Narrative (noun) – nar·ra·tive: ”a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values.”
In law enforcement, the public “narrative” is one of the major challenges all agencies face. Mainstream and social media tend to shape the narrative and once it is in motion, it very is hard to change. Whatever the particular narrative may be, it soon becomes “fact”, and the “gospel truth”, to those who hear it.
So, how can law enforcement agencies help change the narrative? How can agencies play a role in shaping the narrative? How can they get the narrative back on track, especially if the narrative being molded it is out of line with the reality?
The simple (and not so simple) answer is that law enforcement needs to communicate directly with their communities, partner with their communities, listen to their communities and gain the trust and respect of their communities. If these goals can be accomplished, law enforcement can drastically change the narrative, their relationship with their communities, and their ability to offer effective services.
We need to communicate directly with our communities, partner with our communities, listen to our communities and gain the trust and respect of our communities.
Digital technology is an often time untapped asset for law enforcement, yet it is the dominating medium that most community members are utilizing to educate and inform themselves. Law enforcement agencies, by and large, have a very small digital footprint. When they do have one, it is often sending the wrong message. What wrong message is that? Let’s explore.
On average, only about 18% of law enforcement agencies have a dedicated website or digital/online presence. Many of the agencies that have a digital presence are often very lacking in numerous ways, making the website more of a detriment rather than a positive asset. Here is a list of the most common failures:
- Lack of Interactive Tools: Most police websites are generally “informational” at best. They present basic information about the agency (staff, location, contact information, etc.). While this type of information should be available, these types of websites do not promote repeated interaction. When a user visits an informational only website, they generally have no reason to return.
- Complicated Use or Interactions: Agencies that try to offer some interactive online tools, are generally integrating them from a third-party provider/vendor. This can create confusion for the user, require multiple logins, impede on the user experience and disrupt the overall “comfortable flow” of the website. This also limits an agency’s ability to offer numerous services, as many of these third-party tools can be expensive as stand alone assets. These costs add up fast if the agency wishes to offer numerous resources.
- Poor First Impression: This is one of the biggest mistakes many law enforcement agencies make when implementing a website. Simply tossing up any old website because “we need something”, sets agencies back and is often worse than having nothing at all. When trying to create a positive narrative, the last thing any agency should want is for community members and visitors to get into the wrong “mindset” when visiting a website or using a digital tool associated with the agency. The importance of the “first impression” is time tested and needs to be seriously considered. As it is said, you only get one chance at a first impression. In addition, extensive “case-studies” in marketing and customer engagement have been conducted over the years and support the importance of first impressions. Billions of dollars have been spent on how to best engage an audience instantly and these techniques are critical, and apply to any entity (private or public).
- It’s In Your Face – CRIME, CRIME and MORE CRIME. The moment that any visitor hits a law enforcement website and is immediately presented with murder and mayhem, they are instantly put into a negative thought pattern, whether consciously or sub-consciously. This negative thought pattern can then get associated to the agency they are interacting with. Studies show that people often associate negative emotions and memories with things surrounding a negative event or interaction, even if that particular thing had nothing to do with the event or interaction itself. Flooding an agency website’s main page with arrest data, crime stats, mug shots and more is a hugely negative presentation and experience for most visitors. This negativity simply projects and reinforces the negative narrative, not only toward the events displayed, but often times back onto the agency (murder, rape, shootings, etc… = police). While this information should be available, it should never be the main focus of an agency’s online presentation.
- Sliders and Carousels: For those who remember websites from fifteen years ago, these are the “old school” rotating frames (or slides) at the top of the main page that rotate every few seconds to display new information. While these may seem “cool”, they have in fact been found to be distracting, ineffective and slow down the websites loading time, drastically effecting the user experience. In addition, research has found that most users will not look past the first slide, meaning critical information gets missed.
- Outdated Information: Many police websites are not kept up to date. Not keeping a website up to date can happen for many reasons such as the leadership does not have the technical skills to manage it, the cost may be to high to hire a full time web design firm, or the site may have been built by an agency member who has left the agency, or is no longer available. Whatever the reason may be, nothing says “we don’t care” more than an outdated online presence or a “Chief’s Profile” that features a Chief that his been retired for five years.
- Overall Poor Layout and Design: Websites need to be easy to navigate and professional. What may look cool to a police officer, is not necessarily what is going to foster confident partnership with the community. Remember, the target audience is the community for which the agency serves and the website should be trying to encourage engagement with them. Overly dark designs, military type images, or outdated layouts often turn visitors away and once again, create a negative mind-set the moment a visitor enters the website.
