Authorised Professional Practice

This page is from APP, the official source of professional practice for policing.

First published
Written by College of Policing
Public order
18 mins read

Developing plans to communicate with the public, directly or indirectly, is an essential element of modern public order policing. Forces should have community engagement plans that are tailored to suit the diverse nature of their communities.

Routine neighbourhood policing that includes plans to liaise with the local media, key internal/external stakeholders and directly with the public will support the relationship between the police and the public at times of heightened tension. Any public order engagement plan should be developed in accordance with the wider force community engagement plan/policy.

For further information see:

Media relations

A professional relationship with the media, even in difficult or complex circumstances, has a direct impact on maintaining public confidence in the police service. The police should seek to maintain an open and flexible relationship with the media, while giving due regard to operational and investigative issues of confidentiality. When practicable, a clear and factual account of the operation should be provided at the earliest opportunity, while taking care to avoid compromising the operation in any way.

A dedicated media officer may need to be appointed who has knowledge of public order policing, such as the nature of training given to officers, and the guidelines under which officers may deploy tactics. A bronze (media) may be appointed as spokesperson/media officer, but commanders should avoid acting as spokesperson while undertaking operational activities.

Liaison with the media should have a sufficiently high priority in strategic and tactical planning. Media officers should be given access to decision makers, in particular the gold commander, and should participate in the strategic coordinating group (SCG).

Developing the media plan

Considerations include:

  • command roles and responsibilities
  • classification of operation (for example, critical or major incident)
  • appointment of a dedicated media officer
  • media briefings (for example, how briefings will be held, how to accommodate a large number of media representatives)
  • multi-agency protocols (that is, determining which agency has media lead on which aspect of the operation)
  • health and safety issues affecting deployed staff
  • confidentiality issues affecting deployed staff
  • contingency plans (including representing other public service bodies)
  • technical capability (for example, police communication systems)
  • maximising media channels available (including social media)
  • mobile phone images, media photography and CCTV
  • briefing all deployed staff on the media-handling plan and protocols

Pre-operation or initial stages of a spontaneous incident

It is essential to implement a clear and operationally specific media plan with identifiable objectives as soon as possible. Effective communication with the media relies on having access to information and the individual(s) authorised to approve the release of the information. The objective should be to issue fast, accurate and appropriate information that keeps the media and public fully updated.

Adequate mechanisms should be in place prior to the operation, to minimise/address inaccuracies, speculation and requests for information.

  • Policy details and decision making should be recorded and retrievable should they be required for disclosure, rebuttal, investigation or enquiry.
  • Force media officers should be incorporated into the command structure (for example, bronze (media)). Where appropriate, access to planning, operational and investigative meetings should be provided and supported by a clear system of communication.
  • To ensure an accurate and consistent message is disseminated, there should be one bronze (media) appointed to head the media plan who has access to all levels of command, either directly or through embedded individuals.
  • Additional engagement should be considered (for example, directly with the public, staff/partner communication).
  • Differing cultural perceptions should be taken into account.
  • Facilitation of frontline media reporting during dynamic operations should be anticipated and planned for.
  • Early identification of location(s) that could be used as media briefing centres. Where practicable, this may include comfort provisions for media representatives, however, the media are responsible for their own rest, comfort and meal provision.

During the operation

Considerations include the following.

  • Keep reviewing media or other communications plans.
  • Avoid information gaps and potential inaccurate speculation/inflammatory claims by releasing regular updates (even if there is nothing new to advise).
  • Release of CCTV or other digital footage (with pixelation of faces where appropriate) from the operation, in addition to ongoing liaison with the investigating/senior investigating officer (bronze crime), can provide a steady supply of information.
  • The longer the media are kept waiting to enter a scene the more likely some media representatives are to take risks that subsequently compromise management of the operation or investigation.
  • Citizen journalism and the use of mobile phone cameras can provide images of a scene within minutes of an incident occurring.
  • The early identification of good media vantage points, in liaison with the media, may assist to minimise risk to the police operation or investigation.
  • The health and safety of the media is primarily the responsibility of the media employer, however, depending on the outcome of relevant risk assessment(s), it may be appropriate to deny access.
  • Command handover procedures and suitable shift patterns for media liaison staff should be integrated into media, public relations and communications plans.
  • News broadcasts and print reporting of the operation should be monitored.
  • Care should be given not to undermine any future legal proceedings.
  • Using ‘embedded journalists’ as part of the policing operation to provide a full perspective on the event.

Post operation or incident

Media and other communications plans should extend beyond the operation, and include post-operational management.

  • A hot debrief with the media should be held immediately after the operation/incident. Issues should be recorded and consideration given to any learning that can be implemented on future occasions.
  • Images and film taken by the media or members of the public using mobile phone cameras may provide evidential and intelligence opportunities for the police. Forces should encourage the public to forward images or film to the police (for example, using the internet or email).

