As a past Public Relations and Press Officer of the Guyana Police Force I have to admit that my sympathies are still with that organization. It is therefore a reasonable expectation that I would be pained when I see the frequent criticisms to which the force is subject. I was nonplussed the other day when I saw that the Public Relations Unit is facing several challenges which in my naiveté I thought had been identified and addressed long ago. Without rehashing the elements of the article which caught my attention I would like to offer a few comments which I hope will be taken in the intended spirit of good will.
The potential use of the media in crime prevention and crime investigation is most times largely misunderstood by the designated office, which is inclined to interpret the role is more along the lines of a public relations role rather than as a public information task. The unambiguous articulation of this role is to be found in a media policy framework where the dissemination of confusing, contradictory or incorrect information to the media is reduced to a minimum, if not completely eliminated.
With something like 6 television and 2 radio stations producing daily/nightly newscasts, 18 television channels and 4 daily newspapers (at last count), the media environment in which the police must operate requires coordinating skills. The coordination of all police statements to the media should be done through a clear and well-disseminated set of guidelines and through the provision of media training for the officers who regularly must deal with journalists. Additionally, the function of the Public Relations and Press Office should be clearly defined, and its central and coordinating role for the police when dealing with the media stressed.
The role that the media can play in crime prevention schemes, in tracking down suspects and informing the public of serious incidents is underestimated and under-utilised. But for this not to be so, extensive policies need to be established and at least one Liaison Officer trained in media relations in each division. This will have an impact on relations with the media, the public and on police effectiveness. If one does not exist, then a media relations policy should be adopted in accordance with the Standing Orders with a set of professional guidelines for contacts with the media with respect to media co-operation without divulging confidential information.
A media relations policy should be drafted which outlines the approach for dealing with the media. The media should be informed about things which are in the public interest; help illustrate the way in which the police go about their work; and help build public confidence in the police service.
Additionally, the PR office has a duty to inform the media about events in the public domain. This relates to crime appeals and road traffic accident prevention. In doing so, the balance needs to be maintained between the need to protect the rights of any individual or group or victim and the need to ensure the successful conclusion of any investigation. The media policy should be formulated so that it will not compromise or prejudice an investigation.
Moreover, guidelines must state who is permitted to speak to the media and what information is appropriate to release about any given situation. This might cover operational information, where officers above a certain rank may be authorised to speak to the media about their own areas of responsibility and where officers below this rank may seek approval; support staff and general matters – what support staff should be allowed to discuss, for instance support staff talking only about their role in a specific investigation with the prior approval of a senior officer; and policy matters which should only be handled by the PR unit.
The appointment of Divisional Media Liaison Officers should be done to ensure that the individual selected is a good communicator; of even temperament; works well under extreme pressure; a good organiser; and has complete access to senior police officers in charge of the investigation/ incident. His/her name should be made available to all police in the investigation so that the media has a named media contact.
A review of the function of the Public Relations office within the Guyana Police Force should take place. This should lead to the development of a media policy and media guidelines that would be familiar to all personnel within the service.
Patrick E. Mentore