Serious organised crime: communications evidence review

Review of messaging around serious organised crime and toolkit for communicators to reduce demand, victimisation and fear.

Executive Summary

Organised crime is evolving rapidly. Public opinion, deep-seated and informed by images of gangs, glamour and violence in the news and entertainment media, lags some way behind the reality.

There are many real threats which the public either do not perceive as being related to organised crime, or do not consider a threat at all. This lack of awareness matters for several reasons.

Firstly, the majority of people do not consider themselves affected by or at risk from organised crime; it is something that happens elsewhere and to others. They are therefore less likely to take steps to protect themselves from organised crime. In general, those without personal experience of crime – or who do not believe they have personal experience of crime – are more likely to rely on portrayals in the news or entertainment media, which in turn are more likely to focus on violent or other interpersonal crime.

Secondly, organised crime is largely funded by the general public, either through the purchase of controlled drugs or other illicit goods, or through unwilling victimisation. Without this source of funds, the capacity of organised crime to inflict physical or economic harm would wither.

Thirdly, 'organised crime' as a concept already attracts widespread condemnation, and most people state that they would report it if they saw it. However, as many organised crimes would go unrecognised as such, public goodwill is not being fully translated into reports to law enforcement.

In response to this awareness gap, strategies dealing with the threat of organised crime are increasingly focused on the need for preventative as well as punitive remedies, in the hope of more effectively reducing victimisation, fear, and the flow of money to organised crime groups. Communications is seen as a key element of this prevention strategy, with its role often summarised as 'raising awareness of the threats', or 'educating the public'.

However, high-level strategies rarely discuss practical ways in which meaningful prevention messaging can be delivered.

This newer goal of prevention sits alongside the traditional communications objective of increasing public confidence in the justice system and its constituent agencies. These two projects can be summarised as the 'prevention' agenda and the 'reputation' agenda.

While there is overlap between crime prevention and reputation management messaging, in some circumstances they exist in competition with each other.

The reputation agenda frames its messages by specifying the threat, condemning the crime, and promoting the capability of the agencies involved in tackling it. The tone of these messages tends to be one of a warning to perpetrators, or reassurance of operational effectiveness. Where guidance is offered, it is often in the form of a referral to other sources, and places responsibility on the reader to follow through and educate themselves.

The prevention agenda seeks to more actively influence attitudes, support the development of positive behaviours, and encourage workable responses to threats. In practice it seeks to go beyond 'awareness raising' by undermining the attitudes which drive active engagement with organised crime, by empowering the public to protect themselves from victimisation, or by encouraging them to recognise and report organised crime.

While prevention is the clear priority of Scotland's Serious Organised Crime Strategy and other high-level strategies both in Scotland and elsewhere, in practice reputation remains the most frequent focus of current media statements. While public statements have moved away from the language of war and conflict, they still tend to emphasise the threat of crime and the capability of law enforcement in tackling it.

Evidence suggests that this blend of messaging may generate a positive view of and trust in the criminal justice system itself, but may also to contribute to a general fear of crime, a lack of practical understanding, and inaction in terms of personal protection. This appears to be close to the current reality.

Where a crime is misunderstood or unknown, the threat must be explained. However, threat is often given prominence in media statements regardless of existing public awareness or knowledge. This may be due to a perception that such framing is required to make a story newsworthy, or that it drives audience interest in what is to follow. While in some circumstances this assessment is accurate, such statements are also often delivered alongside already newsworthy events, for instance at the conclusion of criminal cases. Their perceived efficacy as drivers of media interest may be overestimated in these cases, and their effectiveness in driving appropriate action may be misjudged if the threat is not also accompanied by specific, achievable behaviours which could mitigate risks.

Emphasis on threat alone may make an audience decide simply to abandon efforts to protect themselves, or mitigate their fear by denying the existence of the problem.

Behaviour change is driven not solely by exposure to information, but by the context and framing of that information and a complex range of environmental and psychological factors. There is little evidence of the efficacy of messages relating to serious organised crime having been tested on target groups prior to their use.

The success or otherwise of media campaigns is generally judged by the 'reach' or readership of the messages, rather than their practical impact. There therefore appears to be an underlying assumption that reach automatically equates to attitude change, and attitude change to behaviour change. This is not the case.

The relationship between the key strands of organised crime messaging in 2017 can therefore be summarised as below:

Proposed crime messaging model, I. Campbell, 2017
Proposed crime messaging model, I. Campbell, 2017

In order to achieve the goals of the prevention agenda, the language of public statements and campaigns should be rebalanced. While maintaining public confidence in operational work, our public statements and campaigns should also seek to become more useful to the public: better informed by specific threats and risks rather than generic crime types; founded on evidence of what works and what has worked; framed and delivered in ways which focus more on supporting individual capacity than they do on highlighting risk, particularly when the risk is already well established; targeted so as to be more likely to be adopted (see Annex A); and seen as ongoing, multi-year projects rather than individual events.

Success should be measured, and campaigns informed, by indicators of behaviour change, rather than the degree of exposure to the messages. For instance, this could include assessing trends in crime reports; tracing trends in victimisation and crime levels; phrasing perceptions surveys to ask questions about behaviours as well as attitudes; and monitoring engagement with specific services.


Email: Jim Hislop,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

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