Staff briefing on the media

Staff should be made aware of media and other communications plans, and any key public/media messages that match their roles. Methods include briefing, email or printed material.

Considerations include the following.

  • Staff coming into contact with the media or members of the public should be given general guidance about the information that they should/should not be releasing.
  • Where it is necessary to put cordons in place, it is better to provide the media with a vantage point from which they can operate. Providing an area for members of the media does not exclude them from operating from other areas to which the general public have access.
  • The police have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what is recorded or photographed, nor can they delete images. In limited circumstances (for example, terrorism cases) they may have a power to seize images.
  • Provided there is a legal basis for the restriction (for example, breach of the peace) the police may prevent photographers from entering an area.
  • If someone who is distressed or bereaved asks for the police to intervene to prevent members of the media filming or photographing them, the police may pass on their request, but there is no power to prevent or restrict media activity.

Members of the media

Members of the media:

  • have a right to report from the scene of many incidents that the police deal with. Their movement should not be restricted provided that they do not interfere with the police operation, or jeopardise their own safety or that of others
  • will carry some form of identification, which they should produce to police officers on request, for example, UK Press Card (consider attaching example to operation order). Production of a UK Press Card should allow the holder release from any area subject to containment, unless the behaviour of the holder is cause for concern
  • do not need a permit to photograph/film in public places


  • if trespassing on private property, the person who owns or controls the premises may eject the media and may ask for police assistance in preventing a breach of the peace while they do so
  • police cannot give or deny permission to the media to enter private premises whether the premises are directly involved in the police operation or not. This is a matter between the person who owns or is in control of the premises and the member(s) of the media
  • allowing access to incident scenes is a matter for the silver commander (or investigating/senior investigating officer (bronze crime) during post-incident investigation). Should evidence gathering/forensic retrieval require access restrictions, this should be explained
  • advice and assistance in dealing with members of the media is available via the force communications centre (or equivalent) and the duty media officer

Communicating directly with the public

During the preparation for certain operations, and in particular the policing of events that may cause disruption to communities, the police should develop a plan for reaching and effectively communicating with the wider public. The plan should not act as a replacement for routine community engagement plans.

The aim of the police communication should be to maximise public confidence, provide the public with sufficient information to minimise disruption, and give the police perspective on the event/incident. Options for engagement include:

  • local newspapers
  • radio stations
  • local or national television stations
  • police websites, for example, links to neighbourhood policing teams
  • partner websites
  • social networking websites

It is important to note that there is a risk of false messages being displayed via identity or website cloning.

Police communications may also benefit from leaflet drops, well-positioned, portable large screens and posted notices in well-frequented public areas (for example, sports arenas, schools/colleges, transport hubs). In some cases the use of mobile text messaging (for example, SMS/MMS) may be effective, as may other methods such as public address at schools or religious, faith or community centres.

The advances in web and social media technologies enable perceptions, views and ideas to be quickly disseminated to a mass audience. Police commanders should consider using these technologies to:

  • assess the emerging views and intentions of individuals/groups as part of a developing information/intelligence picture
  • disseminate key messages and challenge misinformation

Community mediators and crowd engagement

Community mediators are individuals or groups, independent from the police (for example, religious leaders, community advocates, voluntary sector agencies), who represent and regularly engage with a specific community. They are a useful contact for the police in that they are able to assist in dispelling rumour, reducing conflict and facilitating the flow of information to and from the community.

Face-to-face communication between the police and the public is a key element of the British model of policing, and all officers on operational deployment should be encouraged to engage directly with the public where practicable.

Public order policing focuses on the management of crowds and as such it is important that police commanders, planners and advisers have an understanding of the impact police operations can have on crowd behaviour. See crowd behaviour considerations.

The police should also consider developing a crowd engagement plan which aims to positively encourage the crowd’s propensity towards self-regulating behaviour. The plan may be delivered by the police or by independent communication methods/channels. See also communicating with crowds. The deployment of police liaison teams (PLTs) should be considered when developing the crowd engagement plan. PLTs work before, during and after events to establish dialogue with groups, while adopting a ‘community policing’ style.

Crowd behaviour considerations

  • Planning for public order and public safety events should never start from the premise that crowds are inherently irrational or dangerous.
  • Some methods of police intervention may be linked to an escalation of violence within a crowd.
  • How police tactics can enhance positive behaviour within the crowd is, therefore, an essential early part of tactical planning, that is, to create a crowd environment which is conducive to positive individual and group behaviour.
  • Disproportionate use of force by police officers during an event can have a negative impact on crowd behaviour and increase the risk of disorder. It may also have civil/criminal consequences for the officer(s) and police force concerned.
  • Multiple voices within a crowd may urge a variety of behaviours. If the most influential voice is that of a radical and negative viewpoint, it may be possible to change perceptions by introducing strong messages that disprove the radical viewpoint by clearly illustrating the legitimacy of police actions.
  • The key to policing a crowd depends on which voices within the crowd are given prominence as this will affect the relationship between the crowd and outside groups including the police.
  • Knowledge of collective identities within a crowd, in addition to criminal intelligence, will assist the police to understand the nature of individuals who are motivated towards violence.

