Despite large-scale staff vacancies and major budget constraints, the Los Angeles Police Department's communications team has worked double-time to make the force more open.
Do a quick news search on the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and you're certain to find at least a half-dozen ongoing stories on any given day.
In one recent week, media covered everything from allegations surrounding the murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G., to the investigation of an assault on actor Leonardo DiCaprio, to a donation of BlackBerry battery boosters for the department.
A week later, the department faced media and public scrutiny over the shooting death of a toddler during a hostage standoff.
As a high-profile (and sometimes troubled) agency in one of the nation's biggest cities, the LAPD has no end of communications issues. But it does have a limited PR staff and tight budget constraints that make its fast-paced environment a challenge.
"People are amazed at the amount of work we produce with no budget and the kinds of vacancy rates we have," says Mary Grady, who heads all communications for the LAPD as the commanding officer of the community affairs group. "Any major PR firm couldn't operate this way. I have a phenomenal staff. These people are the hardest-working people that I have ever seen."
Aiming for transparency
Grady joined the department in 2001 and was a TV news reporter before switching to communications. Under her leadership, the department's communications functions have become more sophisticated, more streamlined, and, with the help of Chief William Bratton (who joined the department in 2002), more open.
"The days of sweeping things under the rug or being able to hide secrets are long gone," says Bratton. "Ultimately, we give out stories that [police officers] create, stories of heroism or accomplishment, or if there are stories unfortunately of corruption or force."
"We're doing things in the department that the last chief didn't do," adds Grady, calling it more "transparent" under Bratton's leadership. "[Bratton] is very media savvy, [someone] who understands how the media works and who believes in proactive PR."
The department's communications are broken down into divisions, which cover media relations, public communications, online work, and an entertainment trademark unit. The size of Grady's staff fluctuates, but not always by her choice. A city hiring freeze has left the LAPD with 700 vacancies for civilian jobs that can't be filled.
"As people retired and left, we were not able to replace them," says Grady.
The staff is a mix between "sworn" officers and civilian positions. Overall, says Grady, "we are authorized to have 27. Eighteen are filled."
At one point, the lack of staff got so bad that Grady contemplated shutting down media relations on the weekends. "Those civilian jobs that need to be filled ... are the kinds of positions that are critical," she adds.
Another staffing challenge Grady faces is the fact that LAPD employees often switch functions numerous times during their careers, giving her a high turnover rate. Employees can switch around to any department that has an opening, from beat officer to desk jobs.
While a few people have been in the media relations section for about 10 years, "that is very unusual," says Grady. "For the most part, we have people who are there for one to two years at the most." Still, she adds, "you need people who can walk in and hit the ground running because this place moves 110 miles an hour."
Grady isn't exaggerating when she says the department moves fast. As soon as a newsworthy incident happens in the city, her team knows that media will be there in helicopters and vans, and her people need to be ready.
"We're doing things much like the news media does on deadline, so when something happens, we have to respond now," she says.
She gives the example of the recent theft of a preserved 13-week-old fetus from an exhibit at the California Science Center. Science Center communications head Shell Amega worked with Grady's team to stage a press conference to enlist the public's help in recovering it.
"We only had about three hours from the time we decided [to do a press conference] to the time to get the information out," say Amega. "It was an incredibly hectic turnaround, and her team was exceptional in getting the message to the media."
While that kind of pressure may sound extreme, Grady says it's typical of her days.
"We don't have the luxury of planning for weeks to pull a press conference together. The majority of what we do is put together very quickly."
Comms team duties
The media relations division might be the fastest-paced of the communications units, and handles about 12,000 inquiries a quarter, "and it's not just your traditional type of media," says Grady. It includes requests from entertainment shows, international outlets, and even down to "college students, bloggers, and anybody that needs information that can say they are some kind of media." And she adds, "These aren't always simple requests," and can be as complex as "all of your gang statistics for the last 10 years."
The division is open seven days a week, 18 hours a day. In addition to press requests, it handles up to 75 news conferences each quarter, 150 news releases, and 70 video-duplication requests. It is also responsible for video taping and archiving all news broadcasts. "Plus," says Grady, "we do the clippings every day and distribute those to command staff."
While staff is often on-scene at crimes, they try not to micromanage command officers, who have a wealth of experience dealing with the press.
"My purpose is to help them understand and anticipate what media will do and help them strategize," says Grady.
The media relations department also handles issuing and maintaining 4,000 press passes each year, which Grady says "is in itself almost a full-time job."
Grady is also working to pitch positive stories and has her staff scour local precincts for good leads. "We have to constantly remind people that you are much safer today than you were a year or two ago."
The public communications unit, which has two people, is charged with handling internal and external communications. A major initiative is a revamp of the website, which the department hopes to make thorough enough that it will provide the information that media and the public most often look for.
This division also puts out a monthly newsletter called The Beat, as well as an e-mail newsletter. It also handles "any kind of correspondence that comes in. A lot of people from all over the world write to Chief Bratton," says Grady, adding that the office responds to every letter it gets.
The team also handles mundane but important requests for crime and safety information from prospective home buyers and ceremonial events, such as memorial services. The team also writes the chief's monthly message.
In their spare time, the public communications duo also handles a Hispanic media outreach campaign, which Grady calls "a huge undertaking." One part of that effort includes a phone bank manned by Spanish-speaking officers during a local TV program in which viewers can call in about different topics.
"On a typical evening, they will get more than 20,000 calls," says Grady, "But we've gotten upwards of 100,000 calls. What it shows is that there is a need for more communication with that community."
Trademark issues are another area communications handles, but currently that department doesn't have any staff at all, leaving Grady to handle it alone. Almost every symbol of the LAPD, from badges to cars, is trademarked, and use of them has to be approved by Grady. "I even got a request from someone who wanted to put the LAPD badge on underwear," she says.
While Grady says that her job keeps her so busy that staffers tease her about how often her BlackBerry goes off, she also says it's a rewarding post that she won't leave anytime soon.
"It's really all about making the city safer," says Grady. "As the city gets safer, everybody benefits. At the end of the day, if I've been able to educate the community and help them understand what we're doing, and make the police officers proud of what they do, then I've done my job."
Commanding officer/community affairs group Mary Grady
Lieutenant/media relations Paul Vernon
Sergeant/media relations Catherine Plows
Lieutenant/public communications Vana Horvatich