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Public scrutiny: Northamptonshire's new approach to comms

"I do not ever want to hide from the public" How weekly live question and answer sessions headed up by Northants CC Nick Adderley has ushered in a new approach to comms.

Northamptonshire's chief constable Nick Adderley

Northamptonshire's chief constable Nick Adderley

Date - 4th March 2021
By - Chloe Livadeas
7 Comments 7 Comments}

At the start of lockdown in March 2020 the Northants Police Corporate Communications team came up with the idea which saw officers, including the chief, appear live on Facebook every Thursday at 4:30pm to take non pre-vetted questions from the public. In most organisations such an exercise would be management's worst nightmare.

But alongside Superintendents Sarah Johnson and Elliot Foskett, the chief has so far spent a combined seven hours answering questions – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The force said they knew the pandemic would cause anxiety, worry and fear, and that it was important to regularly update the public.

Chief Constable Nick Adderley told his comms team: “Don't filter the questions. I want the warts and all.”

They ranged from queries about coronavirus legislation contradicting human rights to complaints about lack of response when breaches were reported.

Northants hasn't always got their messaging on lockdown right. CC Adderley came under fire last April after he said his officers would be checking shopping baskets for "non essential items."  The backlash prompted Home Secretary Priti Patel to rebuke the chief's comments and reassure the public the policing response would not be so "heavy-handed".

Nevertheless CC Adderley said he approved the public grilling sessions because it was a huge priority for him that people feel as though they have a connection and a relationship with their police service.

He said the difference that had been made was “tremendous”. The force’s confidence and satisfaction ratings are now the highest they’ve ever been.

In total, eleven sessions have been held over the past three months with 242,600 unique views and 4,031 comments.

CC Adderley told Police Oracle: “This wasn’t simply a PR exercise – I do not ever want to hide from the public. Some of the questions have been hard but that’s good as our residents deserve those answers.”

If they’re unable to answer on the spot, the force take their email addresses and respond to them later.

So why is simply being transparent coming across as such a radical comms exercise for a force? “I think what's happened in the past is the police service has tried to create a mystique around what it does and how it does it and [operated on an] all you need to know basis,” said CC Adderley.

“And of course, there are lines around the kind of things we can't share. But the vast majority of our work, the vast majority of our thinking, the vast majority of our plans, the public have a right to know.”

He said the police service had previously shied away from hearing bad news “because it's just more drama”.

“What I am saying is I want to know your drama, you tell me your drama, and we will do all that we can with our partners to make sure that we can allay those fears. And we can head that off at the pass.”

Some questions and concerns, such as a difficulty around ethnicity, led to new and effective operational methods. A worry around the spread of coronavirus in an area of the county poulated by a high number of Eastern European factory workers led to a targeted campaign rekating to the COVID regulations in those hotspots. The force printed posters in 16 different languages and focused on factories, bus routes and car sharing schemes.

CC Adderley said: “So the intelligence that gave which headed off all of those emotive issues was phenomenal. And I think that's what the police service sometimes misses out on because they don't want to hear it.

“Most police forces, they sit in isolation, thinking they know what the public wants but they don’t. Unless they can clearly demonstrate that they are reaching out to the public. And they are gathering what the public has seen, and information and intelligence. And they're able to then translate that into activity to then feed back to the community. Listen, we hear you. And this is what we're doing.

“From all my time in the police the experience has been if you don't try and 'blag' the public and if you're really honest with them most of them accept it. They get it.”

CC Adderley said since the sessions the public and the press had almost become advocates of the police.

“You can see the narrative in the local media has completely changed.”

One member of the public said: “This is what it means to use social media to engage and connect with communities in our modern society. Constantly impressed by the chief constable and his force’s use of digital media.”

“The current engagement by the Chief Constable and the communications team at Northants Police is utterly top drawer,” said another.

CC Adderley said he was lucky to have “a creative and modern thinking Corporate Communications Team around me”.

Northants has said other forces have already begun looking to Northamptonshire for best practice and have been seeking advice on how the sessions were put together.

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Ian - Mon, 08 March 2021

A great example to others. Perhaps this approach might inspire more people to want to become chief officers - heaven knows the roles need something to increase their appeal!