Prince George’s County (Md.) Police Chief Gerald Wilson talks to reporters outside a school in Bowie, Md., where a 13-year-old boy was shot during Lee Malvo’s 2002 sniper spree.PHOTO ISAAC MENASHE/KEYSTONE PICTURES/ZUMA PRESS
Police Chief Bill Blair is surrounded by reporters in Toronto, Canada, as he leaves a meeting on guns and gangs with officials from the city, Ottawa, Queen’s Park and other police forces.PHOTO HANS DERYK/TORONTO STAR/ZUMA PRESS
FEATURED IN TRAINING
All police officers should expect to interact with the media while handling a wide variety of police incidents. Those persons designated as public information officers (PIOs) have both the opportunity and responsibility to positively impact the public perception of the department. Proficient and sophisticated PIOs are worth their weight in gold to police brass and the rank-and-file alike.
A PIO must work to persuade front-line patrol/criminal investigative people that the media are not all bad, convince the command staff that a long-term media strategy is critical, and convince the media that the police side of the story is the most credible. In the end, a PIO must know they can make accommodations to all factions, but their primary allegiance must remain with the command staff and its agency. A PIO is the mouthpiece of the organization, and a solid PIO is a good soldier who delivers the agency s position as effectively as possible.
Media management is like trying to steer a tiger while riding on its back the best that you can hope for is to steer in a general direction. If you fall off, be prepared to get eaten alive. If you never make the attempt to jump up on the beast at the onset, you will be eaten alive anyway. The media will never go away.
Before any PIO moves into the world of front-line media relations, they should undertake a thorough study of the terrain. In this article, I ll describe the players you ll work with, and then discuss how you can best work with them.
The Rank & File
Front-line officers generally do not like media people or, at the very least, distrust them. With patrol officers, the media is there to film them at a scene without their hats; they show up with their cameras to arguably provide an accurate view of events, but frequently do not achieve that objective. Videotape may, in fact, not be constantly rolling, so what they do record may present an inaccurate record of an event because it's incomplete. Imagine the arrest of a male felon after a high-speed chase. The camera shows officers throwing the defendant to the ground and hand-cuffing him, but the film has not documented the life-threatening chase that led up to the apprehension. This is not to say video footage is not a reliable and accurate way to judge police conduct, just that many times the video record might remain incomplete. Beat cops know this and are therefore fearful of being portrayed inaccurately. Their attitude: Wear your hat, know where the cameras/reporters are at all times and avoid them at all costs.
Live-Interview Tip Sheet
Confirm the situation and verify information prior to giving any statement. Make no statements based on hearsay or indirect, unconfirmed information.
Position yourself with a provision for an easy exit. Do not allow the media to control your position. Camera positioning is their concern, not yours.
Gain control by making a maximum of three attempts to get the uninterrupted attention of media reps on a scene. If these attempts prove unsuccessful, calmly state that you will begin once there is order so that everyone can cover the story effectively as a courtesy to the media professionals present.
Give a brief initial statement (5 10 seconds) with no questions answered. Indicate police concern for the safety of persons involved.*
Establish with the media your intent to return with additional available information, and set the time of this return (e.g., 20 minutes).
If the situation deteriorates to a point where you are losing the battle and coming off as incompetent, leave. Gather information and return, and give the media something new.
TV is a visual medium. Always wear your uniform (with hat) to distinguish yourself from the other talking heads on the screen. If not in uniform, a suit and tie are a must.
*Example of initial statement: We have a situation working and are very concerned about the safety of the people involved. I ll give you a brief statement, but I will not answer any questions at this time. I will return in 20 minutes with further information, and you will have the opportunity to ask questions then.
Talk about things you know nothing about;
Bluff or lie. A good newsperson will expose you;
Be afraid that you do not know the answer to the question;
Give the interviewer ammunition (think about what you are saying);
Go off the record;
Offer personal opinion;
Say no comment. Viewers think this means you're guilty;
Beat around the bush;
Get trapped into a numbers game with statistics;
Look at the monitor if one is present during the interview;
Use police jargon; or
Provide information that may prejudice the accused.
Progressive police agencies have adopted models for community-based policing and intelligence-driven approaches to enforcement. Police commanders are aware of the public outcry and devastating political fallout that can follow an event or incident that becomes a public-relations nightmare. A solid PIO who adeptly crafts a police department's image is invaluable to forward-thinking commanders who have a vision for implementing effective policing.
Still, commanders might not realize the media is an entity that needs to be constantly managed and cultivated during all phases of department operations, rather than a force they must reckon with only after the next major incident or crisis. Their attitude: Have a good PIO for when the time comes, but otherwise, it remains difficult to statistically quantify the goodwill an active PIO generates on a consistent basis. As such, the PIO might remain less of a priority.
