Mastering the media: Saving your department's reputation

With the right strategies, it is possible to play the same games the media does


SAN DIEGO — Most equate "officer safety" with preparation for a life-threatening, use of force confrontation involving a single cop and a suspect. But danger can befall every member of your department, simultaneously, should an event occur that threatens your reputation.

"This session is going to be about getting out bad news," began the introduction Sunday during a presentation at IACP 2012. "These are strategies you'll hopefully never have to use."
 
Sex assault during ridealong
Among the panel members was Chief Mike Masterson, of Boise Police Department. He had his share of headaches when a series of occurrences rattled relations between his several hundred-strong force of officers and the population they serve, including the sexual assault of a girl by an officer during a ridealong. 
 
You can imagine the headlines that came after, but the chief chose to be open and firm.
 
"I do not feel good in coming to you and needing to explain this," Masterson said at the time, with news cameras rolling. "But if there’s one positive note from this investigation, it’s that this girl had the trust in her police department to come forward about the case."
 
That message of trust influenced how the media responded to the story, resulting in a firestorm that lasted only about a day-and–a- half, he said.
 
During the session, he urged the audience to try shaping the news, but warned to never omit information, which even if bad, can — counter intuitively — strengthen public approval.
 
“Crisis creates uncertainty, but presenting facts takes away uncertainty,” he said. “After the incident, people said they actually trust the police more because we were proactive in getting our message out there.”
 
Use of force video goes viral
When a reckless, intoxicated driver in a Lamborghini was pulled over by Milwaukee Officer Eric Razman last year, a citizen’s cell phone camera recorded the incident, and because police didn’t know until after the fact, the media went nuts.
“There’s almost nothing worse than when an arrest is caught on video and you find out about it by watching it on the nightly news,” Annie Schwartz told the room. 
 
But as the woman behind Milwaukeepolicenews.com, a sharp-looking website independent from the city-run police page, she already had a system of defense in place. In a video rebuttal to the media story of the “beating,” she had the chief break down the footage. 

 
At first watch, the cell phone clip appears to show Officer Razman strike the suspect in the head while on the ground, but looking again in slow motion reveals a shoulder hit, which the chief explains changes the situation dramatically.
 
Given the fact the combative subject resisted arrest, “the use of force now appeared to be a show of restraint on the part of the officer,” the Milwaukee Chief says in the video.
 
Key facts from the investigation pepper the clip, such as the lack of complaint filed by the driver, whose booking photos showed no visible injuries. Hasty to share a hot story without concern if it lacks information, the media likely reached more people than the police, but Schwartz said the effort was not in vain.
 
“Did the video on The Source get as many views as the original YouTube video?” asked Schwartz. “No. But 2,000 Milwaukee officers were glad to see someone stand up for a cop who did the right thing.”
 

About the author

Hayley Hudson is a contributor to PoliceOne, writing primarily on the people and personalities in police work, focusing on how others might relate to and learn from them.

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