Feeding the animals: 10 tips for winning with the media after an OIS
At the latest ILEETA training conference, Rick Rosenthal, a veteran TV news anchor who’s now a law enforcement consultant, delivered some mixed metaphors you might find comforting as you contemplate the possibility of an OIS in your jurisdiction and the publicity firestorm that may well ignite in its aftermath.
• The media are not the bone-crushing, “900-pound gorilla” that many in police work imagine, he said. “That’s a myth.”
• When the media show up and try to get you to jump, you don’t have to “play frog.”
• With proper planning, you won’t become “media roadkill.”
• You (or someone from your agency) will have to deal with reporters when news breaks. “Engagement is inevitable,” Rosenthal said. “Victory is only optional.”
These days, after more than 30 years in broadcast journalism, many of them with Chicago superstation WGN, he spends full time training law enforcement in “key strategies and tactics for winning with the media.”
After his generalized presentation at ILEETA, Force Science News asked him specifically how agencies and their personnel can best deal with reporters after an OIS or other major use of force.
Here are 10 steps he recommends for winning under such crisis conditions:
1.) Build rapport with reporters before you need it. An OIS obviously is a special media event, but the kind of media relationship you need to build to handle it successfully is an ongoing process that needs to begin well before a shooting occurs, Rosenthal believes. Much of the advice he offers for managing the media after an OIS can be put in place and practiced beforehand, through routine, daily interactions, to build a bridge of trust and credibility.
“Part of the media’s job is to witness what law enforcement does, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the enemy,” he says. “Working with them and helping them now on other stories will give you a better chance of exercising some control over them when a crisis hits.”
2.) Provide 24/7 accessibility. Your pre-event preparation should include designating and training one or more spokespersons to represent your agency when an OIS or other critical incident goes down. Except in large, highly active departments, “this cabinet-level position does not have to be a full-time assignment,” Rosenthal explains, but whoever is recruited “should have some rank and street experience and want to do the job — not someone being punished with the assignment.”
Since shootings don’t happen when convenient, an information specialist must be on call 24/7, Rosenthal says. From a news viewpoint, prompt and easy accessibility may be the single most winning characteristic of a spokesperson — that, and an authoritative knowledge base.
The spokesperson must have “access to all incident scenes, to decision-makers, to the latest relevant developments, and to current policies and organizational decisions, plus a relatively free hand in speaking for the agency,” Rosenthal says.
He likens trained spokespersons to a SWAT team — “an insurance policy... they’re ready for things that may never happen, and you hope you never need them.”
But like SWAT operators, “you don’t just turn ‘em loose and hope they can muddle through by flying by the seat of their pants. Hope is not a strategy and wishful thinking is not a substitute for a planned and practiced response.”
3.) Protect your officer and the scene. Rosenthal opposes giving the media access to involved officers after an OIS, considering the emotional stress they’re likely to be under and the potential legal ramifications of what they might say. Likewise, he’s firm about setting strict media limits at the shooting scene.
“The media are not entitled to any greater right to penetrate the incident scene — don’t call it a crime scene — than any other private citizen,” he says. “The police get the incident scene, the media get everything beyond the taped perimeter.
“Reporters can be arrested for interfering with law enforcement if they intrude on the scene against orders, but by the same token for the police to try to control the media’s movement outside the perimeter is a dreadful mistake. That opens you up immediately to charges of suppression and cover-up.
“The department spokesperson should be at the scene, all questions should be directed to him, and he should promise that the media will receive a news briefing shortly at a location of the agency’s choosing, most likely away from the drama of the shooting location.”
4.) Feed the animals early and often. In Rosenthal’s terminology, talking to the media is “feeding the animals.” And the more information they are fed after an OIS, “the less likely they’ll go foraging on their own, finding far less knowledgeable and far less credible ‘sources’ for ‘news’ that is often based on innuendo, hearsay, speculation, vengeance, and biased personal opinion.”
In the wake of a shooting, the media basically have a three-ply need, he says:
• Information (who, what, when, where, why, and how) and what you (your agency) are going to do about it...
• In a user-friendly form (i.e., some pithy sound bites)...
• With pictures (so the TV audience can “see what the story looks like”).
He recommends that the first press briefing be held no longer than two hours after the incident. Then, depending on how “high-profile” (controversial or complex) the case is, you should follow with three formal updates per day:
• midmorning to accommodate noon newscasts
• mid-afternoon for the evening shows
• and early evening for nighttime news filings
These briefings, conducted either by the department spokesperson or top brass, should convey as much factual information as possible, as timely as possible, without truly jeopardizing a successful investigation or possible prosecution. Despite law enforcement skepticism, he argues that “most mainstream media reporters do try to be fair and accurate, and by giving them solid information, you significantly increase the probability that the truth will be printed and broadcast.”
He suggests that the provisions of the federal Freedom of Information Act can serve as guidelines in achieving a reasonable working balance between what can be shared and what should be withheld (exemptions under the Act that pertain to law enforcement can be checked here).
“If you do choose to withhold facts, help the media understand why you are doing so,” he advises.
He offers these cautions to keep in mind during a briefing for reporters:
• Videotape every encounter you have with the media, whether it’s a press conference or individual interview. This is good protection against being misquoted or quoted out of context.
• Avoid saying, “No comment.” Verbally stonewalling or putting your hand over a camera lens makes you look guilty. “In short, you lose.”
• Language that works within police circles may sound less tactful when used for a civilian audience. Calling the use of deadly force against a suspect a “good” shooting, for example, may not set as well with some civilian sensitivities as terming it “within policy.”
• The more controversial a shooting is, the tougher the media questions will be. Anticipate what aggressive reporters will ask and rehearse concise, confident answers ahead of time.
