For Corrections Agencies, Facilities, Stopping PR Crises Isn’t an Option—Prevention Is

Consider for a moment the idea of public relations and the positive impact it can have across the spectrum of agencies serving the public safety and criminal justice fields. A key point of focus in any private enterprise’s strategy and perennial billion-dollar expense for the federal government, the oft-misunderstood practice’s core goals of preserving reputation and controlling the message have become even more important in this era of instant communication and social media.  A perceived misbehavior can unite and ignite large portions of the public without a single minute of traditional news coverage drawing attention. Were the same level of technology available during the Watergate crisis, one online marketing company muses, the discoveries of Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein likely would have been lightning-fast community events instead.

A world in which information propagates at scales and speeds far greater than those of traditional media is one in which PR crises explode into the public consciousness at a rapid, often dizzying, pace. Though hard to pin under a single definition—one expert analysis uses four interrelated terms instead—the size of the outcry and severity of the consequences following a PR crisis make them similarly difficult to miss in action. The ongoing furor surrounding the death of Laquan McDonald in a 2014 officer-involved shooting, for instance, led to a historic murder conviction and mass political turnover, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s surprising declaration that he would not seek re-election.

The changing social climate may make law enforcement agencies the first public service to come to mind when PR crises are mentioned. However, they are not the only ones. By virtue of their roles, their distance from standard street-level responder models, and numerous other factors, correctional facilities provide an interesting look at the intersection of public relations and government. They also provide a compelling argument in favor of protocol with revised focus on strategy, planning, and preemptive measures such as training.

A Unique Space in the Industry—and PR

One leading reason correctional facilities provide such useful perspective on government PR, particularly where responder services are involved, is that they do not operate on the same plane as other services with which they interact in the criminal justice field. Yet, they are deeply interconnected with the criminal justice system as a whole.

Because of this, facilities may serve as central figures in PR scandals or provide a backdrop for a media spotlight that shines on other branches of the system. The recent Orange County, CA jail snitch scandal, for instance, centered on officials outside the jail system and their “strategic” use of inmate informants, who were, by many insider accounts, wholly unreliable. The issue has led to the “tainting” of some 146 cases and called the arrests of other individuals into question, with correctional facilities serving a central, if secondary role within the larger story. Meanwhile, stories such as the prison health care scandal in Arizona, in which the Department of Corrections and a third-party contractor stand accused of failing to provide adequate health and mental health care to inmates.

Other events falling squarely on facilities follow a more predictable track. Small- and large-scale acts of violence, miniature drug epidemics, ongoing security failings, and so-called guard behaving badly stories are all standard fare in the headlines. Severity and extenuating factors ultimately determine how long the event in question draws media inquiry and public outrage. At high level, this is how one prison riot may barely draw local media attention while another—such as a 2018 event that left seven inmates dead and over 20 injured inside a South Carolina prison—may stay under the spotlight for months.

These situations combine for a corrections industry wherein facilities can be directly linked to a large number of scandals and unfairly connected to an even larger collection thereof. From a PR perspective, this is hardly an enviable position. This, in turn, partially explains why the disaster response aspect of public relations—once a rather uncommon skill in private sector PR, and still fairly specialized—is closer to a primary function in corrections agencies large enough to warrant their own PR service and a leading purchase when organizations contract with outside help. With problems coming from so many directions, a high percentage of which are almost completely beyond the organization’s control, controlling the message may quite simply be beyond the individual entity’s grasp.
Public vs. Media Relations: Narrowing the Focus

While corrections agencies may differ from others in the types of crises they encounter, the process they must follow largely mirrors a scheme common to every successful rebound effort. The first step, ideally, is building a response plan, which occurs well before help is needed. At minimum, having a formalized procedure in place gives stakeholders, and especially those who might end up speaking to media figures, a set of high-level guideposts to grasp as they navigate an undeniably stressful situation.

In essence, these guideposts follow the same rough steps no matter what situation they are deployed to rectify. The agency or facility affected must take steps to stop any immediate problems, consider what it will do to prevent the same thing from occurring in the future, and relay these efforts to the media as early as possible. This process, commonly called getting in front of the issue, shows measures of contrition, recognition, and willingness to change all at once. These are three components the media and public alike appreciate when considering the intentions behind a controversy.

