Founded in 1789, the United States Marshals Service (USMS) is the nation's oldest federal law enforcement agency, yet many people – even some in Congress – are unaware of what the agency actually does. Director John Clark, who was appointed in 2006, has made it a priority to change that by both increasing and broadening communications efforts.
“We go about our job with little fanfare or public knowledge, which is good to protect our operations,” he says. “It kind of harms us in the sense that we want people to know about the great work we do. We have phenomenal employees... and it's important that Congress, the media, and the public hear their stories. Strategically, we're trying to get our message... synchronized [across audiences].”
Clark, a 25-year USMS veteran, made the offices of public affairs and congressional affairs part of the executive staff. Jeff Carter, chief of public affairs, and Doug Disrud, chief of congressional affairs, were both hired this year. Both report through the chief of staff to the deputy director.
USMS has many missions, including apprehending federal fugitives, protecting federal judges and courts, seizing property, transporting and managing prisoners, and operating the witness protection program.
“Because we're a multi-mission agency, [it's] challenging trying to communicate what [USMS] is,” Carter explains. “Yet because we have diverse audiences, there's more opportunity to reach out to people who are impacted by marshal service.”
Besides the public, the media, and Congress, the agency also communicates with other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Carter notes that broad jurisdiction allows USMS to partner with a variety of agencies. Because those entities have a good understanding of the marshals, they're an important audience that can help raise awareness among the public and the media.
Carter says the agency has adopted “a communications policy that empowers employees” to talk about what they do. Carter and Disrud each have six full-time staffers, and about 200 other field employees have been trained on how to engage with the media.
Communications team members each have “accounts” that correspond with mission areas and headquarters divisions (such as judicial security and HR). Carter says this allows employees to develop expertise that helps them better serve the agency and inform audiences.
Ride-alongs with marshals have been effective in educating both Congressional staffers and reporters. Disrud says the experience tends to create “instant support” among Congressional staffers.
“A reporter would much rather engage with someone [on] a mission than sit at a press conference,” Carter adds. “The marshal service has had reluctance to engage media because of the potential downside. We're moving beyond a security mindset. Yes, there's risk to engaging the media, but the way you manage that is to engage them effectively. Part of that is letting them see firsthand what we do. Our guys are engaging with bad guys, and there are challenges. Having the media see the challenges and how marshals overcome those helps paint the picture and shape coverage.”
Clark wants the public and the press to more widely use the USMS Web site, which he says is continuing to evolve. Carter is exploring ways to use new media as well, looking into which audiences might be engaged and what types of blogs are covering the agency.
Disrud's team, meanwhile, is busy raising awareness on Capitol Hill. “Understanding on the Hill isn't widespread,” he says. “People on the Hill tend to be pleasantly surprised when they hear about all the things we do. There's not a lot of partisan rancor over what we do –we have equal support between the parties.”
The president appoints the director, deputy director, and 94 marshals, so the new administration could mean a lot of turnover. Disrud also chairs a team that is working to educate and aid the incoming administration and senators, who will make marshal recommendations.
“We have so much institutional knowledge about what makes a good marshal,” Disrud says. “We want to be there to help early – particularly for new senators.”
At a glance
Organization: US Marshals Service
Director: John Clark
Headquarters: Washington, DC
Comms budget: $113,000
Key trade titles: Congressional Quarterly, Government Executive, Police Chief Magazine, The Federal Lawyer
Communications team: Jeff Carter, chief of public affairs; Steve Blando, acting deputy chief of public affairs; David Turk, historian; Doug Disrud, chief of congressional affairs; Alexis Fooshe, deputy chief of congressional affairs