WASHINGTON After deliberately avoiding the public eye for years, the law enforcement community faces some daunting communications challenges as it tries to catch up with new media. But there are lessons to be learned from its experiences.
As the focus on homeland security intensifies, the new goal of these groups is to step up their marketing and create some positive publicity. And that's caught the eye of at least one shop, which sees an opportunity to expand its practice into the growing and increasingly complicated security industry.
The Adfero Group, a Washington, D.C.- based public affairs shop, now dedicates part of its practice to homeland security issues. It has taken on clients like the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Airport and Seaport Police. The shop is also doing work for the DEA Foundation, a separate nonprofit affiliated with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's museum that helps educate the public about the dangers of using drugs.
"From my experience working at DEA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it became increasingly clear that the old approach to law enforcement, which was keeping your head down and avoiding the public and the media, was no longer working in the new media landscape," says Christopher Battle, vp and director of Adfero's homeland security practice.
Just why a group like the port police hired Adfero in February can be summed up in recent headlines blaring that America's ports are not safe and that Arab countries are going to buy or operate these U.S. entry points. There's also battles to get more money from Congress, which has favored the airport police in the past simply because most lawmakers have an airport in their district and can understand the need for security. But not many have a seaport.
When Jay Grant, the port police director, looked at the tools he had to begin honing his group's image and educating lawmakers and the public, he quickly realized just how much trouble he was in. First, his group had no Web site. Second, a Web site did exist for an affiliated group called the International Association of Airport and Seaport Police, but it was password protected.
"We never had time to put anything on a Web site, but it doesn't do any good if you keep things a secret," Grant says. With Adfero's help, he now has a Web site (still under construction) that people can visit.
Adfero's Battle realized that Grant could also step up his marketing outreach through an international conference the group held each year. Instead of a conference where law enforcement officers would meet quietly to discuss best practices at an event that was not open to the media or public, Battle recommended a different approach.
This year's conference, held in June in Washington, D.C., was not only open to the public, but members of Congress and the media were invited. The event included high-profile speakers like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Asa Hutchinson, a former DHS undersecretary for border and transportation security. It also garnered sponsors and exhibitors such as IBM and Lockheed Martin. Giuliani's presence as a Republican candidate for president helped to make sure the national media would cover his speech.
Now Grant says he is in a better position to handle some of the political skirmishes that are a daily fact of life when dealing with Congress. Along with the Web site, Adfero recommended that the group send out e-mail newsletters to keep lawmakers and others informed, and to counter misinformation. Grant quickly learned that not even lawmakers understand how the port system operates as an independent chartered government, and that land is leased to shipping companies, much like a mall leases space to a store.
Targeted e-mails help get the word out to counter public perceptions that foreigners own America's ports.
"We felt we had to make people understand what is going on and that accurate information gets out," Grant says.
The latest Congressional threat comes from a bill passed by the House in January that would require airlines be able to physically inspect 100 percent of cargo put aboard passenger planes within three years and that shippers scan 100 percent of U.S.-bound cargo for radiation at overseas ports within five years. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expects the airlines and shipping industries to help pick up the costs of the inspections. For the airlines alone, a Congressional Research Service estimate puts the cost of inspecting all cargo placed just aboard passenger aircraft at $3.6 billion to $6 billion by 2009.
Adfero has since filmed Grant explaining how the new screening of cargo requirements could cripple the flow of commerce, may lead to retaliation by trading partners and provide little added security. The intent is to have the video footage available when the issue heats up again as it no doubt will in the Senate. "We wanted to have footage available for any number of opportunities, from simply placing it on the Web site to including video statements in our interactive news release format," Battle says.
Battle's main mission for the port police is to get out the following message: "We need to reassure Americans that while we still have a lot to do, our ports are a lot safer now than they were before Sept. 11."
Another Adfero client, the DEA Foundation, has picked up some of the slack in educating the public about the dangers of illegal drug use since the Bush administration and Congress have cut back DEA's budget to reduce drug use.
DEA now focuses almost exclusively on law enforcement, and many of its agents who provided community education in the past have been reassigned. Since visiting the DEA Museum in Arlington, Va., is not high on the list of must-see attractions for the average tourist in the capital, the group created a traveling museum that has visited six cities since its creation in 2002. Visitors can see exhibits on narco-terrorism, which seeks to illustrate how drug money finances international terror or how methamphetamine supports terrorist organizations in South America. (The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a former sponsor of the DEA Foundation, aired ads linking drugs to terrorism in its anti-drug media campaign during the 2002 Super Bowl. Ogilvy & Mather, New York, created the work.)
Although the DEA Foundation lacks the budget of the anti-drug media campaign, which at its peak reached $195 million a year, it has been pleasantly surprised by the growing attendance at its exhibits. The traveling exhibit's most recent stop at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago garnered 255,400 visitors in five months. The group decided to hire Adfero to capitalize on the growing momentum to generate publicity, increase awareness and raise money.
The first task has been to rebrand the group's name and identity. "We find it difficult for people to understand who we are and what we do because we have difficulty explaining it ourselves," says foundation president Bill Alden.
As board member and former JWT CEO Peter Schweitzer puts it, "We have been called the DEA Museum Retired Agents Foundation, and I said, 'I can't even say it,' " he says. "There is no way we can raise awareness or money if we can't print our name on a piece of paper."
So the group shortened the name to DEA Foundation. It has also asked Adfero to create an interactive Web site that will include blogs and virtual tours of the museum. Right now, the only Web site that exists is a page about the museum on the DEA Web site. Plans to include a blog and a speakers bureau are also under discussion.
The group's strategy going forward is to take its slogan, "Hope through education," and "take the debate about drugs out of the realm of statistics and policy and move it into the realm of personal stories," says Battle. "The overarching message strategy is for personal and very specific stories about addicts and the misery they experience, and stories about law enforcement agents and the risks they take when they confront violent gangs. The Web site will be built around that."