For further information see:

Developing a crowd engagement plan

  • Crowd liaison should be structured from the onset of any operation – see HMIC example.
  • During crowd migration, non-directed crowds will follow the routes of least effort.
  • Highly motivated crowds will attempt to follow the most direct route to achieve their objective.
  • If wanting to apply direction to crowds, exits and escapes should be considered.
  • Higher crowd density increases the likelihood of interaction between members of the crowd, leading to an increase in collective identity and collective action.
  • Specific vulnerabilities associated with crowds (for example, child/youth events) should be reflected in communication plans.
  • Operational planning should start on the premise of facilitating peaceful crowd behaviour, but it should also consider the police response to any tension and/or disorder that may occur.
  • Information received by the crowd (whether accurate or inaccurate) may have a positive or negative influence. Rumour and incorrect information can create unexpected or disproportionate behaviour.
  • Individual crowd participants have a different perception of events, which may affect the behaviour of the individual, or influence the group.
  • When crowd members become highly emotional or aggressive, their visible behaviour can spread and become regarded as acceptable by those around them. It can be an opportunity for a minority to influence and mobilise others around them.
  • A sense of anonymity may remove the fear of identify and sanction in individual crowd members, which may then lead to a breakdown of their legal/moral constraint.

HMIC example

Dependent on the nature and scale of an event, Adapting to Protest suggests that commanders consider a coordinated and structured approach to communicating with crowds, which involves:

  • negotiation – to facilitate compromises and agreements between police commanders’ interests in getting the best tactical conditions, and the protestors’ interests to get the best terms for their goal
  • mediation – to explain the police point of view to groups of demonstrators and the demonstrators’ views to the police, in order to increase mutual understanding and avoid stereotyping
  • initiation – to come up with possible solutions to avoid or minimise the risk for conflicts and confrontations
  • communication – to function as link between demonstrators and commanders in their exchange of information
  • sensing – to read moods and preparedness for action in the group of demonstrators and how that is affected by police activities and to inform commanders of consequences of different courses of actions in a short and long term perspective.

HMIC (2009) Adapting to Protest – Nurturing the British Policing Model © Crown copyright.

Communicating with crowds

This is not just about giving direction. Regular communication, for example, providing updates on police action/event developments, will assist in managing a crowd. Communication to dispel rumour or deliberate misinformation is particularly important in maintaining order and retaining the trust and confidence of a crowd.

Making information available to a crowd increases individual crowd participant choices and minimises the opportunity for disruptive individuals to influence disorder within the crowd. The concept of no surprise policing can be effective as long as the crowd is willing to accept information.

Communicating with large crowds presents practical challenges, for example, elevated crowd noise. There are, however, various methods available for the police to communicate with crowds. These include:

  • officers deployed to the event
  • police liaison team as part of a planned approach
  • public address systems
  • large screens/signs
  • crowd liaison officers/stewards
  • loud-hailers (including helicopter skyshout)
  • microphones and speakers
  • digital text messaging
  • social media (for example, Twitter)

The communication does not always have to be delivered by the police. Communication by stewards is often a well-received option if there is a risk of opposition to, or mistrust of, authority figures such as the police. Using independent negotiators or intermediaries may be appropriate. This should, however, be risk assessed and accompanied by appropriate control measures to avoid compromising the credibility of the negotiators or intermediaries.

Failing to adequately communicate with a crowd can lead to the perception that information is being withheld. This may result in raised tensions between the police and the crowd that could ultimately lead to public disorder. Regular communications by a variety of means, even if it is only to deliver messages of no change, can be useful in managing crowd behaviour.

Commanders may also consider using a police liaison team to facilitate communication at a protest event.

Police response to protest

Protest in the context of public order policing is the public demonstration by one or more persons of their opposition to, or support for, a cause. The cause and nature of the protest can range significantly in size, type and complexity.

As a lawful activity, peaceful protest does not usually require police attendance or concern. Many protest events take place without any adverse impact on the wider community. Others are dealt with by organisers and self-stewarding to minimise adverse impact. However, there may be occasions when it is anticipated that some disorder or breach of law may occur, or there may be an imminent danger caused to a section of the community, which requires a police intervention. It is the responsibility of the relevant police force to determine whether there is a need for police presence at a protest event.

When planning the police response to a protest event, the starting point should be to facilitate peaceful protest by providing a lawful and proportionate policing response, balancing the needs and rights of protesters with those affected by the protest. Commanders should also have prepared appropriate contingency plans.

Establishing early dialogue and responding to the protest crowd dynamic are important factors in policing protest.

Flow charts are available which can help decision making.

Establishing early dialogue

Effective communication between protest organisers, participants and the police is vital to facilitating peaceful protest. Where practicable, the police should also proactively engage with protest subject(s), local businesses and/or residents who may find their daily routines disturbed by the protest event. Communication prior to, during and after the protest event will assist in managing the expectations of all stakeholders involved in and/or affected by the event.

In some cases protest organisers may not wish to engage with the police. Although the exercise is voluntary, it also supports the principles of facilitating peaceful protest. Commanders should, therefore, ensure that sustained attempts are made to communicate with protest organisers, and that all attempts to do so are recorded as part of an audit trail.

Should pre-existing relationship issues exist, such as a lack of trust between parties, the use of non-police intermediaries (for example, community mediators) may help to resolve (or prevent) such issues interfering with the early dialogue between police and protest organisers.

Aims and objectives of early dialogue

The silver commander should endeavour to enter into early dialogue with protest groups, event organisers and other key stakeholders. A police liaison team may help with this process. The overall aims of this are to:

  • reduce and minimise conflict between the police and other stakeholders
  • in the case of protest, strengthen the relationship between protest groups and the police, thereby improving the capability of the police to facilitate and support peaceful protest
  • support the principles of no surprises
  • identify the appropriate police resource required for the operation

The police objectives for early dialogue should be to:

  • gain a comprehensive understanding of the intent and nature of the protest activity
  • enable legitimate aims of both the police and protest organisers to be aired and understood
  • discuss (and if possible agree) the terms of what is desirable, acceptable and unacceptable to the police and protest organisers
  • ensure that protest organisers fully understand their liability in respect of health and safety
  • ensure that protest organisers fully understand the threshold between acceptable (that is, peaceful) protest activity and unacceptable crime and disorder
  • ensure there is a clear understanding of the police role of balancing the rights of protestors against the rights of protest subject(s) and the wider public
  • reach agreement with protest organisers on the types and duration of protest activities that will be undertaken
  • minimise, as far as practicable, the element of surprise

Early dialogue considerations

  • Do protest organisers or their liaison officers entering into dialogue with the police represent the views of the majority of those attending?
  • Do these individuals have the degree of influence and control that they portray? If intelligence indicates this is not the case, the tactical plan should reflect options and contingencies to respond to any associated risks. It is prudent to advise protest organisers that contingencies exist, but that they will not be deployed unless necessary.
  • Is there shared agreement on the conduct of the event and the division of roles and responsibilities between the police and others? This may be consolidated in a signed memorandum of understanding (MoU). A MoU is used to demonstrate an understanding between the police and event organisers, build trust and set out each party’s agreed responsibilities. A MoU is not required for all events but may be useful in some circumstances.
  • Have the event organisers been identified? If not, or if the identified organiser is unable or unwilling to engage with the police, it is vital that all reasonable efforts are made by the police to engage (that is, repeated attempts using several different communication methods) and that all measures taken to do so are recorded.

For further information see HMIC (2009) Adapting to Protest – Nurturing the British Policing Model, p 82.

Responding to the protest crowd dynamic

HMIC (2009) Adapting to Protest – Nurturing the British Policing Model recommends that the most effective means of maintaining peaceful and consensual relations between the police and a dynamic protest crowd is through a:

  • strategic approach to policing protest which is centred on the facilitation of peaceful behaviour within a crowd
  • tactical policing response which increases police capability for dialogue and communication with crowd members
  • graded, differentiated and intelligence-led approach to the police use of force

It may be beneficial to adopt a phased approach to communicating with the protest crowd.

The protest crowd is not a homogenous mass but a collection of groups and individuals who, while sharing the same voluntary participation within the crowd, may wish to express themselves in different ways.

Phased approach to communicating with the protest crowd

Prior to the event:

  • outlines expectations
  • supports the facilitation of legitimate protest objectives
  • allows the police to explain the need for any restrictions on the event
  • assists in reducing misunderstanding

During the event:

  • allows officers to assess how police actions are perceived
  • allows for the appropriate and proportionate escalation or de-escalation of the police response
  • gives the police the opportunity to engage with protest participants in accordance with the diverse nature of the crowd

After the event:

  • provides an opportunity to discuss the police operation and identify positive elements and areas for learning
  • allows the police to use learning experiences to benefit future planning processes
Was this page useful?

Do not provide personal information such as your name or email address in the feedback form. Read our privacy policy for more information on how we use this data

What is the reason for your answer?
I couldn't find what I was looking for
The information wasn't relevant to me
The information is too complicated