Skip to main content

Law Enforcement & The Crisis Of Public Confidence

"If You See Something, Say Something" is the most memorable public safety campaign I can think of. It began as a DHS (U.S. Department of Homeland Security) initiative but quickly branched out into a nationwide initiative at the federal, state and local levels and you can see the motto everywhere, particularly at public transportation hubs.

Here's a fun fact: the motto was originally rejected. As Mike Riggs reported several years ago in (citing an Adweek article from 2002), Korey Kay & Partners tried to get the federal government to adopt it after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Nobody was interested -- not DHS, not the Department of Justice, and not the Department of State.

But eventually DHS did adopt it, and according to Riggs, in 2008 the line "went viral." (The article offers an excellent timeline showing key moments in its adoption.) The question for students of law enforcement communication, and social media marketing, is whether the campaign has actually worked.

The consensus is that it hasn't:
  • New York magazine writer Dwyer Gunn, citing the work of NYU sociologist Harvey Molotch, points to the detrimental effect of many "leads that are likely to amount to nothing." For one thing, they make each individual lead less likely to be taken seriously. Overall, he notes, the program "hasn't yielded any terrorists."
  • The New York Times in 2008 noted that the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) claimed it got 1,944 campaign-related tips in 2006. The result? "No terrorists were arrested, but a wide spectrum of other activity was reported."
  • called the campaign the creation of a "Massive Database Of Useless Info From Citizens Spying On Each Other."
These commentators may be right; perhaps encouraging people to report on suspicious activities mucks up the system, distracts the feds and the police, creates unnecessary delays, and encourages an atmosphere of suspicion.

But then again, perhaps the problem with the campaign was not the idea, but its execution. Terrorism is on the increase, not the decline, and we need all available information to fight it. In "Key Trends in the Uncertain Metrics of Terrorism," published in 2016 by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Anthony H. Cordesman notes:

"Virtually all of the data available indicate that these threats to the United States and its allies remain critical and that the geographic scope and intensity of terrorism continues to increase. At the same time, there are critical problems and shortfalls in the data available, a near total lack of credible unclassified data on the cost and effectiveness of various counterterrorism efforts, and critical problems in the ways the United States approaches terrorism."

In short, what Cordesman is saying is that we don't know enough, we don't measure well enough, and we don't think smartly enough about how we fight the bad guys (and ladies).

The public can and should play a huge role in supporting government efforts to fight terrorism. And despite the widespread criticism it has received, a glitzy ad campaign like "If You See Something, Say Something" can help. But -- and this is a big but -- by failing to report studiously on results, law enforcement leaves the public with the impression that this is a superficial campaign.

It gets worse than that. While the public respects law enforcement, they have almost no trust in the institutions and individuals associated with politics and public service. So while Gallup found (2016), for example, that 76% of Americans have "a great deal of respect for the police," they simultaneously learned that:
"If You See Something, Say Something" is a great idea. It's a great concept. It's a great ad and a great brand.

But in order for a brand to work, its customers have to see a promise being kept.

Law enforcement should start to fulfill the promise of this campaign by focusing on its results. If they're getting too many useless leads, they should help the public deliver more fruitful ones. And they should provide regular progress reports, in a coordinated way, that show how these improvements are yielding a true return on investment for the public.


All opinions my own. Photo by AdinaVoicu via Pixabay (Public Domain).

Popular posts from this blog

What is the difference between brand equity and brand parity?

Brand equity is a financial calculation. It is the difference between a commodity product or service and a branded one. For example if you sell a plain orange for $.50 but a Sunkist orange for $.75 and the Sunkist orange has brand equity you can calculate it at $.25 per orange.

Brand parity exists when two different brands have a relatively equal value. The reason we call it "parity" is that the basis of their value may be different. For example, one brand may be seen as higher in quality, while the other is perceived as fashionable.

All opinions my own. Originally posted to Quora. Public domain photo by hbieser via Pixabay.

What is the difference between "brand positioning," "brand mantra," and "brand tagline?"

Brand positioning statement: This is a 1–2 sentence description of what makes the brand different from its competitors (or different in its space), and compelling. Typically the positioning combines elements of the conceptual (e.g., “innovative design,” something that would be in your imagination) with the literal and physical (e.g., “the outside of the car is made of the thinnest, strongest metal on earth”). The audience for this statement is internal. It’s intended to get everybody on the same page before going out with any communication products.Brand mantra: This is a very short phrase that is used predominantly by people inside the organization, but also by those outside it, in order to understand the “essence” or the “soul” of the brand and to sell it to employees. An example would be Google’s “Don’t be evil.” You wouldn’t really see it in an ad, but you might see it mentioned or discussed in an article about the company intended to represent it to investors, influencers, etc.Br…

Nitro Cold Brew and the Oncoming Crash of Starbucks

A long time ago (January 7, 2008), the Wall Street Journal ran an article about McDonald's competing against Starbucks.
At the time the issue was that the former planned to pit its own deluxe coffees head to head with the latter.
At the time I wrote that while Starbucks could be confident in its brand-loyal consumers, the company, my personal favorite brand of all time,  "...needs to see this as a major warning signal. As I have said before, it is time to reinvent the brand — now.  "Starbucks should consider killing its own brand and resurrecting it as something even better — the ultimate, uncopyable 'third space' that is suited for the way we live now.  "There is no growth left for Starbucks as it stands anymore — it has saturated the market. It is time to do something daring, different, and better — astounding and delighting the millions (billions?) of dedicated Starbucks fans out there who are rooting for the brand to survive and succeed." Today as …