- Mobile Ready: Websites that do not work well on mobile are very detrimental to the agency. 60% or more of visitors will be operating from a mobile device. Nothing will frustrate a user more than visiting a website from their phone or tablet and not being able to interact properly.
- Relying on APPS: Apps are very popular these days but are limited in their uses. In addition, they require permanent downloads, the use of data, are difficult for some older users to manage and do not work on computers. Keep in mind as well, many people may not want a “police” APP on their phone for others to potentially see.
Changing the narrative requires digital tools that engage the community, enforce a positive image of the agency and encourage partnership. So, how can agencies have the best chance to accomplish this goal?
- Effective Navigation and Design: Agencies need to start by ensuring their website is easy to navigate, user friendly and focused on community partnership, from the very first moment the visitor lands on the homepage. Agencies should lose the outdated “sliders” and capture the visitor with one vibrant and empowering homepage image that clearly sends the message of what the agency is all about. Agencies can change that image periodically, but remember, this image is not meant to provide information, it is meant to make a positive impression. An impression that will put the user in a mindset to engage the agency and feel comfortable. Old school websites with small type font and those jammed pack with information are overwhelming to users and hard to navigate. Agencies should be implementing website layouts that are airy, comfortable and foster confidence for the user.
- Offer Plenty of Reliable Resources: Agency websites and digital tools should offer resources that are easy to use and those that clearly send a message that the agency’s digital presence is about partnership. These resources should not re-direct the user to numerous different websites, require numerous new logins or upset the flow of the visitor experience. If they do, the user will lose confidence and leave. And remember, anytime a user gets re-directed to another website or tool, the agency has lost control and turned the narrative over to the company that is presenting the information or resource to the user. If that experience is negative, the tool is not functioning properly or the tool creates a negative result, that negative experience will be associated to the original agency that sent them there. Agencies should avoid (at all cost) giving up their space, once the visitor is engaged, to any other entity or company and should try to utilize internalized tools that are under the agencies control.
- Focus On the Positive: While having resources like Crime Blotters and Arrest Data is important, and should be available to the community as a transparency and partnership asset, they should never be the overwhelming focus of the agency’s online presentation. Users who are looking for that kind of information should be able to find it, but it should not be front and center. Front and center should be the tools and resources that are there to reinforce a positive image of the agency and a desire to partner with the community.
- Keep It Up To Date: All information should be kept up to date. Using a platform that allows designated agency users to update and maintain their online presence properly, regardless of technical skills, is critical.
- Use Engaging Imagery: Images are critical and can often say more than words. Just one engaging image can instantly convey a desired message to the user and put them in a completely different mental space. Think of this for a moment: If a potential customer, looking for an athletic shoe, were to visit a “sneaker” company website, and the main image was that of a person screaming from pain due to shin splints, that customer would probably not be in the right mindset to purchase sneakers. There is a reason why these websites will generally greet new visitors with an image of an athlete jumping ten feet off the ground and smiling the whole time. Upon seeing this image, even the most out of shape visitor suddenly feels that maybe (just maybe) they can benefit from this sneaker. Using this example, if law enforcement overwhelmingly presents images of criminal mugshots, all over the main page, your visitors will probably not be in the mood to engage. Agencies need to put the user in a mindset that encourages them to explore and feel empowered to interact. High quality, thought provoking images, targeted for the visitor, will make a huge impact and leave a lasting (and positive) impression. With today’s technology, found in the average cell phone camera, there really is no need for poor images on a professional law enforcement agency website.
- Partnership and Transparency: Every agency should ensure that their website encourages partnership, highlights the agency’s positive, offers many interactive resources (police related and otherwise) and allows the agency to be as transparent as possible. The end goal is to convey to the community that they are not just looking at a website, but are interacting with an important partnership tool that they are a critical part of, not just visiting from the sidelines.
In our current day and age, all communities are inundated with digital information, 24 hours per day. Some of it is accurate, much of it is not and most of it is negative. Law Enforcement can change that narrative if they engage their communities each and every day in a positive, professional and encouraging way.
With proper tools, which have been developed using the latest technology, market driven research and a focus on law enforcement and community relations, it will take very little effort for law enforcement agencies to implement and manage the above suggestions. Once done, it will be easy to truly change the narrative and make all communities not only safer, but better in almost every way possible.