In early November, the Boston Police Department was caught in a controversy that could only happen in the social media age. A 16-year-old suspected drug dealer was arrested at Roxbury Community College on a Friday afternoon and was allegedly subdued by police using excessive force. To make matters worse, the entire incident was filmed on a cell-phone camera and uploaded to YouTube, immediately setting off an Internet firestorm covered by local and national media alike.
This incident happened during a week in which the Department also had to deal with an arrest in a high-profile homicide case where four people were found dead in an apartment in the crime-ridden neighborhood of Mattapan; a homicide on a public bus; and a building explosion that injured several police officers.
At the center of it all - from fielding calls from reporters wanting comment from Police Commissioner Ed Davis to dealing with community relations events, such as precinct Halloween parties, amid what could only be described as a constant state of crisis com- munications - is Elaine Driscoll, a Boston native and director of communications for the Department, the oldest in the US.
Driscoll, 34, who has been in her current role since 2006, is the first trained PR person to ever hold the job, as most people before her had been former journalists or career law enforcement officers. Her father had been a career police officer in Boston, so heading communications for the department was an opportunity she aspired to her whole career.
"It was something I was always very interested in - the dream job," says Driscoll. "As a PR person, it's the job of a lifetime."
Davis, who has been commissioner since 2006 and previously served as police chief in Lowell, MA, calls Driscoll "brilliant" and says her private sector experience helps manage community and media relations in the public sector, not to mention a market in which media scrutiny is as intense as it gets.
"We hear from people about how Elaine is always available and professional," he says. "She negotiates stories so it works out for the media and the police department."An unconventional route
Driscoll's journey to her current job in the public sector did not take the most common road. A communications major at Arizona State University, she moved back to her native Boston following college to work in consumer PR at Regan Communications, then a primarily local Boston firm. She worked on such brands as New Balance, the Boston World Trade Center, chef Todd English, and Legal Sea Foods.
George Regan, founder and CEO of the agency, says Driscoll's drive and determi- nation was evident from the start. In fact, she began as his assistant, but only lasted one day as he soon realized she was destined for greater things - both within the firm and beyond.
"We recognized she had enormous talent," he says. "Elaine's talent belies her age."
And she was rewarded for that talent, promoted to VP before her 29th birthday.
What is so striking about Driscoll is the dichotomy: when speaking to her she has a decidedly distinct Boston accent that comes straight from her South Boston neighborhood (think Julianne Moore's character on 30 Rock). Yet, in person, she looks as though she could take Angie Harmon's place on the latest cop procedural du jour. In fact, it was that combination of movie-star looks and chutzpah that made her a perfect choice when nightclub impresario Sam Nazarian hired her in January 2005 as the first director of communications for his then-burgeoning company SBE Entertainment. SBE would later gain mainstream attention in 2007 when The Hills cast member Heidi Montag worked there and cameras were invited in on a regular basis.
Driscoll says her goal in taking that job was to get national media experience, as much of her work at Regan, and even after running communications for Congressman Bill Delahunt's (D-MA) re-election campaign, had been with local and regional outlets.
"He was kind enough to take a chance on me," Driscoll recalls, adding that she went into the job knowing there was an opportunity to brand the company based on its charismatic CEO, who at the time was just 29. Her first "get" was a front-page profile of Nazarian in W Magazine. "I made a cold call," she says.
"I like to bet on people and Elaine was an easy bet," he tells PRWeek via e-mail. "She had the ideal energy for our brand and ultimately she was able to take my vision and communicate it in a very powerful way."
After only a year, Driscoll moved back to the East Coast and was once again faced with her dream job: the Boston Police Department. The move was no surprise to Nazarian.
"She quickly became a great sounding board and a trusted voice of reason during a formative stage of SBE's development," he recalls. "She was also able to create and execute upon playful and smart ideas that moved the needle for the brand."
Initially brought over to the police department by Kathleen O'Toole, its first female commissioner, a few months later she found herself working for Davis when O'Toole left to work as chief inspector of the Garda Inspectorate, which audits Ireland's national police force. From the beginning, Driscoll says her strategy was to look at the job as a corporate branding opportunity.
"We need to brand the Boston Police Department," she says of her initial sentiments when she began. "That was the thought process and approach."
Upon surveying the previous media strategy, she found there was much work to be done, especially in terms of media and community relations.Focusing on the good
"I noticed that the relationship with media was more contentious than not," says Driscoll. "Media were competing for bad stories. I thought, 'There has to be a way to get them to compete for good stories.'"
Those good stories can come in the form of publicizing the positive community relations work the department is doing, in addition to its efforts to crack down on crime.
"I must put out information on those types of activities just as aggressively as I do information on the more incident-based events, such as a homicide or a shooting," she says. "It's so vital when we're consistently talking about various crime-related incidents that we also personalize the police department to the community as much as we can."
Part of that personalization has come through the department's social media efforts, which have been propelled during Driscoll's tenure (see sidebar). Given the small size of the department - the rest of the team includes Officers Jamie Kenneally and Eddy Chrispin, David Estrada, and Jill Flynn - and the lack of budget, not to mention the 8am to 11pm, seven-day-a-week workdays the team puts in, the accomplishments are impressive.
For Davis, who developed his career in a precinct in Lowell, MA, where, he says, "When the media called into the desk in the morning, no matter what happened overnight, the captain would say nothing happened," the transparency and strategy Driscoll and her team bring is refreshing.
"When the BP situation was going on," he says, "I'd watch the coverage every day [of CEO Tony Hayward] and laugh and think, 'Elaine would never let me say that.'"Media strategy for the Boston Police Department Call the Cops
The department's weekly cable access show, hosted by Officer Jamie Kenneally, interviews police officers and local officials. Episodes are then streamed and housed on the Department's YouTube channel.BPDNews.com
Created when Driscoll joined in 2006, the site houses every piece of information from the department - from its daily news, press releases, and video, to links to its Twitter and Facebook pages, all of which are managed internally.Text-a-tip
Part of the Department's broader Crime Stoppers program, it allows residents of the city to text a tip anytime, anywhere using their mobile phones or PDA by texting "T-I-P" to CRIME.January 2006-present
Boston Police Department, director of communicationsJanuary 2005-December 2005
SBE Entertainment Group, Los Angeles, VP of corporate communicationsMay 2004-November 2004
The Delahunt for Congress Committee, Quincy, MA, PR consultantAugust 1998-March 2004
Regan Communications, Boston. Various posts. She began as an assistant and eventually was promoted to SVP in 2001, a post she held until she left the agency in 2004