The Huntington Beach Police Department has retained a public relations firm to write feature stories and news alerts for a new public-safety website.
BehindtheBadgeOC.com, which includes news about the HBPD and two other Orange County police agencies, launched June 30. The goal, backers says, is to inform readers about activities that would otherwise be missed by larger media and to provide crime-prevention tips and news alerts.
Last week, the website featured stories about the HBPD Explorers program and a reminder that fireworks are illegal in Surf City. If also provided pieces on the two other cities that contract for the blogging service, the Anaheim and Fullerton police departments.
The stories are provided by Cornerstone Communications, an Orange County public relations firm that uses former journalists to provide the stories. Cornerstone co-founder Bill Rams, who edits Behind the Badge, worked for a decade as a crime reporter at the Orange County Register.
"This is kind of a hybrid," he said. "The world of journalism and public relations is changing in so many ways. Both of those industries in Orange County are facing seismic shifts as we speak."
The HBPD pays $4,000 a month to Cornerstone to produce content. The money comes from the department's $333,408 professional services budget.
Police Chief Robert Handy said his department is trying the service on a month-to-month basis.
"I'm not sure if this is the best way to go, or if the best way is to do it in-house, but right now I don't have the staff to do it in-house," he said. "One of the areas I'm trying to develop is our external communications and community engagement. This is just one of my strategies where I'm trying to engage the community more."
Instead of typing standard press releases and emailing them to news outlets, Rams said, his team, which is made up of former journalists who worked at the Register and other outlets, can provide the facts in story form.
"I don't know of anywhere else in the nation that's taking this kind of approach," he said. "I hope it's a huge success that helps educate the public about what police officers are doing. I hope it also plays a role in making our community safer. That would be our biggest goal."
Because of downsizing in newsrooms nationwide, Rams said he sees blogs like his as a way to provide public safety coverage.
"We hope to partner with them, and we hope to tell the stories that mainstream media can't or won't," Rams said. "The sad reality is that the Daily Pilot, the Huntington Beach Independent and Orange County Register just don't have the resources they had a decade ago, so many of the stories that could or should be told aren't getting told."
The Fullerton Police Department, which suffered a black eye after the fatal beating of transient Kelly Thomas, recently hired Cornerstone to place stories on BehindtheBadgeO.C.
"It falls right into [Chief Dan Hughes'] goals, which is engagement with the community, getting the message out and being able to communicate back and forth with the community," Fullerton Sgt. Jeff Stuart said.
The HBPD uses social media to connect with the public and it believes the new blog will contribute to its efforts.
The department participated in a June 27 global law enforcement tweet-a-thon, which involved Capt. Russell Reinhart giving followers a virtual tour of the dispatch center.
Huntington Beach's Chief Handy said social media is great for providing snippets but doesn't allow for the in-depth stories that are provided on BehindtheBadge.com.
"We wanted a way to get more information into our stories and tell some of our stories that either don't get told in the media or even that our [public information officers] don't have the time to write," he said.
Not everyone in media is comfortable with the blurring of the line between mainstream journalism, which aims for neutrality, and public relations, which tends to have a bias.
Doug Swanson, interim chairman of the communications department at Cal State Fullerton, said disclosing who provides the content to readers is fundamental.
"If I am writing a blog for law enforcement issues, I would surely want to identify very clearly that I, a PR person employed by this agency, am writing this blog and why I am doing it and who is compensating me for doing it," said Swanson, who teaches public relations. "If that were very clear, then I as a PR person, would not have a problem at all."
Swanson said he also would be concerned about making sure that residents in a given community knew where their money was going.
"It's the tax dollars that support the municipalities, so would taxpayers have a problem with this?" Swanson said.
The blog's home page does not indicate that the content is provided by a public relations firm at taxpayer expense at first glance, but the "About" page provides disclosures about funding and sourcing.
"Some funding for this site is provided by the participating agencies," the site states. "Behind the Badge OC is produced by Cornerstone Communications."