Online media course enhances policeman’s career

By Darin Watkins, Edward R. Murrow College of Communication

Smith-80ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, Md. – It was a disturbing phone call for even the most seasoned of police officers. Hours after Fourth of July celebrations died down, someone abandoned a six-week-old baby girl in the middle of the road.

Within minutes, Lt. TJ Smith, a spokesman with the Anne Arundel County Police Department, posted the news on the department’s Facebook and Twitter accounts using digital media tactics he had recently practiced as part of his online studies. He is pursuing a master’s degree in strategic communication from The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

Hours later, the mother of the infant was identified and arrested in connection with child abandonment.

For Smith and his department, posting news on social media as it happens is a way to keep media outlets and the community informed while limiting potential rumors. Knowing how much information to share and the tone with which it should be made public is part of the everyday challenge of being a public information officer (PIO), Smith said.

“The world is rapidly changing and if people want to stay competitive in the workforce, it is to their advantage to find a program that works for them,” he said.

Live streaming opens communication

For a different incident, Smith adopted new media through his online work with the Murrow College. He tested Periscope, the real-time video streaming application owned by Twitter, to broadcast informational updates from his smartphone about an officer-involved shooting.

Smith talks with news media in his job as director of media relations for the Anne Arundel County Police Department.

“When do people get a chance to ask an officer questions directly about an officer-involved shooting?” he said. “There was a great deal of concern when I first used Periscope, mainly because it was new and anything was possible.

“I thought that it was a conversation worth having,” he said. “Fortunately, nothing bad occurred. In fact, it was all good.”

“Lt. Smith’s step into new territory with this app put him somewhere between the role of a PIO and a live-action journalist,” said Ryan Risenmay, clinical assistant professor of digital media communications for WSU’s Murrow College. “This venture may very well be the first time a police department has used this new app for news dissemination in an unscripted, open format.

“It’s an enterprising example of opening up new lines of communication,” he said.

Officer-involved crises require communication

Earlier this year, the eyes of the nation were focused on nearby Baltimore during riots and charges against police officers in the arrest and fatal injury of Freddie Gray as he was transported in a police van. In light of this and similar incidents around the country, Smith said, the duty of police to communicate with citizens has never been more important.

“The role of a crisis communicator, which we as public safety and information officers are, is to market and strategically communicate information to citizens,” he said. “I think law enforcement around the country is starting to understand this role much more, and you see that with social media.”

Smith has a master’s degree in management from Johns Hopkins University but wanted hands-on training in editing, using photo software, web design and marketing. The advanced online degree from the Murrow College allows him the flexibility he needs while working an often unpredictable job.

“I can do assignments at midnight if I so choose,” he said. “The flexibility is awesome as an adult learner, but you have to be responsible enough to make quiet time to complete your studies.”

Get more information about WSU’s online M.A. in strategic communication at