Serious organised crime: communications evidence review

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

3. Communications

In order to effectively communicate issues related to organised crime, we must not simply understand the threats themselves, but also the means by which the public becomes aware of those threats and the impact that these mediums have on their perceptions. We must also understand the ambitions for communications as a tool to tackle organised crime, and the current practice and language used when discussing it.

Throughout recent communications strategies, the phrase "raising awareness" or others like it is used often with relatively broad meaning, and can sometimes be read as the primary goal or end target of communications efforts. However, in almost all cases it is clear that the desired outcome lies beyond awareness alone, and that success will only be achieved by positively influencing attitudes and behaviour – whether by encouraging people not to buy counterfeit goods, by turning them away from involvement in online drug dealing, or by increasing reporting of human trafficking.

3.1 Interest in the News and News Sources in Scotland

Just as the internet is fundamentally remaking the criminal justice landscape, so it is reshaping the news and how we consume it.

The number of those reading a daily newspaper has almost halved since 1999, and of those under 35, only 20% now do so. [123] [124] Scotland's largest-selling papers, the Daily Record and the Scottish Sun - even if it is assumed that 2 people read every copy sold - now each reach less than 10% of the Scottish adult population. By the same metric, the Herald and Scotsman reach between 1% and 2%. This fall in newspaper circulation over the past decade is a phenomenon not unique to Scotland. [125]

However, there has not been as stark a reduction in news consumption as these figures might suggest, and the evolving nature of news media should not obscure the sustained high level of interest in it. Circulation figures generally do not include online readership, which could increase the above totals by a factor of two or three. [126] Only one in ten describe themselves as having no interest in the news at all, while the remainder continue to seek a wide variety of news sources. [127]

Therefore, of more importance to the effective targeting of media campaigns is an understanding of the shifting balance of news mediums. Television remains by far the most-used source of news, with the BBC the chief outlet. In radio, the BBC is even more dominant. Around 40% of the adult population, and a higher proportion of young people, now use the internet and other apps such as Facebook for their news – though it is important to note that many apps and social media services will draw their source material from traditional news outlets, including newspaper websites, and so in this respect too the falling sales of the print copies of the papers may underestimate their continuing influence. [128]

Ofcom data, based on self-reported figures of news consumption, demonstrates the dominance of television, and in particular the BBC, as a news source in Scotland. According to their findings, 46% of adults in Scotland use BBC One for news, 27% use ITV/ STV, and 16% use Sky News. The most widely read newspaper, the Daily Record, is used by 10%. However, the picture is not static; viewership of BBC and ITV/ STV fell from 2014 to 2015, while use of Facebook as a news source increased. [129]

While the news maintains its significant role in guiding the views and priorities of the general public, there remain large portions of the population who are unaware of even relatively widely publicised criminal justice topics.

An example of both the news media's power and its limitations is provided by a survey into armed policing which was carried out in late 2014, following a change in Police Scotland policy to allow a limited number of armed officers to attend routine incidents with visible firearms. Despite widespread and long-term media coverage and discussion in the Scottish Parliament over the preceding months, just over half of those interviewed as part of the public opinion survey were already aware of the change, and 43% had not heard of the development at all. The average level of awareness for those aged 16 – 34 was even lower, at below 40%.

Those who were aware of the change in policy primarily heard of it from the news media, with 70% crediting TV and radio as one of the sources, and 30% crediting newspapers. All other sources of information, including friends, family and the internet, were named by 10% or less. [130]

3.2 The News Media's Interest in Organised Crime

"Anyone interested in learning about crime from the mass media is treated to examples, incidents, and scandals but at such a level of description that it is impossible for them to develop an analytical comprehension of crime."

Sanford Sherizen, 1978 [131]

The role of the news media, its relationship with attitudes and behaviours, and the way in which it represents crime are all topics which have been the subject of extensive research. [132]

Public interest in crime in general is consistently high, though the extent to which this drives or is driven by news coverage is difficult to determine. Whichever more actively informs the other, crime has been a regular feature of news reporting since the dawn of the metropolitan daily newspaper in the early 1800s [133] , and a large proportion of the news remains dedicated to crime stories.

In the UK, a study analysing media reports between 1938 and 1967 found that an average of 4% of all news stories were about crime, while a similar analysis of Times and Mirror coverage from 1945 to 1991 showed an increase from under 10% to over 20% of stories focused on crime, and in particular a rise in the proportion of stories about drugs. [134]

This general and sustained interest in criminality stems from the inherent newsworthiness of certain specific aspects of crime, and it is these which dictate both the events which attract publicity and how they are presented. The impact of this attention on perceptions of crime is explored further in Chapter 4.

