Positive interaction with the media is important to any police agency. Done properly, good media relations informs the public, involves the citizenry in police operations and gains respect for the agency as a superior law enforcement entity. Moreover, good media relations limits misinformation and disinformation that will otherwise take over media broadcasts of crimes and major incidents. In an age in which media resources seem omnipresent, it’s essential that a police agency develop effective public information officers (PIOs).
Larger agencies are able to assign officers to full-time media and public relations duties, but what about smaller agencies? How can they gain better media exposure with fewer personnel and less resources? In many smaller agencies, media requests for information aren’t handled at all. But this is a mistake in most cases for at least five reasons. Timely media releases will: 1) inform the public; 2) fill the news void; 3) bolster confidence in the investigating agency; 4) relieve pressure on investigators; and 5) limit backlash from irate citizens.
Inform the Public
First and foremost, a police agency must keep its citizenry informed. Portions of almost all investigations can’t be released to the public so as to preserve the integrity of the investigation. However, it’s a rare case in which nothing can be released. A good PIO knows the boundaries of what can be released and will use that data to construct a scenario for public consumption that will satisfy their need to know. The PIO must present an overview of the incident and purposely refer to the items that can’t be released (i.e., identification of the victim, type of weapon used, etc.). Most members of the media and the public understand that some portions of an investigation must be kept confidential, but they also understand they have a right to be informed. A good PIO will perform this balancing act. In a free society, the press is seen by the general public as a guardian of liberty. Shielding all information from the press and the public is deceptive and unnecessary.
Filling the ‘News Void’
Reporters are charged with bringing in a story, and they will complete their assignment. If the police agency involved takes a position of “no comment,” reporters are forced to fill the void with comments from other parties. Too often, these are people who may or may not know what really happened. Most often, reporters are forced to take comments from unconfirmed witnesses on the street who may have ulterior motives attached to their testimony. The reporters don’t really know who’s credible and are likely to use these interviews to fill the void left by the police department. Even worse, the general public doesn’t know whether the “witness” lacks credibility and may take the statement at face value, thus devaluing police credibility. Some of these witnesses have no firsthand knowledge of the case at all, but want to be a part of the investigation. These aren’t the people a police agency wants talking to its citizenry.
Filling the news void with official information will help keep the story straight. Reporters will be limited in how much street witness information they can use in the story.
Timely press releases will also supply reporters with a frame of reference so they can better judge the credibility of other interviews. Following are byproducts of good media relations.
Bolster Confidence in the Agency
When the public sees a police officer calmly providing information to the media on an incident, two things are known immediately. First, there’s no cause for panic. An official representative of emergency services is providing an accurate account and would also provide cautionary information if there were an issue of widespread significance. Second, the public sees that their police agency has the matter under control. The PIO exudes confidence, which translates into public confidence in the agency.
Reporters are very clever. If they have no official representative from whom they can get information, they’ll find other ways. Besides speaking with street witnesses, some will try to gain access to investigators to get comments and video. This isn’t desirable. Interference from the media can be detrimental to the investigation and problematic for investigators. Reporters may stumble upon information that wasn’t ready to be presented to the public. The constant phone calls and requests for information are too time-consuming to be handled by investigators and will slow progress on the case.
Limit Backlash from Irate Citizens
How many times have we seen video news clips featuring irate citizens making such comments as “The police here don’t care” or “They aren’t doing anything about this problem”? Often, those comments are aired because the agency involved hasn’t been keeping the public abreast of an incident and the agency’s response.
Reporters and editors are generally fair. If they have data on actions taken by the agency, they’ll rarely use unsubstantiated comments like those above. That’s not to say, however, that editors won’t seek balance in a report. They do and should. If an irate citizen has proof that the agency has failed at a task, the editor would be remiss in not presenting it, along with rebuttal from the agency representative. Again, if the agency has a policy of “no comment,” the rebuttal is never made and the allegation of the irate citizen gains credibility.
Getting the PIO Started
Start by selecting an officer who would make a good PIO: Someone who is calm, professional and confident speaking in front of groups—including angry or large groups. This officer will be an effective voice of the agency.
In some smaller agencies, the agency chief is responsible for handling press inquiries. This arrangement may work, but it has two inherent flaws. First, the chief’s primary responsibility is to ensure the incident in question is properly handled. The small agency chief, in many cases, will be an incident commander. In very small agencies, the chief may also be the lead investigator. Responding to press inquiries is difficult and takes too much time and effort away from proper handling of the incident.
Second, by making the chief the primary media contact, the media is likely to assume that all room for error has been removed. Any misstatement or mistake, no matter how trivial or well intentioned, will take on greater significance when it’s made by the highest ranking officer of the agency. For these reasons, it’s preferable to assign the responsibilities of PIO to another officer.
Next, the chief needs to consider a PIO policy for the agency. The policy simply states to other members of the agency that there’s now a PIO and that the PIO or chief should be the primary contact for media inquiries. Too many people giving out information on the same incident will lead to conflicting data. The policy should state that the PIO answers directly to the agency head in media matters, thus relieving supervisors from the responsibility of approving press releases and keeping the image of the agency squarely in the chief’s hands.
Training for PIOs has been haphazard and difficult to find. There are some professional societies, such as the National Information Officers Association (NIOA), that offer training as part of their annual conference, but this isn’t convenient or efficient for most small agency PIOs. There are also private vendors, but they tend to be expensive. A good alternative could be state emergency management agencies and health departments. These entities occasionally offer training classes for civilian PIOs who need to respond to disasters, epidemics, etc.