For the messages crafted throughout this phase to spread with the least trouble possible, agencies should do what they can to build solid relationships with local media figures well in advance of a crisis. Per public sector media expert Leonard Sipes, getting to this point requires the agency to seriously consider the needs of the media, and make changes reflecting a good-faith attempt to meet them. Stated declarations of respect for media processes, such as the policy put forth by the Delaware Department of Corrections, may further illustrate the agency’s honest willingness to engage with news agencies and other media throughout the crisis.

As Sipes notes in the same article, this level of engagement is important for a few reasons. Facilities or organizations without the budget or reach for their own PR endeavors effectively rely on media sources to present their viewpoint to a broader audience. To the same point, being honest and forthcoming in less tense situations gives journalists fewer reasons to doubt correctional stakeholders when they wish to present a message during a crisis.  This generally may give the organization more influence with the people putting their words in print. Simply being transparent regarding the agenda a facility or organization wishes to push may similarly yield better results than hints and inferences; reporters, trained to be skeptical, will generally catch onto a line faster than they let on.

This point may be less important in the age of social media, but only marginally so. In the end, the average correctional facility, private agency, or department of corrections will likely hold less power to spread a message than the average media outlet of the same size. Relatively few journalists will go out of their way to disparage a company with whom they do not enjoy a great relationship. While the National Institute of Corrections makes available helpful resources for dealing with these types in the rare event they do emerge, there is also the thought that a journalist who grants the institution a measure of credibility is one who fails to second-guess anything the institution says.

Training Ties the Crisis Response Together

Training, another foundational aspect of smart PR crisis response, must also be implemented in advance of problems that draw serious media attention. Done right, it is one of the most valuable tools at the crisis-stricken organization’s disposal: a pre-response that marries the practical benefits of a better-trained workforce with strategic advantages of full, thorough documentation.

Usually a disadvantage, with smart planning and implementation, the sheer number of looming problems with the potential to become a full-fledged crisis can actually work in a correctional facility’s favor. Topics to be covered—and whether they should be taken as standalone modules or included in existing lessons—depend on the facility and its specific role within the system, but should generally include some mixture of the following:

Who talks and who does not: Only authorized spokespeople, preferably selected from high-level management, should be authorized to speak to the media in any official capacity. Those chosen for the task should be trained on points to avoid and topics to highlight, and should have a demonstrated proficiency in keeping cool and handling surprise questions.

Consequences of on- and off-duty behavior: Just as citizens in the stories above may have trouble differentiating innocent jails from the less-than-innocent individuals who misbehaved within them, onlookers viewing a staffer’s Facebook page are likely to make a direct correlation with their employing facility. Provided the state makes no provisions for off-duty conduct, employees should be told how their activities away from work may result in discipline or termination, if only to give the organization a leg to stand on when it comes time to avoid a looming crisis.
For Corrections Agencies, Facilities, Stopping PR Crises Isn’t an Option—Prevention Is

Behaviors that may inadvertently start crises: Accidental oversight, certain restraint holds, and inadvertent instances of racial insensitivity are just three examples of accidental (as opposed to willful) behavior that may draw sustained pushback from media and others outside facility walls. Employees should be trained on these as frequently as needed. While most facilities will naturally train on these topics, treating them with the appropriate seriousness is a necessity.

Tactful communication: Unwritten rules and concepts like respect are major aspects of life inside a correctional facility, and transgressions can quickly spiral into disproportionate displays of violence. Bad enough on their own, these outbursts can carry a larger compounding effect in the public and media attention they invite. Alongside training on any specific rules of a given facility, the need for “tactical communication” training—think Verbal Judo, for one prominent example—is critical for corrections officers and other staff because of this.

As noted, the face value this sort of training provides is obvious. Staff who know how to handle the media, navigate the complex unwritten rules of their facility, and verbally manage inmates under their care with grace and respect are those less likely to add to the ongoing tensions that create incidents. With the right system in place, however, that is just one way in which corrections-industry organizations can benefit from better training practices. When the training system in place also keeps detailed records of the full training activity of every employee, it becomes easier for the facility to defend itself in the courtroom and the media in the event of a damaging PR crisis.

Following this, organizations reliant on ineffective, outdated training and records management practices would be well advised to consider an upgrade. It is all but impossible to predict and preempt every possible action that draws undue attention from outside. Even the preventable mistakes that cause them can be invisible until they are viewed in hindsight; accordingly, putting a smart process in place capable of recording the minor details that prove an acceptable level of oversight, is by far the best change facilities and organizations across the corrections industry can hope to affect. In an industry where secondary damages from outsiders can be almost as impactful as the event that spurred the crisis, that is not a claim to take lightly.

Posted on Apr 23, 2019