One simple definition of the nature of newsworthiness conceives it as interest in any form of deviance from rules or norms, which often involves conflict with some form of control. [135] In this context, all crime is fundamentally newsworthy, and serious organised crime – which represents an extreme deviance from acceptable social and business practices, combined with the subsequent high-level response from law enforcement agencies - provides some of the most appealing stories of all.

A broader analysis of newsworthiness includes other more specific factors, many of which further explain the sustained level of interest in crime. Modern news media has been found to be drawn towards events, or representations of events, which are current, simple, dramatic, titillating, novel, and which focus on specific personalities. [136] Again, we see how crime, and in particular the types of serious organised crime which involve violence, specific named accused and the potential drama of their apprehension, can provide ideal subject matter for the news media.

These motivations and drivers of interest inevitably lead to a particular presentation of crime, which often focuses disproportionately on the most serious or unusual cases, and which over-represents violent and interpersonal crime, while paying less attention to offences against property. These representations of crime and the relative prominence they are afforded by the media can shape not only the public perception of crime levels, but also the relative importance of certain crime types. [137]

The media also tend to use dramatic language, ("shocking", "vile", etc.), focus on negative interpretations of statistics, and repeat certain established narratives about the reality of crime. [138] Some of these media narratives are long-standing – for instance, the focus on the risk of violence faced by higher status, white, female adults, when the most common victims are poor, young, black males, has been the subject of numerous studies over the past 30 years. [139] [140] Other research has shown that media reports of crime also tend to be crafted in isolation, without significant exploration of the background trends or context, while others show an increased focus on the individuals involved, whether victim or perpetrator. [141]

It is clear that statements and information regarding the capture and prosecution of organised crime gangs trading in physical goods will inevitably attract widespread media attention and inform public attitudes, while information about crime types, crime policy or other advisory messages will likely struggle to find prominence, unless they can be framed so as to meet some of the criteria for newsworthiness above. It is likely that if a message does not meet some of these criteria, then it will be ignored or reframed so that it does.

While emphasising the threat in isolation is not always necessary to generate media interest, and specific cases or initiatives may provide a useful alternative, education messages alone will likely struggle to find traction.

"So lesson number one is, I think, and we cannot escape it: if you have a message, I think you have to make it sexy.

"Unusual stories, broad conspiracies in many countries, frauds involving large amounts of euro unfortunately will have greater possibilities to pass through the media and reach a large number of citizens than very detailed essays and reports. So if you want to reach a large number of citizens with your message and make it known all over Europe, I am afraid you will have to play according to the rules of the game and grab the interest of journalists with those elements that can feed their appetite: so, as I said, unusual stories, broad investigations, large confiscations of illegal goods or drugs."

Enrico Brivio, journalist, Associated Press Association/Il Sole 24 Ore (Italy) 2009 [142]

3.3 Social Media

More people in Scotland get their news from Facebook than from any single newspaper, and it is classed by OFCOM as the fastest growing news source in Scotland. However, the picture is more complex than it may initially appear. Newspapers will themselves have a presence on Facebook, and will use the site as a channel for their own content. Furthermore, Facebook does not consider itself a news company. [143]

Social media users must to some degree seek out information before they receive it. Unlike newspapers, in which readers are presented with a wide range of news stories, sites such as Twitter rely on the user choosing to receive news from certain sources, or searching, before they see it. For instance, unless they choose to follow the Scottish Government, or see others reposting their messages, they are only likely to learn of Government statements via whatever news media channels they follow, or if they search for the topic in question.

As such, social media behaves more as a personalised delivery mechanism for news than a news source in itself, with the user able to more effectively tailor the type of information they wish to receive than with traditional media, and with the option to receive communications directly from certain organisations or personalities. Facebook in particular has been the subject of significant recent coverage as to the degree to which it selects the stories users see based on their established preferences and views, thereby decreasing their exposure to conflicting or novel viewpoints. [144]

3.4 The Entertainment Media's Interest in Crime

"Films and television productions can, and do, play an important role in influencing public perception not only of the reality of crime, corruption and fraud but also of the capacity and effectiveness of the systems developed by society."

