E arly on the morning of January 28, 2022, around twenty large vehicles came to be parked in front of the provincial legislature in Winnipeg. Dozens more would later join them for what would be a three-week-long occupation. The rows of semitrucks, tractors, and cars formed a dense and noisy cluster that stood in solidarity with a nationwide protest decrying vaccine mandates and pandemic lockdown rules—and the demonstrations seemed to stump police agencies in Winnipeg, Ottawa, and other major urban centres.
Police in Winnipeg faced competing demands from a broad range of community voices. Those in support of the convoy asserted their right to peaceful protest. Others accused officers of being soft on the protesters and demanded a harsher, faster response to the community disruption. Some questioned whether the police service’s approach would have been the same if the convoy hadn’t mostly been composed of white people. Across the country, others drew comparisons between the police’s response to the protests and their violence against members of Indigenous communities in prior incidents. The public’s trust in police, already dwindling in Manitoba for a few years, dropped across the country. Police had their backs against the wall, and their public relations teams felt the heat.
In the midst of it all, Winnipeg Police Service chief Danny Smyth green-lit something unconventional.
In a couple of unembellished tweets and Facebook posts on March 1, the service announced that it had released two articles on Substack, a subscription-based publishing platform, for the first time. The platform has become increasingly popular among writers, journalists, and analysts, but the Winnipeg police’s free, long-form newsletter, “Tried and True,” appears to be the only one of its kind. Police forces in other countries, like the Yalobusha County Sheriff’s Department in Mississippi, have launched newsletters on the site for announcements, but none has as personal an approach as the Winnipeg police.
The weekly stories, which are sent to subscribers and are publicly available on the “Tried and True” page, have so far covered a wide range of topics: from discussing the merits of drug decriminalization to announcing a new police robot named Spot and reminiscing on the history of the foot patrol. The newsletters are often over 1,000 words long and are written by members of the service hand-picked by Smyth with his chief of staff. Individual stories have had roughly between 900 and 5,000 readers, according to Smyth’s office, but a few posts have garnered a lot of public attention right out of the gate: one titled “The Rising Trend of Protests and Marches—Thou Doth Protest Too Much,” for instance, and another called “Setting the Record Straight on Crowd Management,” both dealing with the convoy protests in the city’s core.
The newsletter marked a new step in an evolving PR strategy for an institution that, sources say, is grappling both with its brand and its internal identity. And the Winnipeg police are not alone. As the public grows increasingly critical of policing practices across North America, agencies have taken to traditional platforms as well as social media in an attempt to guard themselves against heightened public scrutiny, declining public trust, and a rising insecurity among their own officers. How police departments choose to respond publicly to the new pressures—whether by rebranding or through public-communication efforts—offers insights into their internal identity crisis.
While some aspects of police work are generally guided by nationwide best practices—the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, for instance, had released a framework for protest management—public relations is seemingly up to the discretion of each individual force. And, despite the rising number of trained PR professionals supporting police efforts, former Vancouver police officer Lorimer Shenher says public relations in policing is still a Wild West. The twenty-seven-year policing veteran and author—who also holds a master’s in professional communications—says there are no best practices he’s aware of for managing the messages police relay to the public.
“The establishment of police communications departments [with media professionals] and public information officer positions is relatively new,” Shenher says, referring to the past five to ten years. “Those people ultimately are not the strategists for the police message, necessarily. They are only the messengers.”
But, at a time when police across North America are under intense public scrutiny, the challenge of communicating with the public forms part of what Shenher calls an “existential crisis” in policing. It’s in the crisis stage, he says, that police departments hire outside PR firms.
In late May 2020, protests erupted across the United States in response to the murder of George Floyd, a Black man living in Minneapolis, at the hands of the city police. Calls to defund, abolish, or otherwise reform police agencies were at a fever pitch in the US and Canada as residents pointed to the racism deeply entrenched in policing and the disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (BIPOC) killed by law enforcement.
Canadian policing services faced similar protests and demands, and Winnipeg, of course, was no exception. But, in the city’s case, Floyd’s murder was fuel to the already-raging fire of police criticism. Just the previous month, Winnipeg police had shot and killed three Indigenous people in separate incidents in a span of ten days: a sixteen-year-old girl, Eishia Hudson, and two men, thirty-six-year-old Jason Collins and twenty-two-year-old Stewart Kevin Andrews.
Smyth is quick to acknowledge that the murder of Floyd and the pressures of the pandemic likely played a role in the change in public attitudes toward police that prompted him onto Substack. Strain on the police’s image—on their brand—only intensified with the arrival of the convoy, which drew its own kind of awareness to the institution.
“Let me be clear: people can be critical of the police, that’s fair game. If we do something wrong, we need to be accountable,” Smyth says, noting police in the province have autonomous accountability measures, like the Independent Investigations Unit of Manitoba, which investigates serious incidents and allegations of criminal police behaviour.