This can’t be a full-time position in a small agency, but the person selected to be the PIO can still be effective. The PIO should begin before an emergency strikes by making calls to local media outlets and getting to know the editors and police reporters. Learning their names and getting contact information will be very helpful later. Newspaper reporters tend to be reassigned often, so the PIO will need to stay current on who’s doing what. Television reporters, as well as print and TV editors, have more longevity.
The PIO-media relationship is symbiotic. The media needs a story, and the PIO needs good press coverage. Therefore, the PIO should find out how the media prefers to be contacted, and vice versa. Initiating this kind of relationship will build trust.
The press release can be vexing for new PIOs, but it shouldn’t be. The toughest part of writing a press release is being confident in the data that’s released. Using a robbery case as an example, the PIO should construct a simple scenario that includes the time, date and location of the dispatch; the description of the robber(s); the type of weapon used; the type of items taken, minus specific quantities; method of getaway; and any injuries. The release should be sent to all media outlets on the PIO’s list, as well as all officers within the agency for informational purposes. The PIO should include a contact phone number for follow-up questions and should be prepared to meet with reporters for a live interview. Depending on the level to which you wish to engage the press, the release should provide basic data—a teaser—about the incident so reporters must call for further information. In other words, the press release doesn’t have to become the final article. In most cases, the PIO will get follow-up requests from every news outlet. If it’s a slow news day, the robbery case may get video coverage too.
Press conferences are rare in small agencies and can be intimidating, but they’re a fantastic opportunity for the PIO to showcase the talents and professionalism of the agency. Press conferences are typically used for high-profile cases, in which media interest extends beyond the local area. There may be inquiries from other media markets, or even other countries, depending on the nature of the incident.
Example: In 2004, a resident of my jurisdiction was executed by a group of extremists in Iraq. The brutal scene was captured on video and shown globally. Within days, we had news crews coming in from all over the world. Every major U.S. network was represented, along with media from Europe, Asia and Latin America.
When scheduling the conference, give the media sufficient time to attend and meet their deadlines. Television reporters often send stories via satellite to their editorial staff. Their deadlines coordinate with broadcast times—noon, 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., for example. They may even do a live shot while the conference is in progress. This is always risky for them because few conferences go off exactly as planned. Newsprint reporters usually have a deadline of 11 p.m. to make the overnight press run.
Choosing who to invite to the lectern can be tricky. People are easily offended when they don’t get media recognition, so try to invite all appropriate department heads. For example, the district attorney and agency chief should be there, as well as the chief of any agency that may also be involved in the investigation. Generally speaking, it’s better to invite too many people than not enough.
At the start of the conference, the PIO should introduce panel members and thank the press for attending. In most cases, the PIO will then provide a brief synopsis of what can be released to the press about the incident. After the synopsis, the floor should be opened to questions. Unless the chief wishes to run this portion of the conference, the PIO should field each question and refer it to the appropriate panel member. This keeps the conference organized and prevents one or two reporters from dominating the field. The PIO should make every effort to acknowledge every reporter who has a question, especially the local reporters with whom the PIO works regularly.
The Web: The PIO’s Friend
The PIO has many technology options for getting the agency’s message out to the media. Although fax transmittals are still used occasionally, e-mail seems to be the preferred method. The e-mail can be transmitted directly to a reporter, editor or both. Whenever possible, send the e-mail to more than one person at each outlet to avoid missing someone who may be on vacation or otherwise tied up on an assignment. Even the reporter in the field now has a PDA to receive e-mail, so take advantage of it.
Most PIOs hesitate to give out their cell phone numbers, opting instead to provide the agency’s phone number or the number to an agency cell phone that the PIO will use only when performing media duties. The reason for this is that some reporters have no inhibitions about calling the PIO at any time, day or night, whether the story they’re following is tied to one of the PIO agency’s cases or not.
Example: A local chief of police gave his cell phone number to a reporter during one case, only to receive two phone calls in the middle of the night from that reporter a week later to get supplemental comments on a case in another jurisdiction. Evidently, the reporter couldn’t find anyone to speak with at the jurisdictional agency, so she decided to try and get a quote from the sleeping chief. She received a quote, but it had nothing to do with the case or police work, and she couldn’t print it.
Police agency Web sites are a great way for the PIO to post information regarding in-progress investigations, especially cases that haven’t been picked up by the local media. Thefts, vandalism, hit-and-run accidents and photos of wanted persons are perfect choices for the agency’s Web site. Include contact information that can be used by witnesses or other people with information. If possible, set up a dedicated phone line for anonymous calls. This has been effective in some agencies.
One of the problems with agency Web sites is the control factor. If the police Web site is a page on the municipality’s site, control over content and updates is probably held by someone outside the police agency. This makes timely posting of important information and requests for public assistance difficult. The PIO will need to seek permission to have access to the police page, a task easier said than done in most cases.
Every police agency needs good press, and this is achieved only through effective media relations. Good press coverage elicits trust and confidence from the agency’s citizenry and keeps the detractors at bay. Agencies of any size can take advantage of the media’s need for information and simultaneously bring themselves credit that may be long overdue.
In the police profession, many of us have negative impressions of the press, but we shouldn’t. A free press is critical to a free society. In a discourse on the positive power of the press, James Madison wrote, “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been obtained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” Just as in Madison’s day, the modern press has the ability to transmit ideas, galvanize public opinion and inform the citizenry. We in the police profession need to work with the media as partners in providing accurate information to our mutual clients—the public.