Cristian Unteanu, Journalist/European Correspondent for ZIUA (Romania), 2009 [145]

Crime is a perennial topic of novels, films, television programmes and radio plays, accounting for around 25% of all output. [146] All but one of the top 10 most borrowed books last year was a crime thriller or murder mystery [147] and they are the favourite genre of book for both genders, though the preference is significantly more pronounced with female readers. [148]

As with the news media, the focus of crime fiction is skewed towards particular types of crime. It also often focuses disproportionately on violent offences against the individual, and is concerned more by the people involved than the crime itself. [149]

3.4.1 Case study 1 – The FBI and entertainment media

The Federal Bureau of Investigation ( FBI) in the United States has long recognised the level of public interest in their work, and the important role that the entertainment media plays in presenting them to the wider world and creating a foundation of understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

As such, they have actively engaged with writers from a variety of fields since as long ago as the 1930s, in order to provide advice and guidance and to ensure the accurate representation of their work, structures, equipment and history. They are careful to specify that they do not fact-check, edit or approve the final work, nor do they have final control over its accuracy. [150] The availability of this service, with suitable caveats around resources and the stage of the proposed projects, is open to be applied for by all writers, authors and producers whose work involves representations of the Bureau. [151]

The FBI have also held more general seminars with established writers, in order to provide briefings on the nature and variety of their work, and to answer technical questions related to different crime types they are tackling. [152]

Similar engagement with producers of fiction by criminal justice agencies in Scotland, or by the wider members of the Serious Organised Crime Task Force, is difficult to quantify but is not actively advertised as a service by any members or actively co-ordinated by the Task Force itself. Consideration of opening such channels may be an important step towards informing the public of the evolving nature of organised crime.

3.5 The Communications Approach to Organised Crime – in Theory

3.5.1 A shift towards prevention [153]

The traditional communications focus of many of the agencies involved in Scotland's Serious Organised Crime Task Force has been on raising awareness of, and thereby confidence in, the operational work taking place in the respective arms of the criminal justice system. This promotion of confidence is in many ways a counterpart to the brand and reputation management practised in the private sector by PR firms [154] , and clearly remains an important project and one which should and will continue. However, a closer reading of recent strategies shows an upward shift in the importance of an alternative or supplemental priority - crime prevention itself.

The trend towards prevention is in many ways a natural extension of several operational trends. In particular it appears to mirror the thinking behind Project Jackal, a Police Scotland initiative launched in 2014 to gather financial intelligence about organised crime groups, and thereby target the business structures which allow them to successfully operate and supply criminal products. [155] This focus on the financial aspects of organised crime goes back at least to the 1980s in America, when the Presidential Commission on Organized Crime targeted money laundering as a keystone of organised crime, stating that a more finance-focused approach would "dislodge that keystone, and thereby… cause irreparable damage to the operations of organized crime." [156] Seen in this context, a communications prevention campaign seeks to understand and target the other half of the business equation not traditionally targeted by enforcement operations - the demand or consumer side – and thereby cut off the funding at source.

By placing the raising of public resilience, knowledge and the uptake of certain safe behaviours as a key aspect of tackling organised crime, with its clear benefits of reduced victimisation, reduced markets, and reduced recruitment opportunities for crime groups, these strategies set aspirations for communications teams which are beyond their previous remit. The focus is often on victims or funders of crime, or potential recruits, rather than perpetrators or those tasked with their apprehension.

3.5.2 "Raising awareness"

In Scotland, the renewed focus on communications as a preventative tool finds its origin in the formation of the Serious Organised Crime Task Force, and to Scotland's first multiagency serious organised crime strategy, published in 2009. This strategy included recommendations for a Communications group to be formed to "raise awareness and reduce demand", and recognised that "all public agencies, businesses, and individuals have a part to play" in dealing with organised crime. [157]

The 2015 Serious Organised Crime Strategy took this still further, and recognised prevention as the single most important aspect of the work to tackle organised crime, stating that "communication and awareness-raising will be essential… sharing information with the public, businesses and public and third sector organisations is key to achieving our aim." [158] While the overarching focus of the Strategy and others is on public awareness, it is clear from the desired outcomes that the goal is in fact changes either in attitudes or, more often, in behaviour - for instance through a reduction in engagement with the products of organised crime, or through encouraging the public to become more empowered as regards their own security. [159]

Before further discussion of this difference in terminology and its ramification for the success of these strategies, it is important to recognise how prevalent such goals are in contemporary crime strategies, and the perceived importance of perceptions and awareness in addressing them.

