In the movie "The Shawshank Redemption," the warden of Shawshank Prison embezzles money, kills inmates and destroys evidence that would have set an innocent man free. In "Natural Born Killers," Tommy Lee Jones plays the sadistic warden of Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois who erupts into violence at the slightest provocation. And who can forget the prison officers in "The Fugitive," who completely abandoned their responsibilities at the first sign of danger?
In fact, it's hard to remember a prison movie made in the last decade that didn't portray correctional officers as psychopaths, and the prison system in general as corrupt. Negative, stereotypical images of prisons and those who work in them often seem to condemn the entire industry in the court of public opinion.
It's difficult enough making the tough decisions in corrections without struggling through the negative feelings others may hold for your profession. And to the extent that people have a negative view of corrections, even small misconceptions can delay the evolution of good correctional programming.
As corrections professionals, should we be concerned about this? Does the corrections industry have a public relations problem? And if so, what can we do about it?
We all understand how negative perceptions can damage product sales in a marketplace. Look at the murders from cyanide placed in Tylenol capsules in the 1980s, or the deaths in Bhopal, India, that severely damaged the international image of Union Carbide, or the wreck of the Exxon Valdez.
There is no doubt these tragedies cost their respective companies billions of dollars, regardless of how responsible they were for the incidents in the first place. Could similar situations in prisons across the United States be costing prison systems the political capital needed to do business in the public sector?
A recent opinion poll in the popular Sunday newspaper magazine Parade recounted the results of a survey aimed at defining what Americans thought were the most important issues of the times. According to the survey, a strong family unit and the need for effective educational opportunities for our children were top priorities. Other concerns dealt with positive, proactive public policies that impacted our future. The one negative conclusion of the survey was the public's overall distrust and disapproval of law enforcement.
Unfortunately, the public sees police, prosecutors, and jails or prisons as a kind of monolithic system. They all are lumped together and, according to the survey, a significant majority of the people don't like how the system is working.
Other well-crafted studies echo these results. A recent survey of public opinion conducted by the Florida Department of Corrections indicated widespread misunderstanding of correctional operations by the public and news media in that state. (See "What Does the Public Really Think?" page 26).
As a public information officer in Illinois, I have encountered numerous examples of media misconceptions about correctional programs. After a homicide at a psychiatric unit, a radio reporter asked me if our psych unit was like the one from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." He went on almost gleefully about drugged inmates and all the Hollywood depictions he remembered from the movie.
Most correctional workers across the country also are familiar with the now infamous Richard Speck tape shown nationally on the A&E cable network. Speck - a notorious inmate who was convicted of the murders of eight student nurses in the 1960s - was videotaped having sex with another inmate and doing what appeared to be drugs inside one of Illinois' maximum security prisons. (See "Sex, Lies and Videotape," page 34).
In both cases, the impact of these individual incidents never would have been so harmful had the public not already disapproved of the criminal justice system. But they did, which made Illinois' defense of the system in the wake of the Speck tape doubly difficult.
Initiating the defense of a good prison system during a crisis situation is like pinch-hitting with two strikes before you leave the dugout. Only a tenacious, dedicated response by correctional administrators in Illinois kept the Speck tape from completely destroying the reputation of the prison system. An effective, long-term public relations strategy in the future should allow the next leaders of the agency to step up to the plate with no strikes against them.
How Can PR Help?
Public relations work is not going to turn every lemon you face into lemonade. Clear mismanagement of a program or poor decisions made during a crisis situation are issues that must be corrected. Putting a "positive spin" on a bad situation ultimately can be counterproductive to long-term public relations planning. Being open and thorough in your analysis and remediation of poor decision-making is a better public relations strategy than denial.
Public relations planning includes critical analysis of which areas an agency should focus on in a crisis. But there is more to it. Good PR strategies are long-term programs aimed at identifying negative perceptions or inaccurate stereotypes of an organization and designing communications efforts to balance criticism, outline decision-making and accurately describe the situations or policies in question.
The first step in crafting a public relations agenda is identifying problems through research and surveys. Even the most ingenious communications plan is of little value if it focuses on the wrong issues. Existing opinion polls are a good place to start.
But each correctional agency also must analyze the specific groups with which they interact and develop new benchmarks of public opinion. Probable constituencies might include the general public, agency employees, other members of the law enforcement triangle, elected officials, the news media and special interest groups.
In each group studied, the most important issues must be identified and the real level of satisfaction or displeasure with how your group is perceived to be handling these issues determined. You will understand clearly your public relations problems when research into these benchmark opinions is finished and an analysis of how the agency is perceived to be performing is completed.
Once you know what your public relations problems are, your only hope of dealing with them effectively is to design a communications plan. This plan must address the problems and commit the resources necessary to execute the plan. The best way to craft an effective plan is to look at your public opinion problems and identify the central miscommunication or misrepresentations that created the negative opinions.
Suppose your survey shows that 75 percent of the general public is outraged at the extent and quality of free medical care provided to inmates in a state prison system. An effective communications plan to address this issue needs to explore and explain all the questions that a typical newspaper reporter would ask. If public disapproval is aimed at the state and federal laws that dictate what inmate medical care must be delivered, then perhaps a negative perception of the law is being turned into a negative perception of the agency that enforces the law. Communications efforts that help explain the law effectively to the public make you part of the debate - not a target of the press.
Once we, as correctional managers, know what the general public and other demographic groups, such as the media, legislators, other members of the law enforcement triangle and special interest groups, perceive corrections to be, we can identify where we disagree with those perceptions and develop the strategies necessary to change them.
Good public relations work is aimed at increasing communication, understanding and debate among all the groups involved.
Finally, a good public relations strategy calls for action on the communications plan developed. The best PR plan itself will contain a plan to sell the value of the idea to top decision-makers. Next, make sure that you have a method of evaluating how effective your efforts have been.
And remember, if you want fair treatment in the court of public opinion, you must dedicate the resources needed to do the job and be ready to react responsibly to the opinions of your constituencies.
Brian Fairchild has been a public information officer in Illinois state government for more than 16 years, with 13 years at the Illinois Department of Correction.…