Midsize police agencies like the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and Bend Police Department have increasingly relied on social media to get their messages out.
Though some fire and police agencies outsource, this month, the sheriff’s office brought on two summer marketing interns to assist public information officer Lt. William Bailey.
Interns Wyatt Hernandez and Emily Pennington write profiles of deputies and post on emergency responses. They’ll be paid $15 per hour part time through Sept. 30.
(Pennington is the daughter of Barry Pennington, co-owner of Bobcat of Central Oregon, who in April donated $1,000 to Sheriff Shane Nelson’s reelection campaign.)
Bailey was recently promoted and given new duties, and the interns are intended to assist him with transparency and sharing information, he said.
“They are currently learning all the various aspects of the agency and services we provide. They work closely with me to draft and prepare content, which I review before the content is released to the public,” Bailey said. “I am thankful to have them.”
Civilians performing public relations work for fire and police agencies is not unheard-of in Oregon. The Dalles Police Department employs a young woman part-time to post to social media. Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue and the Eugene Police Department contract out to public relations professionals.
The rise of social media has significantly altered the role of public information officers for fire and police agencies, according to Eriks Gabliks, director the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.
”It’s a game-changer,” he said. “It used to be you’d put out a press release in advance, and that’s it. Now, you can send out pictures, a video and an entire story through a variety of platforms, and within minutes it can reach millions of people around the world.”
This happened recently with the Bend Police Department. Content by the department and the district attorney‘s office was seen by German journalist Justus Bender, who was looking for an example of a U.S. police department “getting it right,” according to former Bend Police Chief Jim Porter. This led to a front-page article about Bend’s community policing efforts in the Frankfurt newspaper, Frankfurter Allegemeine, with a circulation of about 230,000.
Social media can transmit information for agencies with ease and speed, but it can also broadcast misinformation.
During demonstrations in June 2019, the Portland Police Bureau’s public information officer tweeted a warning that some protesters had added quick-drying cement to milkshakes and were throwing them at officers.
The rumor was not confirmed and is regarded as false, but the milkshake episode is often cited by activists leery of believing the official line about police activity.
Nearly every college journalism class taught now includes an integrated social media element, according to University of Oregon journalism professor Scott Maier.
A greater danger than agencies providing the script for media is that news organizations themselves are shrinking their coverage and ability to tell stories independently, Maier said.
Since 2008, U.S. newspaper newsrooms have shrunk by half, according to the Pew Research Center.
”The fundamental skills you need in social media are the same as traditional mainstream media,” Maier said. “What’s as important is finding how to get to the source of the information, because if it comes from police, chances are they’re not the original source. The information is coming from somewhere else. You’ve got to get to the source, fill in the gaps and evaluate the credibility of that information.”
Though there’s no standard training for police or fire spokespeople; there are courses offered by journalists that include the basics of reporting.
”You want to make sure it’s just the facts,” Gabliks said. “It’s got to have the who, the what, the when, the where, and of course, why is this story? Those are also the things, coincidently, that go into a good police report.”