5.) Skip the spin cycle. “To win with the media, you have to give it to them straight,” Rosenthal says. “The minute you get imaginative and try to spin the facts or speculate about elements that are unknown, you have chosen to be stupid, because that kind of creativity will ultimately trip you up.
“If the facts of a shooting are not fully known, say so. Stress that your agency always takes these matters very seriously and that a thorough investigation is underway to determine what did or did not happen. Promise that to the extent possible, you will keep the media and the public fully informed every step of the way. And in turn, ask that the media not speculate on or judge what transpired, pending confirmation of the full picture.
Again, he has some cautions:
“Never stage a ‘perp walk’ of a suspect with the sole purpose of satisfying the media. This has been declared a violation of a suspect’s constitutional rights.” Of course, you want to shield the involved officer from becoming a media exhibit, as well.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it. “Then promise to share that information when you do know it, if allowed to by policy, procedure, and the law.”
Beware of talking “off the record.” Don’t do it, Rosenthal counsels, unless two criteria are both met: “there’s something important to be gained for your organization in doing so and you are fully confident in trusting the reporter involved with your professional life. Otherwise, don’t take the chance.”
6.) Consider an outside investigation. In some jurisdictions, OISs are automatically investigated by an outside agency, to forestall any suspicion of a whitewash. “Even if you don’t have to do this, it’s smart public relations,” Rosenthal says. And from a practical standpoint, it takes some of the pressure off of you for keeping the media fed with updates as the process progresses.
7.) Promptly douse flaming arrows. If it’s possible to milk any controversy or air time out of a shooting, it won’t be long before professional activists and aggrieved relatives of the “victim” try to dominate the TV cameras. “It’s important to respond immediately — in the same news cycle — to their accusations and allegations,” Rosenthal says. “Every time they shoot a flaming arrow onto the tarpaper roof of your department, somebody’d better be up there putting out the fire. If you choose to say nothing, you lose.”
When critics’ statements can be countered with facts, clearly itemize them, he advises. When the facts are still unknown or uncertain, point out that the accusers are “entitled to their opinion, but that’s all it is” until the investigation is complete. Encourage the media to come to you for a response before reporting outsiders’ statements. Their compliance may be one of the payoffs of long-term rapport building.
If you feel you’re getting the short end of biased coverage by news outlets themselves, it may help to remind media brass that reporters are expected to adhere to a detailed Code of Ethics issued by the Society of Professional Journalists. This provides specific guidelines for “seeking truth and reporting it,” which specify, among other things, that distortion of the truth “is never permissible.”
The Code can be accessed in full here.
“Law enforcement often feels it has no recourse against mistreatment by the media, but there is accountability,” Rosenthal says. “If you’re treated unfairly, you need to rear up on your hind legs and fight back.”
8.) Don’t swat every mosquito. In some cases, Rosenthal concedes, you may realistically be best off to ignore ethical transgressions. Bloggers, for example, aren’t bound by the same restraints as professional reporters.
“They can annoy you, like a mosquito in a camping tent,” he says, “but they can’t really do you much harm if the facts are on your side and you argue them forcefully with the mainstream media. You need to know what bloggers are saying, but you can’t swat every mosquito. If you’re open, the conventional media will report what you’re doing and this will be enough to significantly tip the scales in your favor.”
If your shooting has drawn national attention, a greater threat will be what Rosenthal calls “the down-and-out hacks from trash TV, like Nancy Grace and Geraldo Rivera.” Tactics with them — and their occasional local counterparts — are simple: don’t cooperate.
“What they do is spectacle, and that is not a game you should play. Odds are that cooperating with these sensationalists will be a losing proposition. You’re within your rights to say no.”
9.) ‘Fess up to UgSits. “When you mess up, ‘fess up and dress up” — that’s a good mantra for winning with the media when something ugly, like a bad (out of policy) shooting, occurs, Rosenthal insists. He calls such challenging events “UgSits” and says they’re best met head on, not dodged. “Failing to deal with an UgSit is not an option,” he says.
“Within no more than two hours from the time the first media inquiries are made, hold a full-dress news conference, confront the issue with a brief statement by your agency head, and then take questions. The longer you wait, the more time the naysayers and other critics will have to hammer you unopposed.
“You’ll take hits, but don’t try to defend the seemingly indefensible, justify the unjustifiable, or excuse the inexcusable. In the case of an unjustified shooting, stress that it was the behavior of an individual officer, not of the agency. Empathize with the situation and the complainants. Focus on discipline and, where appropriate, on changes in policy, procedures, and/or training.”
10.) Have the patience of a saint. “Reporters aren’t stupid but they are generalists and in some cases they may be ignorant about specialty areas,” such as law enforcement policies and procedures and the realities of use-of-force, Rosenthal says. Take the time and patience to educate them if they ask “dumb” questions or exhibit knowledge gaps.
“They may argue with you, repeat questions you’ve already answered, criticize you and the department, bait you, and frustrate you,” he notes. But above all, you must not respond in kind. Ever. You must always be deliberate, calm, cool, and courteous. If you lose your head, you will become the focus of the story instead of the OIS, and your outburst will inevitably end up forever on YouTube, a personal and professional nightmare.”
Even if you master Rosenthal’s 10 tips, remember that media relations, especially in a crisis situation, are always a bit dicey, he says. “No one will ever hit a home run every time at bat. But by following ‘best efforts’ strategies and tactics, you can achieve far greater influence over the coverage you get and your batting average will go way up.”
Rick Rosenthal offers one-, two-, and three-day, in-depth, law enforcement-specific courses on "how to work with the media so they don't work on you." His training includes a lifetime guarantee for future consultation on media issues, free of charge. He can be reached at 847-446-6839 or via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.