Police PR gaffes: Here is unsolicited advice

Saturday September 21 2019


By Moses Khisa

Kale Kayihura, the former partisan Inspector General of Police, did enormous damage to the institution of the Uganda Police Force. Organisational ethos and basic policing norms were sacrificed at the altar of serving regime survival.
Kayihura did a great deal of his police work in the media. He loved the limelight, but loathed criticism. He humiliated before cameras officers at fault, paraded suspects before the media and shored up his standing by making exaggerated public statements. Arguably, the most outrageous was the claim he had 11 million ‘crime preventers,’ which at the time of the assertion, meant almost all registered voters!
Rushed and hashed up press releases were a characteristic feature of the Kayihra police regime. The man went but the practice remains. Kayihura was a political operative, so whatever he did and his public posturing have to be put in that context. What about career officers who would presumably remain in the Force even if there was change of government tomorrow?
The more pitiful group is that charged with public relations and communication. The gaffes keep growing. The quality of communication is appalling. The level of sophistication in conveying straightforward information to the public is disappointing. Here are a few considerations that can make a difference.
First, abandon the bravado. You work for the public, for all Ugandans, regardless of political persuasion. Issuing threatening statements directed at opponents of the rulers is scarcely within the remit of policing. Even if the new operatives who replaced Kayihura’s group, and therefore, are in charge of decision-making, order that you issue such statements, find a way of tempering the language for your sake and image.
Second, refrain from rushed statements on high profile crimes. The controversy and confusion in the recent murder cases underline the perils of unmeasured and hurried release of information that ends up being misinformation. The media in this age are obsessed with breaking stories and will pressure you for information. But better there is no information than misinformation.
Third, if you must give details about crimes and ongoing investigations, the less said the better. The army and defence spokesman, Brig Richard Karemire, knows a bit of this. Pick a leaf from him.
Since the grisly, chilling and cold-blooded killing of a young woman and his driver recently, there has been a flurry of police statements and all sorts of revelations about the investigations. Wrong. You say you are hunting down the person who contracted the killers because the latter have told you someone hired them, and that you can’t reveal the name. But by revealing that someone hired them, you have informed the alleged mastermind that you are looking for him!
Fourth, parading suspects is unprofessional and antithetical to successful investigation and prosecution. You will arraign them in court, so what’s the value of prematurely presenting them to the media? Worse, you grossly undermine the presumption of innocence with such unnecessary and ill-thought actions. Suspects cannot defend themselves or plead their innocence in front of interrogators and media cameras. What exactly is the import?
Last, there is the small matter of writing, writing well. Dear Mr Fred Enanga, it is possible that often you release statements under pressure and in the rush of the moment. But you are speaking on behalf of the police force and the country.
There are some small nuts of writing that need due attention. Punctuation! If you are to give some details, avoid telling winding and circuitous stories. If there is overriding need for detail, think about being precise and concise. A two to three page rumbling, poorly punctuated and laced with mundane details can be exhausting to read, but also can harm sensitive investigations.
Perhaps a short refresher course in this business can help. From my experience though, good writing and effective communication come from doing it and the awareness of the need to do better. Most important, stick to policing. Leave politics and posturing.
For long, the police have been in the throes of decay. The imperatives of regime survival have weighed heavily and intensely on the institution. There is a monumental problem. It won’t be solved soon. When the time comes the country will have to go to the drawing board, to refashion a new force, one committed to policing and not politics.
In the meantime, even in the current muddied waters and tumultuous times, those who speak for the Force can do better.
Dr Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).