Grading Memphis PD’s Communication: Better Than Some, But Not Perfect

[Editor’s Note: One of many things under scrutiny in the killing of Tyre Nichols is how the Memphis Police Department (MPD) communicated in its initial press release and police report. Critics charge they are gross mischaracterizations of what occurred. Moreover, they contrast with bodycam video and other footage of Mr. Nichols’s beating.

We asked communicator John Guilfoil, who works with police and fire departments, for his view. The essay below was lightly edited and does not necessarily reflect the views of PRNEWS. As always, we invite opposing essays from readers.]

Many know the term public information officer (PIO). A PIO really is a PR practitioner in the emergency realm.

Though not perfect, MPD compares well with other police departments on crisis management.

Sadly, with police killings around the country, we have far too much history on which to draw.

So, while we should expect progress on police communication, it's utterly sad that we are discussing how poorly other departments communicated when their officers killed people. 

Still, some examples. Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown around 10 a.m., Aug. 9, 2014. Ferguson PD issued its first statement at noon the next day. Far too much time passed.

In 2020, the Minneapolis Police PIO was in a terrible position writing the first press release on George Floyd’s death.

Relying on information from middle managers (police sergeants), the result was one of the all-time infamous police press releases. Many believe it downplayed Mr. Floyd's death.

In reality, an uninformed communicator was following orders and using incomplete (false) information.

PR in a Low-Level Role

That release illustrates the danger of placing PR pros in a low-level role. Communicators in all sectors know this well. For instance, when companies don't elevate PR to a management function, results can be disastrous.

While corporate PR flops usually don't involve death and violence, this is all the more reason for police to treat communicators as top-level managers. What we say on behalf of police departments becomes the official record­–and if that is wrong, everything the agency says becomes suspect.

Memphis PD's Communication

It appears the PR/PIO operation in Memphis is more a part of senior management than some other agencies, but departments across the country suffer from a fear of being exposed.

The first Memphis press release contained some of the glaring problems in Minneapolis’–especially over-reliance on vague words like "confrontation."

However, the second half of MPD's release–and the department's subsequent actions–is more in line with crisis communication practice.

For example, in the initial release, MPD announced another agency, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, would run the investigation. This is extremely important.

A third party, especially a county/state/federal agency that may have power over a municipal/town/city agency, is viewed as more legitimate than the MPD investigating itself.

Additionally, MPD acted with more urgency and speed than other departments. MPD’s chief appeared on camera and expressed genuine emotion. There was no ‘it’s a personnel matter’ or ‘no comment pending the outcome of the investigation’ jargon.

Instead, the chief spoke and MPD released footage. The conclusion is MPD did a better job communicating about a horrific situation than many departments.

MPD’s Police Report

Ultimately, police reports should be written in a clear, complete, long-form manner because they are intended for use in court. Police reports always are considerably longer than department press releases.

Lying in a police report is considered a cardinal sin in policing, because if an officer is proven to have lied, she can no longer legitimately testify in court. This calls all the officer’s work into question; all cases and all arrests.

However, this does not mean police reports sometimes aren’t obtuse or open to interpretation. Police reports are written in the immediate aftermath and represent one person's viewpoint/recollection.

Such reports are not an all-encompassing timeline of police actions. Instead, they are one of many source materials that, when used as a composite, can paint a clearer picture.

Other sources include body cameras, cruiser cameras, Ring/doorbell/security cameras, journalists and citizens recording police actions and eyewitness accounts.

Dangers of Single-Source Writing

One of the most dangerous things a PIO/PR pro can do is write a press release based solely on a single police report–and we all are guilty of this.

In the majority of cases–a robbery with a masked suspect, shoplifting, a stolen car, graffiti–the report gives the PIO/PR pro enough to write a basic press release.

However, when situations are more complicated, there is death or injury, additional source material and top-level review are needed.

Generally, initial police press releases need to be concise, especially if they relate to arrests, open investigations or use of force. This is because law courts and the court of public opinion will question everything in a PD press release.

A Shorter Release

Ultimately, a shorter press release would have done less harm in Memphis. There would be less speculation and less reliance on one-sided initial police reports.

For example: A 29-year-old Memphis man died after a traffic stop involving a Memphis Police unit. The Chief has ordered all officers involved placed on administrative leave, and the case has been turned over to the State Department of Investigation, consistent with our policies and procedures. The Memphis Police Department will cooperate fully with the state's investigation.

The sample above sticks to the facts and leaves little room for interpretation about a communicator’s intent.

It's not the job of a police PIO to protect individual officers.  A PIO’s duty includes protecting the department’s reputation and legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.

As one police chief said to me this week: "Few people are more upset about bad cops than good cops."

While we try to preach tell it all, tell it fast in crisis management, when you lack all the facts, it's best not to speculate.

As always, during a crisis, honesty is best. Ivy Lee said "tell the truth" when he created a crisis management model that remains in wide use today.

Of course, and this is especially true for police PIOs, you must know the truth before you can tell it.

John Guilfoil is principal of JGPR 

[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of PRNEWS. We invite opposing essays from readers.]