Peppered PR

      11 Comments on Peppered PR

Jeff Morosoff, Assistant Professor/Public Relations, Hofstra University

A video showing protesting students passively at the University of California Davis casually being pepper-sprayed by a campus police officer is all over the news this weekend. Now the department is under investigation to determine whether excessive force was used by officers working to control Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

This was also the week that the City of New York cleared Zuccotti Park of its two month-long occupation, sometimes using pepper spray and batons to break up resisting crowds. Occasional injuries to protesters have become common in these scenes, scenes that are being repeatedly played out in front of omnipresent cameras.

Armed with public relations staffs, police departments must constantly work to strike a balance between enforcing the law and maintaining a positive public image. After all, the social contract we’ve created with police can be volatile. We’ve essentially given a small group of people permission to wear uniforms and carry guns and other forms of enforcement tools in exchange for our personal and public safety. When the public feels this trust has been violated, it gets upset. Police departments face the difficult task of repairing damage caused by such incidents, because loss of public support can be devastating on many levels. The PR skills needed to maintain this balance is not easy. In a busy urban or suburban police department, potential PR crises are peppered throughout nearly every work day. It’s a PR job that’s not for the faint-hearted. Your thoughts?

11 thoughts on “Peppered PR

  1. blgilmartin

    I’ve seen a lot of these videos and I think that if the Police officers are doing what they are supposed to the videos would show that, but it seems during many of these events in these recent protests the police have been incorrectly enforcing laws.

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  2. alipr107

    I feel like working in the PR department for a cities police department would be very challenging. In recent, for a lot of young people, the police have become a enemy, and not someone to be trusted. In my personal experience, I don’t trust police officers at all. Police officers are rarely helpful, and love to get people in trouble just so they can reach their quota.
    I think that the police used way too much force with the protesters at Wall Street. Though there are a lot of them, the protest is mostly filled with peaceful people.
    But being in the shoes of the PR team for this must be difficult. How does one tell a department that they cant use force if they want to maintain a good image? I am sure that the police don’t really care how they come off because they are the one with the power, the weapons, and authority. This probably makes it difficult for the PR team to do their job successfully.

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  4. Bobby Liga

    There have been many different scenarios where police abuse their rights and use excessive force on certain individuals. I believe that the situation with the pepper spray is a pure example of police using excessive force. It’s wrong, and it happens all the time. Police act of line in certain riot scenarios and end up hurting a civilian that is simply practicing their first amendment right to freedom of speech. Being a public relations practitioner for a police department is extremely difficult because there are always “crooked” police officers who act completely out of hand. It’s hard for the public to accept the fact that police overact in certain situations, thus, it becomes difficult for a PR practitioner to represent the police in a situation like that. In my opinion, defending the police is one of the most difficult PR positions to hold.

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    1. Phil Hecken

      “I believe that the situation with the pepper spray is a pure example of police using excessive force.”

      Not trying to start an argument, but how can you declare that to be 100% so? Were you there? Are you completely aware of the circumstances prior to the video? Were the protesters acting illegally? Were they informed they were trespassing or committing some other crime of which we are not aware. Were they told that if they did not unblock the road in which they were kneeling, they would be removed by whatever means necessary?

      Again, I’m not saying the police were not out of bounds or using undue force, but you are only seeing one side (the side the protestors want you to see), and that’s very effective in gaining sympathy for their cause.

      I’m not acting as an apologist for the police (I was a bit too young to remember Kent State, but those images have been seared into my mind)…so I certainly do agree that in many instances, the law enforcement authorities can and do use excessive force.

      Just don’t assume that what you’re seeing in that video is the whole story.

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  5. OkAnna

    Public relations for police departments is most definitely a round the clock every day affair. As long as policing is being done, so is PR, especially in the world of camera phones and flipcams. Every word and every action of each and every police officer holds the potential to change the public’s opinions toward a police department. Police officers are the face of police departments. Therefore, PR should focus on ensuring that officers act properly, even if that means changing police tactics to comply with the standards of the public.

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  6. samwilbur

    Yes, I think it is evident that the media will capitalize on whatever part of the movement is sensational at the moment, instead of telling the whole story. Yet, its hard to justify the police actions, and thus a very difficult job for the PR staff. One must hope that police will be able to minimize mistakes and potential abuse of the law, but it is bound to happen. Not an easy job at all–that’s for sure.

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  7. Lauren Means

    I agree with Phil in that there may be more to the story than a sole photo or video can show. There are so many different opinions concerning this movement that a single video will not change a fervent mindset. If a young person who marches with “the ninety-nine percent” sees the mentioned photo, they would become outraged by apparent police brutality. If a Wall Street supporter sees the photo, they may be satisfied with the official police statement defending the officer’s actions.

    In this age, where electronic recording is, as the professor said, “omnipresent,” each video or photo portraying violence may well have a corresponding image portraying duty to the law. Without paying attention to the many sides of the story, we cannot hope to assemble an opinion.

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  8. Phil Hecken

    OWS is a perfect example of how spin can tell all three sides (the protesters’ side, the police’s side, and the truth) of a story, depending on what video is being used, who shot it, and how it’s edited.

    Back in the nascent stages of the protests, if memory serves, OWS-supplied video showed “peaceful” protesters being rather aggressively arrested for trespass when they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. Later, in response, police released video showing the protesters being informed they would be arrested for trespass if they were to block traffic on the Bridge. Same event, different spin. Did none (or few, as the protesters claimed) get informed they’d be arrested? No. Did all (as the police implied) be told they’d be arrested if they trespassed? No. Some clearly did not know they would be in violation of the law (of course, ignorance of the law is no excuse).

    The pepper spray incidents are disturbing, but again, depending on what video, especially that which is carefully edited, tells two stories. Early video released by OWS showed supporters, seemingly peacefully and with no provocation, being sprayed wantonly by police, in apparent disregard for the laws on use of the spray. Later, police and civilian video showed that the protesters provoked some of the attacks, but the provocations were never shown in the OWS footage. Same event, different spin.

    I don’t want to take sides nor claim either side has the moral high ground. But the lesson here is this: never take at face value even what appears to be indisputable evidence supporting one side or another. There is usually more to the story. A classic (early) example would be the Rodney King beating. By carefully and skillfully manipulating the very video used to charge the four officers, the defense was able to prove to a jury that the police were not acting with undue force.

    A video like the one Professor Morosoff linked to may be harder to spin or refute. But don’t be surprised to find out there are two more sides to that story.

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  10. Johnnie Kirkland

    There is a fine line between using force and abusing power. Unfortunately, these police teams may have been making the right decisions, but the way it looks to the public is much different than the way it truly was in the heat of the moment. This is a perfect example of why Public Relations is so important.

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