Law Enforcement personnel are often their own worst enemies when it comes to interacting with the press. This is not due to a lack of intelligence; rather the shortfall comes from a lack of understanding what the media is trying to do. Simple rules can sometimes minimize the confusion. Here are ten tips for working effectively with the media:
- Reach out. In the mode of proactive community policing, take the initiative and make contact with media representatives in your area. Ask if you can visit the TV and radio station, as well as the newspapers and magazines that cover your jurisdiction. This is an opportunity before anything happens to meet and greet people at many levels of the media organization.
- Be Accessible. Much like the modern police administrator, members of the media have bosses and deadlines looming over them. If you are not available before their deadline, they may find someone else with incorrect information to fill up their print or broadcast space. If possible, give them your cell phone number and be sure to answer if they call.
- Treat Press Equally. Try not to favor certain members of the media as that will alienate the others. Give the smaller media outlets in your area a lot of your attention. This is especially true if the larger media organizations are not interested in what you are doing. The smaller ones are often more eager and will give your positive version a try as they want to keep your lines of communication open. The larger ones will then follow as they do not want to be left out of the growing story in their area: you.
- Have Regular Updates. As with number two above, if a major situation develops, hold regular updates for members of the press so that they can in turn update their audience. Even if you stand in front of the cameras and say that you have no new progress to report, better they hear it from you than someone with less authority or credible information.
- No Police Jargon. Stay away from using radio codes or police phrases such as "perpetrator." Use more relaxed and natural phrasing when describing incidents without sounding too casual. Police jargon needs to be clarified for most consumers of the media which uses up precious air time or print space.
- Be Brief. Do not be long-winded. The media folks just need the basics of what transpired. The detail required in a police report narrative is not needed by the press.
- Avoid Specifics. Be wary of revealing specific information concerning ongoing investigations. As seasoned investigators have learned, some information must be withheld to verify the authenticity of suspects who possess information that only the suspect and the police should know. Information on crime scenes should be vague. Timeline detail should be avoided.
- Protect Victims and Witnesses. If you do brief the media on a situation, be sure you make efforts to protect the victim, the victim's family, and any witnesses. All next of kin notifications should be made prior to releasing the names of any deceased individuals. Generally speaking, the presence of witnesses should not be revealed.
- Train Media. Encourage inclusiveness by involving the media in positive experiences at your agency. A prime example would be a Citizens Police Academy. The experience will acquaint them with the complexities of modern law enforcement while providing nice exposure for a worthwhile community relations program.
- Involve Media. For example, you may set up a media advisory board that reports to the police chief or sheriff. Serving with the agency's public information officer (PIO), these members of different types of press organizations in your jurisdiction will then have a say so on the parameters of the highly important relationship. Issues and grievances can be addressed before they become major distractions. Policy may be set by the agency's chief executive with input from the media. Such involvement will increase the odds that they "buy in" and agree to comply with the policy.
The key to these top ten tips is to open the lines of the communications with the communicators that link us with the citizens we serve. The public does have the right to know. We have the obligation to make sure that any release of information or media access is done in a professional manner that protects our various constituencies.
Backdrop Awareness for Media Interview
Dr. Richard Weinblatt, a Dean and Criminal Justice Professor, as well as former police chief and police academy manager, has amassed quite a bit of education, training and experience in training law enforcement officers.
This column, made up of officer safety advice, training guidance, police media relations commentary, and other tips, is written to assist you in the discharge of your duties as you serve your community.
Please feel free to contact Dr. Weinblatt through www.TheCopDoc.com with your ideas and input for future columns.