The Malta Independent 30 November 2022, Wednesday
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The demise of public relations

Mary Muscat Sunday, 20 November 2022, 10:34 Last update: about 10 days ago

“The public service’s PR in general has long been dead. It might sound like a sweeping statement, but look at how the Phoneline 153 took over from the departmental PR.”

It’s been another week of bad public relations for law enforcement. Shoddy prosecutions, enforcement officers breaking the law and ministers hiding from the public or childishly twisting logic to dodge the canvasser silver bullet.

Don’t forget the Voldemort-Minister who dished out licences to failed drivers. The problem with law enforcement is not the absence of PR, but the very antithesis of PR that is now in full swing: “crime pays, it’s the new normal”.

The public service’s PR in general has long been dead. It might sound like a sweeping statement, but look at how the Phoneline 153 took over from the departmental PR. Even Local Councils, that point of reference for the public’s civic concerns, can no longer follow up on enforcement because the task was removed from their remit. You’re told to file your report with LESA instead. And speaking from experience, sometimes 153’s information is outdated or misleading and you still need to double-check with the source.

Recently I pointed out to an organisation that their disabled parking slot had to be painted in blue because the signage was wrong and the underground parking lights weren’t helping. I did that through Messenger but still had to turn up in person because no one answered after the first automatic text. I wonder what Marshall McLuhan would have thought about social media creating a buffer from the public.

Social media should only be a small part of the whole PR package, not its full replacement. It may be faster, but it’s still impersonal or too focused on press agentry. With the rise of mental health issues, loneliness and social issues post-Covid, to treat the public at a distance is criminal.

The real deal is Grunig’s twoway symmetrical model with its unencumbered communication flow, positively inclined towards conflict resolution and where feedback, whether positive or negative, is actively incorporated to improve the system. Any PR connoisseur notices this glaring gap in law enforcement’s public interface and it’s extremely worrying because not even a minimal effort is exerted in at least anticipating any wave of criticism or bad press.

Take the road flooding aftermath for example: people posting pictures of dislodged car registration plates and inviting readers to share the content. Why wasn’t there an immediate police response educating finders to take the plates to the nearest police station instead to avoid misuse of such property by third parties? Or better still, why didn’t the police PR anticipate it?

The British police PR model is based on democratic policing, with the police sourcing their legitimisation from the public. The continental model is different: the Police is the executive arm of the law and you don’t mess with them. Then there’s the European institutional approach that promotes the human rights model of policing based on transparency, accountability and service to the public. Malta was directed towards this model in recent rebukes by the Venice Commission, to mention one example. But Maltese law-abiding folks want our police to be the continental command-andcontrol, clean, incorrupt but street-wise, efficient and effective before anything else. Look at social media comments. Is anyone gauging them using proper methods of research?

Perhaps the best police PR tool at the moment, and probably the only current hope that there is and ever will be in the years to come, is the work of the Community Police Officers. Whether their existence is or is not a tool to counteract the damage of the corruption trail can only be deduced with the passage of time.

Last week, this paper carried an interview with one of the inspectors in charge and the reaction of readers was telling, though not surprising. They went for the jugular and demanded the command-andcontrol version, misreading the context, which was referring exclusively to the community police model. The inspector was correct: community policing functions differently. And they’re doing a good job, despite the small number of human resources in comparison to the whole Force.

Then again, the existence of a Police PR mechanism would have addressed the public’s concerns properly and not leave one of its own to carry the weight of the public reaction and face the public single-handedly. A good PR backup would have taken advantage of the interview and built a programme around it. I remember back when I was managing the Police’s PR, working closely with the Home Affairs equivalent and flooding the system with different angles of the same topic, while empowering the public with rightful access to the criminal justice system.

Then again, with such an undemocratic track-record of illegalities and perpetrators protected by the powers above, is it wise to invest in PR or invest in a major clean-up first? Corruption has polluted the medium and twisted the message. The system has to be rebuilt from scratch.

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