(A number of provinces, including Ontario, BC, and Alberta, have similar organizations, though police watchdogs across the country have frequently been criticized for a lack of transparency or their use of former officers.) “But I just started to see a lot of articles where we would put out information, but then we would have a ‘defund the police’ or an abolitionist group as the counternarrative for that. So it just seemed like a shift that was putting some pressure on our own image, frankly.” To combat the tide of negative voices, Smyth says, they’ve turned to Substack as a way to “tell our story from a police perspective.”
In the newsletter’s short introductory post, the police chief laments the “toxic environment” of existing social media platforms and the “ideological shift” in mainstream media that, he claims, “seems intent on ‘othering’ the police.”
“There is a harshness about reporting on police that too often serves to undermine trust and confidence in policing,” Smyth writes. “Police integrity has become the story, rather than the work we actually do.”
The first two posts created a short-lived buzz on social media. Some chastised the police for the one-sided explanation of their tactics and for their use of the blogging platform. Christopher Schneider, a sociology and media professor at Brandon University in Manitoba, wrote an opinion piece for the CBC, criticizing the police’s decision to editorialize their law-enforcement work, noting Smyth seemed to take rising criticism of the police “personally” and adding “the legitimacy of police wholly relies on public judgments and support of police actions.” The Winnipeg Free Press published an opinion piece with much the same critique, saying “the concern of the WPS should not be shaping public opinion in its favour by skirting traditional mechanisms of accountability” and that public scrutiny should be met with “dialogue, reflection and reform, not a defensive retreat.”
By and large, though, the articles responding to the move to Substack failed to address one thing: the common practice among media outlets of unquestioningly relying on police reports as an “official source” during breaking-news events. In a piece in The Conversation, Danielle K. Brown, the John & Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity, and Equality at the University of Minnesota, writes that the practice “gives police an opportunity to shape the initial version of the event—and . . . gets their version of the story into the public consciousness before victims, families and their supporters are able to.”
In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, North American media outlets began reckoning with this long-held practice and the implications of presenting police as an “unbiased” (and therefore unfiltered) voice in reporting, but it’s unclear if much has changed. As recently as this summer, the Toronto Star, for example, allowed police to sidestep the editorial process entirely when it began posting auto-generated crime stories based on open data collected and maintained by the Toronto police—seemingly without the input of a reporter.
As of May 2022, Smyth’s direct police-to-public newsletter had just under 500 subscribers, and for his part, he acknowledges the public has had a “mixed” response to their foray to Substack but says he’s getting positive feedback by email and through the police’s governing board, which is made up of municipal and provincial authorities.
The Winnipeg police weren’t the only Canadian service to take a new PR approach at the time of the convoy. At the protest’s heart, in Ottawa, police faced intense scrutiny from all angles as thousands of demonstrators converged in areas near Parliament Hill in what would become nearly a month-long occupation. Seemingly in response, Ottawa police hired Navigator—a PR crisis-management firm—to help with their community engagement.
A CBC News report, in early February, indicated the Ottawa police had snagged Matthew Barnes, a senior consultant at Navigator, in the early days of the protest and were paying the company on a fee-for-service basis. Navigator, the tagline of which is “When you can’t afford to lose,” has been offering elite crisis management across Canada for more than twenty years.
In a statement emailed to The Walrus, the Ottawa Police Service said it contracted Navigator from January 30 to February 15 at a total cost of $185,000. It did not disclose the details of the PR firm’s involvement other than to note in the email that the experts were brought in to help with “communications strategy and support during the unlawful protests.” Navigator declined to comment, citing company policy to “neither confirm nor deny client engagements.”
Could then police chief Peter Sloly’s decision to loop in the PR firm indicate a sense of insecurity within the department as it faced widespread criticism for its handling of the demonstrations? (The service hasn’t used external or contractual communications support since then and told The Walrus it has no plans to do so.)
“That three-week period of time eroded a lot of the public’s trust in the police, especially in Ottawa, among their most supportive demographic—which was middle to upper class, professional white people,” Shenher explains.
He says the police’s apparent inability to enforce noise bylaws and other regulations changed perspectives in Ottawa and the rest of the country: “For that cohort to see the police at their worst and at their most unhelpful was an ‘aha’ moment for a lot of them.”
For the past few years, public opinion polls from Angus Reid Institute and Leger have shown the reputation of policing has dipped, especially among BIPOC populations. An Angus Reid Institute poll found about 57 percent of Canadians had significant confidence in their local police in 2020, down six percentage points from 2018. More recently, a Maru Group public opinion poll of Canadians, released in February 2022, showed more than half of the respondents had “lost faith in the enforcement of the law” following the convoy protests. And a 2022 CanTrust Index poll from Proof Strategies found trust in RCMP has declined year over year, with 48 percent of the respondents saying they trust the organization to operate effectively, down from 61 percent in 2020.
For police chiefs like Smyth, the public’s eroding confidence does not go unnoticed. “Even though I think we largely have pretty good support in the community,” he says, “[Winnipeg community members] don’t want to put their head out there like that because of the backlash.”
