Every police agency should include a social media communications policy in its active shooter response protocols, says media relations expert Julie Parker. In this article, she shares how an agency can ensure timely delivery of information.
A synagogue, a church, a newsroom, nightclubs, shopping malls, grocery stores and schools are just some of the locations where active shooters have committed unspeakable acts of horror. Just as law enforcement continues to train to enhance tactical response to active shooters, it must also train on how to best share information with the public during such incidents.
High-profile, high-stress incidents naturally strike fear and concern among people located closest to the event. Whether they live or work near the crime scene, know someone who does, or are potential victims themselves and hiding from the shooter, they need and deserve to know what’s happening and what to do if the violence directly impacts them.
Law enforcement agencies can ensure timely delivery of information by following these four steps:
1. Post basic facts and any necessary calls for action.
Once the active threat is confirmed through the appropriate internal channels, the PIO or social media specialist should use a social media platform – ideally Twitter – to share basic facts that will not change, and issue any calls for action.
- Tweet information like: “We are responding to the report of a shooter at Brown Library at First and Main Streets.”
- A call for action could be to the public at large such as “Please stay away from anywhere near First and Main Streets.” A call for action could also be directed to those inside a building in which someone is shooting such as, “If you are inside Brown Library, shelter in place.” Guidance from your SWAT or Emergency Response Team may help with these instructions to avoid further casualties.
- Indicate whether there is a threat to the public. If so, urge people to stay indoors, away from doors and windows, or whatever guidance you want to give.
2. Indicate where media should stage.
Reporters will help amplify your message and you want them, ideally, in one central location that provides the PIO access to both the media and to the scene to facilitate the sharing of information.
Using Twitter to tell reporters where to go is imperative as it will be virtually impossible to respond to multiple calls, including multiple calls from a single newsroom in some cases.
3. Don’t risk your agency’s credibility by trying to tell too much too soon.
The number of casualties, the status of the suspect, and whether or how many officers are injured very often changes as an event breaks. Don’t box yourself in. General statements are acceptable early in a crisis such as “Multiple injuries at the scene” or “Multiple injuries, some critical” if you have confirmed this to be true. The numbers and conditions of patients are often wrong in the beginning and, in the case of fatalities, you don’t want to be in the position of saying there were more casualties than there were.
4. Maintain communications.
Continue to use social media to inform the public until the incident is over. This includes what you are telling the media. Don’t rely on the media alone to tell your story. When the incident is over, ensure you share that the suspect is in custody, the building or location has been cleared, and any other pertinent details.
When the media shares law enforcement’s message during a crisis, your story gets spread exponentially. As Twitter is the platform most journalists use both for breaking news and to gather news in times of calm, it is beneficial for law enforcement to have a Twitter presence.
It is imperative that officers or deputies sworn to serve and protect remember that doesn’t always mean running toward danger – sometimes it means using the power of social media to serve people what they crave in a crisis: information.
How to manage communications during your next crisis: