Arresting Public Relations

Jon Ratliff

When I hear that the FBI has arrested a terror suspect, I typically imagine a scene like something out of “Cops,” with law enforcement breaking down a door, screaming, ordering people to get on the ground and possibly chasing one or more people through an alley.

In May, the FBI arrested two Muslim imams in Miami, including the leader of the oldest mosque in South Florida. By using fundamental public relations strategy, the FBI was able to make the arrests quietly and nonviolently, while avoiding a public uproar in the Muslim community. The full story is told in a recent NPR report.

The value of a well-executed public relations plan is revealed when it plays a central role in achieving the objectives of an anti-terrorism campaign. Understanding key audiences, and reaching out to them, can make a big difference in the aftermath of any event.

Every good PR plan has one or more objectives, and this case was no different. Not only did law enforcement want to avoid creating unrest in Miami’s Muslim community; they wanted to reinforce connections with that community as an information source. The Muslim community has been a good source of information about potential terror suspects. It was important to law enforcement officials to maintain that community relationship.

Given that the arrest was going to take place at the mosque, agents took care to observe Muslim culture – right down to removing their shoes before stepping on the prayer rug inside the mosque. Agents went through a Muslim sensitivity training program a week before the arrest. During planning, they determined that the best time to make the arrest was following Saturday prayers.

Following the imams’ arrest, the lead agent contacted leaders in Miami’s Muslim community to inform them about what took place. At one point, leaders were allowed to see the indictment. The NPR story makes it clear that most arrests don’t happen that way and the Muslim community is often left to deal with rumors, which lead to confusion and frustration.

The public relations process conducted by the FBI in Miami is part of an ongoing outreach to the Muslim community. Two dozen U.S. attorneys across the country have participated in a pilot program that has them reach out to local Muslim leaders. When it came time to arrest the imams, FBI agents already had a relationship with leaders in the Muslim community.

I can’t tell you if the arrest of the imams was good police work, but it was exceptional public relations.

— Jon Ratliff, TCG Vice President/Account Group Director

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