The media is driven by ratings and the advertising dollars that large viewerships/readerships generate. That's not to say the media reports without integrity or journalistic principle. But it's a fact the media business is highly competitive and fast-paced.
Most police departments don't have advertising budgets to buy airtime or print space, and the media needs law enforcement to grant them full access to stories in order to remain competitive in the news business. So, the media will do what it must to cover the story and get the information. They will come to a press conference and hear the police perspective, and then go out and seek other angles. Their attitude: Take what the cops give you at the press conference, and if they don't give you anything, go out and get the story anyway. In the end, get the story.
Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
Assume you're a new PIO and want to take a proactive approach to media relations. What s your first move? The PIO must first establish a close relationship of trust with a high-level, policy-making commander in the police organization, which could be the troop commander, chief, commissioner, etc.
The PIO can't operate through the traditional chain of command. Why? In the news business, unlike law enforcement, time is money. In order to be effective and capitalize on opportunities for positive and effective media coverage, a PIO cannot get bogged down in the traditional chain of command that may take hours to make a decision, well after the opportunity has passed for the media. Whether TV or print, the entire industry functions on deadlines. (Of course, the top-level commander must know what the mouthpiece is saying. Communication between the commander and the PIO is a two-way street, and subtle details matter when crafting the tone of a message.)
The PIO also needs the unwavering support of this commander to fight organizational bias against media representatives. Organizational awareness of that support is critical for the PIO s credibility with the organization's front-line people. And a PIO must know the commander will back the PIO up in the event they're misquoted, misinterpreted or suffer any of the other problems that can arise despite the PIO's best efforts.
Once supported by the brass, all levels of the organization must utilize the PIO. The PIO must be the sole conduit for information exchange. Remember: The only thing a PIO can use to control the media is access. If the media can get the story from shift supervisors, officers on scene or by calling the communication center, the PIO is simply an unnecessary or irrelevant player in the game.
Every PIO must cultivate support from the front-line officers. Little things pay big dividends. For example, if a PIO can improve relations between photographers/reporters and officers at the perimeters of incidents, it shows the media the police organization knows what the media's job is and is working to make that job easier. Keep in mind that a PIO must ultimately maintain their allegiance to regulations, but if you can allow greater access without compromising scene management and the investigation, it helps grease the wheels of the relationship. Example: Roughly three years ago in the Philadelphia region, an area where the brass remained sensitive about officers wearing their hats and where PIO/media relations had improved, when photographers arrived at a scene, they asked troopers to put their hats on before they started filming as a courtesy. That small and seemingly insignificant courtesy went a long way to show front-line troopers that the media was not there to expose anyone. Cops appreciate that.
Accessibility & Thick Skin
Once you have established yourself as the person with whom the media must deal in order to get information, remain accessible and toughen up. Accessibility is crucial because the media functions under severe time constraints. If you wanted to be the PIO to get out of patrol work and have a good schedule, you are in the wrong job. You must remain a cell-phone call away from someone looking for information. I think you need a take-home car and cell phone/pager to work effectively. You must stay in the loop and maintain the ability to respond.
Always have a fresh uniform at the ready and plug in with front-line officers and supervisors so that you can get a heads-up when the next big incident or news-generating story happens. Officers aren't stupid and can, with some coaching, keep a mental checklist of incidents that will garner attention. In addition to the no-brainers such as violent crimes and high-speed chases, officers can see (with some explanation) that anything that happens during a ratings period, such as an incident involving a child or an incident with an emotional angle, will be newsworthy, and they'll call their PIO with a heads-up. PIOs cannot work effectively unless they have the pulse of the organization.
The job also requires toughness (but not arrogance). A PIO can expect to face tough questions from the media. You must get the facts right and think quickly on your feet. The media will respect you only if they think you're competent. If they sense otherwise, they will think you're another cop who does not get it.
Your fellow officers will cut you little slack as well. If you're in the news often, some will brand you as a media darling, and if you are not, others will say you are not promoting and showcasing their incidents/investigations. Expect to be critiqued every time you're in the news. I recall a live interview on the 11 o'clock news regarding the drunken pilot of a private plane who flew around Philadelphia International Airport and Limerick Nuclear Power Plant before landing. Troopers arrested him without incident with news cameras rolling. I m 5'9", and the reporter with whom I did the interview stood over 6 feet tall. The interview went very well and was seen in several hundred thousand households, yet my fellow troopers suggested I carry around a milk crate to stand on for my next interview to make up for my height disadvantage. Being a PIO isn't as stressful as being shot at or run over, but there is a great deal of it, nonetheless.
