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Insider tips for understanding & handling the media

It’s not uncommon for several classes at International Association of Chiefs of Police shows to deal specifically with the media, one of the hottest topics in law enforcement. If you haven't had a close encounter with the media yet, chances are high that you will at some point in your career. A survey of TV news viewers showed that 41% listed crime-related stories as the most interesting, which means stories related to what you are doing.

"Television news in particular is a bottom line business," 30-yr. news veteran Rick Rosenthal told the IACP audience attending a workshop he conducted on"Police-Media Relations: Lessons in Mutual Effectiveness.

"It's all about dollars and cents. More crime-related stories means more viewers, which means higher ratings, which means more advertisers, which means more money."

Rosenthal, who left a high-profile media career in Chicago, makes himself available to police agencies around the country as a trainer and consultant on media relations. Jokingly identifying himself as a member of R.J.A., ("Recovering Journalists of America"), he prefaced his presentation with, "I love law enforcement. I am here to be sure you are NEVER victimized by the media again. If my colleagues heard what I'm about to tell you, they'd come after me with a big stick."

Here are some of the "insider" insights he offered into how the media thinks and some strategies for improving your relationship with reporters which ultimately can make your job easier.

Try riding with the media

Reporters are always interested in what you are doing and will often ask permission to ride along with you to witness your work up close. When's the last time you showed interest in how THEY work?

"Try calling your local news station and ask them if you can ride along with a news crew," suggested Rosenthal. "You'll gain a first-hand understanding of who these people are and how they work, plus you'll add a face to your badge and the reporters will begin to see you're not such a bad person after all. This friendly relationship may catch you a break the next time you encounter each other on the street."

Feed the animals [a.k.a. The Media]

One veteran PIO shared his philosophy for maintaining a successful relationship with the media: "I feed the animals. I give them the same amount of food every day. If I don't feed them, they'll get hungry and they'll start foraging for food. Then, sooner or later, they'll turn around and bite the hand that's been feeding them." In other words, give the media some information they can use instead of automatically shutting them out. Otherwise, they'll either go back to the station without a story or they'll need to create one to satisfy the demands of their superiors. Their resentment towards you and your department for making their job harder could easily lead to acts of revenge in future encounters.

In an effort to develop an open and honest relationship with the media, one FL department actually allows ANY of their officers to speak with reporters. The heavy stuff, like comments on departmental policy, is left up to the chief but street officers are allowed to "feed the animals" (within reason, of course) at any time.

Consider the media a P.R. tool

The people who watch the news are the same people you're paid to serve and protect. If they watch a story that portrays your department as uncooperative, unprofessional or apathetic, they may develop a poor image of the police. If they see you as helpful, sincere and truly interested in keeping the public informed and successfully resolving the situation at hand, they will have a much better impression.

Consider how you look on TV

Look around before an interview. What's behind you? If it's a cuffed and cursing suspect with a bloody nose resulting from a fight with officers after resisting arrest, change the location of the interview (known in the news biz as "dressing the set.") The ambient scene may reflect poorly on you and the department. "Dressing the mike" (tucking the cord of a lapel mike into your shirt) can also make you appear more professional and in control.

Never turn down an opportunity to go live

"You can't edit a live interview," said Rosenthal, "so what the viewer sees and hears is untainted." If you're confident, creative and experienced enough to walk the tight rope of a live interview, take every opportunity you get to do so. You can spin the story in your direction and eliminate the fear of having your story manipulated in an editing room. Before answering a question in any interview, be sure to follow these 5 steps to avoid potentially harmful mistakes: Listen carefully to the question, understand the question, decide whether to answer or not, frame your answer, respond.

Remember you can say no

Although it's not advisable to consistently offer no comment, a well-timed refusal to offer information can work to your best interest in certain situations. If you feel offering a comment of any kind could jeopardize you, your department or the case you're working on, don't forget you DO have the right to offer no comment. "Remember, what you say to the media can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion," said Rosenthal.

Don’t go “off the record”

If a reporter approaches you and says, "Hey, off the record, where does the investigation stand?" BEWARE! "There is no such thing as 'off the record,'" warned Rosenthal. That phrase offers you no protection. Falling for it and offering sensitive information could wreck your career and severely damage the department. HOWEVER, if you feel giving a reporter an inside scoop could be in the best interest of your department and law enforcement as a whole, you may want to consider sharing a nugget of information ONLY AFTER making the following statement; "This information is being given to you off the record. This is offered as background information only. This is not for quotation or attribution. Do you understand?" "If you decide to play this card," warns Rosenthal, "you better trust that reporter with your professional life!"

Use the “play off” technique

Ever notice whenever you DON'T want the media to be around, like during a sensitive investigation, they ARE and whenever you DO want them to be there, like during a police charity benefit for children, they AREN'T? Consider manipulating them for your benefit (just as they might manipulate you for theirs) by playing one station off of another.

If you've got a great P.R. event coming up and you want the media to be there, call a reporter you've developed a good relationship with and say "We've got this big benefit coming up that's definitely going to be of interest to your viewers and I wanted to give you the scoop before I called the other stations. We're going to be giving toys to underprivileged children and your viewers will love seeing how happy these kids are going to be. They'll be glad to see you cared enough to cover this. They'll be lots of great camera shots and interesting human interest stories to follow. I'll keep an eye out for you and be sure you get the shots you want. Can I expect you to be there?"

That reporter is thinking, "It doesn't sound too thrilling but he said he was going to call the other stations so if we're not there, we might get scooped if it turns out to be good stuff. We better be there." Just to be SURE there's someone there, call your other friend at the other station and give her the same pitch.

Notice the mention of the camera shots and a story angle. If you want the media to report on something, you need to tantalize them with elements they want -- good visuals and solid story angles that will be of interest to their viewers. If you just say, "We're having this benefit, I want you to be there," chances are slim the reporter is going to have the foresight to visualize the great story potential of a room full of needy kids getting the assistance they need.

Watch the calendar

TV ratings periods occur in May and November. Be sure to brush up on tactics for successfully handling the media during these periods when reporters will be out looking for the juiciest, ratings-grabbingest stories they can find...or create!

For more information on law enforcement media relations contact Rick Rosenthal, President, RAR Communications, Inc., 640 Winnetka Mews, Ste. 405, Winnetka, IL 60093, phone: (847) 446-6839, fax: (847) 501-2784, rarcomm@sbcglobal.net

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