Opinions, you know what they say — everybody’s got one including those of us in law enforcement. Were it not for the exchange of viewpoints between partners on patrol or surveillance assignments, shifts might seem a lot longer. What is said in the privacy of your patrol car or station is one thing, but when opinions spill out into the public there may be hell to pay for you and your agency.
Consider the recent controversy over early statements Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik made in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and many others. Dupnik has come under fire for offering his opinion during a press conference that vitriolic political rhetoric triggered a mentally ill shooter. Then there’s the recently reinstated U.S. Park Police Chief, Teresa Chambers who was fired years ago for telling a reporter that a lowered budget meant her agency was reducing coverage she believed could result in people being harmed. If seasoned police chiefs can make regretful public statements, many would agree it is possible that anyone can.
“Sucks to be them” is what many privately think when others are grilled and their words are met with scorn and ridicule. It is natural for other leaders to feel relief that they are not the one under such scrutiny. During situations such as this many are left with the impression that but for the “grace of God”, it could be me. Such dread and apprehension may even be the reason why some potentially great leaders shy away from taking on leadership positions.
As law enforcement officers, we do not lack courage. We will face down a crook with a gun any day — but those cameras — no way. If only you can avoid a reporter “getting the jump on you.” Well, I have some good news, as a leader it is possible to maximize the likelihood of positive press while minimizing the possibility of embarrassing encounters.
Some occupations, some people, some subjects, are press attractions because of their novelty or the intrigue with which the public consistently demonstrates an interest. So when anything newsworthy occurs, the reporters show up.
Let’s see: law enforcement, woman leader, thwarting terrorist attacks. Result? Maximum exposure. For example, any one of Chief Chamber’s characteristics would have been enough to heighten media attention, but all three? There you have it. Women police leaders can count on the spot light with nowhere to hide. The question is whether will the story focus be on you and your profession, or will it focus on what happened and what is being done about it.
Do not think that because you are not a supervisor that you can escape questioning by the media. From the excessive time it may take a boss to get to your crime scene to the “no comment” taboo, as a senior agent you may be called upon to make a press statement. And there’s a lot riding on this because how you are perceived publicly can sometimes make or break your upward mobility. There are a number of SES level federal personnel whose biographies boast backgrounds with experiences of enhancing public confidence in their agencies. And considering the high stakes for you and your agency, let’s explore what you can do to help ensure that those “15 minutes” will be famous instead of notorious.
1.) Be Prepared for the Unexpected
First, know that even if an interview is unexpected, to do well requires preparation on your part. Seek opportunities to take an in-service course on media handling. What you would glean are ways to convey your message without revealing restricted information. But even without formal training, you can practice by coming up with your own short phrases (sound bites) for reporting enforcement outcomes unique to your agency. Develop shelf ready sound bites for “worse case scenarios” such as injured agents, officer involved shootings, or corruption allegations.
Keep these notes at the ready with your field kit.
2.) Practice Your Delivery
This is not a game, but putting on your “game face” is a necessity. Generally speaking, law enforcement is a serious business. So practice in the mirror speaking with a serious expression using a sober tone. Combat a tendency of those in our profession to come across as being too cynical; while understanding that humor is tricky and can backfire - so it is normally reserved only for the most experienced public information officers.
3.) “Off the Record” Doesn’t Exist
When it’s “show time” just dig out your notes and tailor them to the situation at hand. Ensure that you have your facts straight and stick to that information. Offer no “off the record” comments. Draw upon your commitment as a public servant to convey to your fellow citizens an urgent message. Whether it is warning them to lock their doors due to a man hunt for a fugitive, or imploring them to help look for a kidnapped child — remain focused. You may be speaking to reporters, but your larger audience is the public. Let your passion for public safety drive home your message.
Remember: the reason the press is happening is because what you have to say needs to be heard. Drawing upon your practice, and sense of duty, confidently report the important message your agency is relying upon you to deliver.
There’s a lot more to getting it right with the media than there is room in this article, so if you can, take that class. When it comes to the press, it may seem that you are darned if you do and darned if you don’t — just be darned right.