A PIO must forge solid, consistent working relationships with the media. Rapport with reporters is good, but it's crucial with behind-the-scenes personnel. In TV and radio, you must meet the assignment editors and news director. These are the people who call the shots on a day-to-day basis and send news crews out to report on stories. They control the image of your agency for their viewers/listeners. In print media, editors determine what stories get covered. Get to know them. If you're waiting to forge relationships only when the next big incident emerges, you're preparing to fail.
The media needs to trust that you will remain accessible and give them what information you can, when you have it. Never play favorites and cater to some media outlets more so than others. First, it's not professional, and second, it will factionalize your contacts. Sometimes you will need a concerted effort from all the media to disseminate information crucial for an investigation, such as a homicide or manhunt. Never cater to one media source for the publicity it can provide at the expense of those sources with whom you deal on a constant basis. Arguably, very few people nationally had ever heard of Shanksville, Penn., before the Flight 93 crash on Sept. 11. If the PIO on that scene had catered to the national news for greater exposure at the expense of regional news agencies, the PIO would have destroyed relationships that may have taken much time and effort to build. It takes only one mistake to destroy them. Never expend media capital to win a battle because you will ultimately need that capital to win the war.
As time progresses, dealing with behind-the-scenes people allows a PIO to show they're a person of integrity. The media will know that if you possess the ability to give information, you will do so. If you can't, tell them that without any games. The media will respect you as a straight shooter and then go out and try and get the story elsewhere, but you know that. They will appreciate not having to waste news-gathering resources on you that they could deploy elsewhere. There will be times when you cannot comment on an incident or investigation, and the media knows that.
Rapport will also allow you to get a feel for what s going on in their business. There will be slow news days that allow the media to cover and promote new department initiatives, such as DUI or speed enforcement. The media is indebted to you for good copy, you receive positive press for your agency and it makes the brass happy. The relationship can be mutually beneficial.
Sometimes, however, the media will run stories that cast your agency in a less-than-favorable light. You can't take this personally. It's just business. If you have relationships of trust with the media, they will give you a heads-up that something bad is coming down and allow you to respond. The PIO can then earn points with the brass by giving them a heads-up about looming storm clouds. When the media calls the PIO and advises that the agency is going to get kicked around on the evening news, the PIO can warn top-level command in advance and demonstrate they have established critical relationships. In the end, that's what it comes down to relationships.
If someone argues that you can effectively stonewall, I would counter it by saying that even if the tactic is effective in a particular instance, in the long run, it will fail. Police agencies have been involved in scandal since the first officers put on a uniform. Sooner or later, scandal and/or well-intentioned mistake(s) on the part of police will present a legitimate news story that will be covered. Never underestimate the media s ability to present a bad story in a worse light, especially when media representatives have cause to resent their treatment by police.
The Nuclear Option
There's an old saying that goes, Never start a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Obviously, the reference is dated to an era when newspapers were the only media game in town, but it still applies to the media today. There will be situations, however, that pit the PIO and the media; it s not always a game of back slapping and playing nice. If a media source is biased and reports unscrupulously, a PIO can deploy the nuclear option by refusing to deal with such a person in any way. No one says you must disseminate information to everyone equally, or even allow access to all.
A PIO should always leave the nuclear option on the table, but invoke it seldom, if ever. If there is a media source who consistently gives you a raw deal, tell them about it. But once you shut them out, there's no room for compromise; they will continue to try to beat on your agency and you now have played your only bargaining chip access. It's arguably far better to know that you are dealing with a seriously biased media source and keep that source at arm's length.
This information and the accompanying live-interview tip sheet and list of do nots are by no means exhaustive, and a good PIO always seeks to learn as much as possible about the news business. These are lessons I learned through a baptism by fire. There will be situations unique to the individual department and particular media demographic. I do know, however, that if I had read this article as I took the reins as the regional PIO for the Pennsylvania State Police, Troop K Philadelphia, and served in that capacity for three years in the fourth largest media market in the country, there would have been days of far smoother sailing. Remember: Preparation and practice equal professionalism. Look to those PIOs around you that do the job well and learn from them. Good luck.
Christopher L. Paris, J.D. is a sergeant with the Pennsylvania State Police. He s a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Scranton, earned a Juris Doctorate from Temple University Law School and is a member of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Bar. He was the PIO for Troop K Philadelphia and conducted more than 250 TV, print and newspaper interviews. He currently consults for Victory Tactical Solutions (www.tacticalvictory.com). The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Pennsylvania State Police. Contact him at email@example.com.