Serious organised crime: communications evidence review

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

1. Introduction

A fundamental shift in the nature of organised crime is underway.

Crime groups are diversifying. [1] No longer limited to traditional local networks, they have begun to pursue profit in an increasing variety of illicit trades. At the same time they are growing increasingly global, with criminal networks now more deeply integrated across borders and around the world than ever before. [2] Many are branching out into the new frontier of online dark markets.

Stereotypes of organised crime, driven by many years of public statements, popular fiction and the news media, still paint a picture primarily of drugs, glamour and violence. The perpetrators are imagined as gangs of closely-knit individuals, perhaps united along family or regional ties, who live a life of relative luxury while evading law enforcement. However, a true picture of organised crime is far broader, and its effects reach out and touch many aspects of our lives and almost every arm of government.

It is a human rights issue, with victims trafficked to Scotland to work as prostitutes or unpaid labourers. It is an economic problem, with Scottish taxpayers paying £3.5 billion every year to deal with drug misuse alone [3] , while fraud drains as much as £3,000 per person from the UK's economy. [4] It is a problem for schools, which must help educate young people to be safe online and help divert them from criminal lifestyles. It is a health concern, with drug-related deaths in Scotland having doubled in the past decade. [5] It is a problem for businesses, which must protect their copyrights and patents from counterfeiters and their computer systems from hackers. And, in particular with the advent of cybercrime, it is a problem that can profoundly impact each and every one of us without warning. We do not need to have an interest in organised criminals for them to have one in us.

It is clear that the public perception of organised crime has not kept pace with these changes. New or previously under-reported crimes appear to exist at either end of a spectrum – they are either barely recognised, or the threat is so well publicised that the public feel powerless to protect themselves.

The response to this problem has been wide-ranging. When Scotland's Serious Organised Crime Strategy was published in 2015, it reinforced the importance of preventative work as well as the detection, disruption and prosecution of those involved. It also made clear the importance of working together, of uniting in our efforts, and on widening those involved in tackling organised crime beyond the traditional law enforcement agencies, to include other groups such as local authorities, young peoples' charities and environmental protection bodies.

In addition, and underlying almost every aspect of this strategy, is the need for adequate communication and awareness-raising. [6] To foster a confident, safe Scotland with a reducing fear of crime, the argument goes, the public need to know what organised crime really looks like.

The growing recognition of the importance of this aspect of prevention comes up again and again. In Scotland's 2015 Cyber-Resilience Strategy, "public attitudes and perceptions" stand as one of the four key strategic themes for tackling cybercrime. [7] In Europol's most recent Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, they are highlighted as a key enabler of crime, while "reducing a lack of general awareness" is recommended as a future consideration for all agencies. [8] The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime believes that "raising awareness of the complexity of the drug problem… across all relevant State institutions" is a key part of any successful drug strategy. [9] The list goes on.

These strategies are ambitious, and describe wide-ranging communications targets far beyond the traditional focus of increasing public confidence in the justice system and its constituent agencies.

However, if communications is to become a valuable strategic tool in this way, rather than only a method of reputation management and information sharing, then we must ensure that communicators and public figures have the tools to do the job. If we wish to encourage behaviour change, then we need to understand the psychology of such campaigns; if we are tasked with educating the public, then we must understand what they already know and how they come to know it; if we are asked to deter criminals from operating in Scotland, we must understand their motivations.

There is perhaps a tacit assumption that telling people something is enough, that sending information into the public domain or announcing successful enforcement work is the extent of our collective responsibility. This paper seeks to challenge that view. By providing a broad evidential base for communicators from all backgrounds to draw on, it will identify opportunities for refining our language and our tactics.

This paper is not intended to be a strategy in itself. There are already many overlapping strategies dealing with organised crime, and as threats and communications channels continue to evolve, the specifics of these strategies and the methods of their delivery will be updated. Rather, it aims to gather and analyse a broad base of evidence regarding threat, current communications practices and strategies, public perceptions and the psychology of effective behaviour change, in order to provide a resource and toolkit to help guide best practice in the discussion of organised crime.


Email: Jim Hislop,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

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