, and rising above the noise (appropriately) so that your digital, as well as physical communities, know to turn to you as a primary source of information.

This is a serious situation for both our community and our colleagues – now is not the time for ill-placed humor. However, this serious situation comes with serious opportunities for you, as a law enforcement agency, to shine. This is a moment in time that we must look back on and know that we messaged well, we messaged right and we messaged in those moments when our community truly needed us.

Here are some suggested law enforcement messaging strategies to help you communicate with your communities during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Infographic courtesy Katie Nelson/Mountain View Police Department.
Infographic courtesy Katie Nelson/Mountain View Police Department.

About the author

Katie Nelson is the social media and public relations coordinator for the Mountain View Police Department (MVPD) in northern California. Before joining the MVPD, she worked as a public safety reporter for papers including the San Jose Mercury News, the East Bay Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is an award-winning journalist for her breaking news coverage of the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport and her investigative work on the state Department of Social Services led to major legislative reform to protect elderly residents in California. Connect with Katie on Twitter at @katienelson210

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