This foregrounding of a prevent agenda is also clear in Scotland's recent Cyber-Resilience Strategy, which emphasised the importance of fostering "a culture of cyber awareness and readiness" and which aims to have achieved the following six key outcomes by 2020:

1. our people are informed and prepared to make the most of digital technologies safely
2. our businesses and organisations recognise the risks in the digital world and are well-prepared to manage them
3. we have confidence in and trust our digital public services
4. we have a growing and renowned cyber resilience research community
5. we have a global reputation for being a secure place to live and learn, and to set up and invest in business
6. we have an innovative cyber security, goods and services industry that can help meet global demand. [160]

The first five of these six outcomes all focus in some way on actively changing awareness, attitudes, or behaviours, and as such fundamentally rely on successful communication, as outlined below:

KEY: awareness, attitudes, BEHAVIOURS

1. our people are informed and prepared to make the most of digital technologies SAFELY
2. our businesses and organisations recognise the risks in the digital world and are well-prepared to MANAGE THEM
3. we have confidence in and trust our digital public services
4. we have a GROWING and renowned cyber resilience research community
5. we have a global reputation for being a secure place to LIVE AND LEARN, AND TO SET UP AND INVEST IN BUSINESS

The importance of and distinction between these goals is clear. The operational side of criminal justice, in terms of the detection or disruption of the criminal groups which make such resilience necessary, is not mentioned. The strategy goes on to recognise that achieving these goals will require a sustained and collaborative effort, co-ordinated at a government level.

This tone is replicated elsewhere. The key Scottish Government targets for communicators, echoed in strategic plans by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service ( COPFS) and Police Scotland, focus on improving safety and reducing fear among the public. [161] Police Scotland's most recent Annual Plan further outlines the desire to "positively influence social attitudes and prevent crime". [162] The NCA's Transparency Policy commits to "raising awareness of the threat caused by serious and organised crime" [163] , while their most recent Annual Plan outlines the merits of providing "information to the public on how they can protect themselves against becoming victims of serious and organised crime, including fraud, child sexual exploitation and abuse and cyber-enabled crime." [164]

In November 2016, the UK's cybercrime tsar, Dr Jamie Saunders, proposed a 'cyber-prevent' strategy to discourage young people from being drawn into cybercrime. [165] Europol recommends a "comprehensive and proactive strategy to focus on raising current levels of awareness and to provide enforcers with the knowledge and tools they need to work together and take effective remedial action" as a key aspect of the fight against counterfeiters. [166] As part of the Scottish Government's stakeholder events on human trafficking, one of the main topics discussed was "raising awareness and understanding of trafficking to help identify victims and pursue perpetrators." [167] The 2016 annual report on serious organised crime in Scotland stated that "It is essential that we … make sure that our communities and businesses remain informed about the threat and impact of [serious organised crime] and what steps we can all take to counteract this." [168] The list goes on.

A notable exception to this trend is in criminal justice communications strategies specifically related to drugs, in which comparatively little mention is made of, for instance, attempting to influence people to stop using drugs as a complementary approach to investigation and arrest of dealers. As far as can be ascertained, there is little current strategic communications linkage suggested or in place between health and crime messaging in this field. Messaging from criminal justice agencies tends to focus on the role of enforcement authorities in preventing drugs from reaching Scottish communities [169] , or specific warning messages about particularly dangerous batches of drugs. Drug-related statements from law enforcement are rarely coupled with information on what options are available to those who find themselves addicted to or, more frequently, habitual users of controlled drugs, despite over 90% of those trying to cut down on drugs either not using support services or not knowing they exist [170] , and over 94% of those who do ask receiving help within 3 weeks. [171]

The communications targets as set out by these strategies are relatively broad, and are rarely pegged to specific behaviours or attitudes. When they are, they do not specify ways by which success could be achieved or measured. Though the delivery of the strategies relies in large part on wide-ranging changes in public attitudes and behaviours, there are few defined statistical markers.

For instance, while much work is being done to raise awareness of operational successes or policy launches, both of which occur in relative isolation, these do not appear on the data available to have had significant effect on the understanding of many crime types, with public perceptions and priorities still focusing overwhelmingly on drugs. [172] [173]

There is perhaps a tacit assumption underlying some of these strategies that "raising awareness", or placing into the public domain as much information as possible regarding desired actions, operational capability or threat levels, is sufficient to influence attitudes and behaviour, and that the more information that is put into the public domain the more effective this process will be.