Across the border, police agencies in the United States have been recruiting media and PR professionals to help deal with sticky situations for many years. In 2014, at the same time that criticism of officers and police forces began to rise, former White House correspondent Laura Cole launched a PR company dedicated to helping law-enforcement agencies and municipalities manage crises and navigate social media. Cole Pro Media, headquartered in California, offers “transparency engagement advisors” and has worked with sheriffs’ departments and police agencies across the state. But a 2021 investigation by the Appeal and the Vallejo Sun reviewed the firm’s contracts, invoices, and emails and found that its advice to clients often involved sidestepping controversy entirely. The same story found each of Cole Pro’s contracts cost taxpayers between $3,000 and $5,000 (US) per month.
Lauri Stevens, another American media professional, founded Laws Communications in 2005 and the SMILE (Social Media, the Internet, and Law Enforcement) Conference in 2009, specifically to help police forces navigate branding and communications on social media. Registration fees for the conference are between $400 and $800 (US), going up to $1,200 for multiconference packages.
At the Winnipeg police headquarters, the public information team includes a manager who, according to his LinkedIn profile, spent twenty-five years as a CTV journalist before joining the police. “We used to put up police officers with no training and no real experience to speak on our behalf, and sometimes that’s not a good way to approach things,” says Smyth. “I think most places have recognized that we need some skill and experience. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a major service in any part of North America that doesn’t have someone helping them that came out a professional media organization.”
Police are staring at a brand confidence problem, with growing segments of the population less than confident in the force’s ability to do its job and potentially fewer people willing to publicly express their support for the badge. Smyth’s concern with the rise in negative sentiment toward the police seems to be the well-being—and trust—of his own officers.
“Over time, that constant drip of negativity starts to have an impact on the psyche of our members,” he notes. “Last year, we did some internal survey work and that came through loud and clear. A lot of their frustration and anger was directed toward myself and the executive, because they don’t feel like we’re supporting them enough.”
Smyth acknowledges he’s not sure what his officers need in terms of support. (“I don’t know if they want me to go to war with the media or go to war on Twitter,” he says, noting multiple working groups have been focusing on these concerns this past summer.) But he knows his team has come under fire on social media and that members take the criticism personally. He was drawn to Substack, he explains, in part because the newsletter could communicate both with the public and his own force.
Shenher compares the situation to that of children in the middle of an ugly divorce: on one side, the police executive, unsure of how to support their members, on the other, a public incensed with injustices caused by the institutions of policing, each side casting blame on the other. Should the rising tide of negative opinion grow powerful enough, the officers could be the ones to suffer, Shenher explains. Much of the police budget is earmarked for salaries, and any threat to this portion could be perceived as a threat to officers’ livelihoods.
“They all take it so personally,” says Shenher. “All police officers are so closely identified with that job as part of their being that when someone criticizes the institution, they take it as criticizing the individuals in the institution.”
However, the backlash has had little impact on the police’s coffers or powers thus far. In Winnipeg, in early 2022, the city council asked for public inputs regarding the police-funding model, but all available options still resulted in some increase to the ever-growing police budget.
With the police seemingly under fire from all sides and unrest growing internally, Shenher suggests the new approaches to PR are symptomatic of a much deeper struggle as agencies try to reclaim the confidence and trust of the public. Winnipeg city councillor Sherri Rollins took to social media to question the use of the newsletter, contrasting its format and tone with “normal mediums of communication” such as public press conferences and public police board meetings, which, she argues, are better avenues for building confidence and trust.
Smyth and his office admit the “Tried and True” newsletter is a work in progress and that he is trying to sort out a new media strategy for the service.
On paper, it seems simple: the Winnipeg Police Service’s Substack is free and accessible to anyone who chooses to read it. But, in reality, Shenher thinks the newsletter is likely “preaching to the choir” and may harm the service eventually. “The last thing that we need in this conversation is another tool of the police to centre themselves—and that is exactly what they’re doing,” he says.
While the police may see their newsletter as a long-form platform to tell their own story, others see a police department scrambling to control the narrative amidst eroding public confidence in their work. Where other social media platforms can offer an opportunity for a back and forth between the police and the public at large, Substack is a one-way street.
“It’s not opening it up to other experiences, it’s dialling down and saying, ‘Look at us, I want you to hear my position,’” says Shenher.
Shenher predicts the populations most likely to come into negative interactions with police—marginalized groups, notably—are unlikely to seek out police perspectives on a Substack page; instead, they are more likely to wonder how safe they’ll be in an interaction with law enforcement.
Shenher suggests the police could use their Substack to make room to listen to dissenting voices in the community, perhaps opening up the platform to submissions from community members about their experiences with the institution.
“I don’t think police leadership [in general] sees the opportunities in things you might call a failure or a mistake,” he says. “There’s so much opportunity in that in terms of increasing public trust and confidence if they would just embrace it.”