3.6 The Communications Approach to Organised Crime – in Practice

Awareness campaigns or statements regarding organised crime often take one of two forms.

The first emphasises the threat and then commits to tackling it, either through a warning to perpetrators or a reassurance of operational capability. These campaigns sometimes touch on things that the public can do, but only in general terms, or point towards other sources of information. They generally focus on promoting confidence and trust in the justice system and the reputation of the agencies involved.

The second focuses on the provision of knowledge to victims or potential victims. Due to the low levels of public awareness around organised crime (see Chapter 4 - Perceptions) attempts to influence public discourse and engagement often begin from the premise that addressing this knowledge gap is the first step towards positive action, engagement and ultimately a reduction in crime and victimisation. These campaigns focus on empowering the general public.

An example of these two types of campaigns is demonstrated in recent efforts to publicise the threat of child sexual exploitation ( CSE) in Scotland. While this threat already receives significant attention in the media when cases arise, as with many crimes the focus tends to be on the most extreme aspects, meaning that the number of people with a practical understanding of the reality of the crime is much lower than the number with a general awareness or fear of its existence. Most parents know of the term " CSE", for instance, but over a third do not accept that it might affect their family, and almost a quarter do not believe it is a problem where they live. [174]

In January 2016 the Scottish Government launched " CSE The Signs", a dedicated website and communications campaign involving television adverts and social media promotion, with resources for adults and young people who may be affected or concerned that someone is affected by CSE. [175] The campaign focused on addressing the lack of practical knowledge.

Later in the year, Police Scotland launched a campaign which reminded perpetrators of their dedication in tracking them down. The focus of this campaign was both a warning to potential perpetrators and the public, balanced by a more general reassurance message about the capability of dedicated officers to apprehend those responsible. [176]

There have been few other sustained awareness campaigns – i.e. those involving posters, advertising space, or dedicated websites - specifically related to serious organised crime in recent years. "Made From Crime", the most recent example, launched in Lothian and Borders in 2011 and repeated on a wider basis in 2013, encouraged the public to report those who appeared to be supporting themselves financially through a criminal lifestyle. Since then, most statements or public awareness messaging has come through individual events or announcements.

A 2013 Scottish Government-commissioned study into the language used to discuss organised crime recommended a shift away from the overuse of war or conflict analogies, on the basis that they might only heighten the anxiety that they were attempting to reduce. [177] In the years since, the language used by agencies involved in the Serious Organised Crime Task Force has broadly followed this recommendation, and moved towards a more measured tone, emphasising expertise and intelligence.

In order to provide a guide as to current practice, 21 recent releases issued by members of the Serious Organised Crime Task Force have been considered, including comments from the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the National Crime Agency, Border Force, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. These releases covered various aspects of serious organised crime, including successful operations, court cases, policy announcements and public warnings, and a variety of crime types. The body of the release, and in particular the quotes attributable to named officials, were analysed and broken down into their constituent sections.

Breakdown of public statements on organised crime, I. Campbell, 2017
Breakdown of public statements on organised crime, I. Campbell, 2017

The vast majority of releases follow this pattern, and generally provide information in the order outlined above. Of the six instances of 'practical advice' found among the sample, five were to encourage calls to report specific types of crime, but with little guidance on exactly what to report or how to recognise it, and one gave general financial security advice.

The language used in the quotes from officials embedded in these releases is consistent. Positive steps have been made to avoid the old language and analogies of war and conflict, however, they still tend only to emphasise the threat of crime and the capability of law enforcement in tackling it.

Word cloud showing language of attributable comments in selected public statements on organised crime (not including the phrase "serious organised crime"), I. Campbell, 2017
Word cloud showing language of attributable comments in selected public statements on organised crime (not including the phrase "serious organised crime"), I. Campbell, 2017

The success of media events or statements is generally judged on the resultant media coverage - either simply on pure 'reach' or potential readership, or on a more complex assessment of prominence and the nature of the reporting. This method of analysing the effectiveness of media relations makes the announcement the focus, and its effective distribution or otherwise the measure of success. Should we wish to move beyond reassurance and towards empowerment, such a measure will cease to be adequate and may lead to ineffective campaigns being judged as successes. Only by measuring perceptions, attitudes and behaviours themselves can we know whether or not we are influencing them.


Email: Jim Hislop,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

Back to top