By Don Reeder
Former WCCO-TV crime reporter Carolyn Lowe spent much of her career interviewing Minnesota law enforcement officials, and she found along the way that the relationship between the police and the press has always been a cautious one.
Lowe saw an opportunity, though, to help “bridge the communications gap between law enforcement and the media by explaining each other’s professions.” How? She began offering media relations presentations to young police recruits in the metro area.
On one occasion, according to a 2007 WCCO story, a student-recruit openly challenged Lowe’s credentials. What did she really know about police work? How could Lowe cover the beat fairly without ever having taken a single criminal justice or law enforcement class?
Lowe seized the challenge by enrolling in a local college class, and she became inspired to learn more. Within a matter of a few years, Lowe earned a master’s degree in police leadership and became a certified officer, making her even more capable of seeing and speaking from each perspective.
Law enforcement officers could benefit from following Lowe’s example. By taking the time to gain a better understanding of a reporter’s motivations and responsibilities, they will improve their media relations skills. But why are those skills so important? What can happen when we misspeak, misrepresent a situation, give inaccurate information, or say “No comment” in an interview?
Inaccurate or inappropriate interview comments made by an officer at the scene of an incident could undermine the credibility or damage the image of the officer, the department, or the city. Or, an officer unprepared for an interview might make comments that have legal ramifications—providing fodder for an existing litigation dispute or forming the basis for additional litigation. For example, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) has seen more than one situation where better media preparedness might have prevented defamation claims filed by individuals falsely identified as crime suspects.
Plan for the inevitable
Nearly all city police departments at some time or another will experience incidents that prompt requests for media interviews. To prepare for the inevitable, departments are encouraged to develop a written media relations plan with clear and identifiable tactics—even a brief, basic plan that can be deployed quickly. The plan could be as simple as creation of an incident checklist of information indicating what can and (for legal reasons) cannot be shared with reporters. Tracy Stille, a loss control specialist for LMCIT, developed such a checklist when he served as police captain for the City of Maple Grove Police Department. In addition to a checklist, Stille says, other elements of a basic plan might include identification of appropriate department spokespersons and other department-specific protocol.
In the beginning stages of plan development, departments should consider both recent incident history and the current safety environment in your community to categorize what kinds of incidents are possible, and what kinds are probable. It is likely that more immediate preparation will be required to address incidents that fall into the latter category.
For instance, it’s certainly possible that a mass shooting incident could take place in your community and that you should be prepared to deal with it on all fronts. But it’s more probable you will face media inquiries regarding activity like burglaries, arson, traffic accidents, or domestic violence, for example. Departments should begin developing their media relations plans to anticipate those more probable incidents before tackling the less likely but possible situations.
Reach out to media
Carolyn Lowe realized that outreach to law enforcement officials was critical to relationship-building. Planning for the eventuality of interviews requires outreach from your department’s side, as well, even before incidents occur. Media outreach should be a routine element of your general public relations and media relations efforts.
Public officials sometimes try to avoid local reporters at all costs, while maintaining an attitude that all members of the press share a singular goal of trying to make the officials look incompetent. While there are indeed some bad actors in the world of media, the vast majority of local reporters are simply trying to do their jobs—getting an accurate story in a timely fashion to deliver to their reader¬ship or viewers.
Take the first step in developing a rapport with your local media. Get to know your local newspaper reporters who cover the public safety beat. If you or they are new to the community, make a point of seeking them out, introducing yourself, or even scheduling a get-acquainted meeting. Once proper introductions are made, make a point of being readily accessible to the reporter and be consistent in that accessibility.
Don’t wait until a crime takes place to make the news. Promote both the routine and the positive stories that emanate from your department. Notify your local media when a new officer is hired, a new squad car or emergency services vehicle is added, or when your officers participate in a charity event.
News stories generated from these tips benefit the public relations efforts of your department and your city. Sharing the good as well as the bad can help build and fortify relationships between law enforcement officials and local journalists, and increase levels of trust and support.
Use key messages
A critical element of completing a successful media interview is the use of key messages—points or statements that succinctly convey the information that you most want to get across to your residents who receive news through the local media.
While the exact content of your key messages is determined by the incident being addressed, there are some general themes and values that you will want to cover in most situations, including:
And the following messages should be included if appropriate to the situation:
Regardless of the circumstances and details of the incident, one or more of these themes and values are likely relevant in an interview situation. If you are interviewed on the spot or have a very short time to prepare for an interview, it’s often difficult to collect your thoughts. Thus, it’s recommended that officers memorize this list of themes and values so they may be quickly adapted and applied to any quickly arising incident.
Be prepared for interviews
Whether you are called on for an interview at the site of an incident or away from the site after the incident, there are several things to keep in mind.
Before the interview begins, don’t hesitate to communicate with the reporter about expectations. That is, work toward a mutual understanding of what a reporter is seeking and what you can offer. Ask any needed clarification questions—who else will the reporter interview? Additionally, feel free to share useful information that may not otherwise make it into the interview, such as background information and/or certain key messages.
When the interview begins, make sure your key messages are conveyed and follow these additional tips:
During the course of any interview, avoid the use of “no comment.” Instead use phrases like: “We are investigating to determine exactly what happened,” or “We want to assure the community that we will keep you informed as our investigation progresses.”
Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, says that telling reporters what you don’t know about an incident can, at times, be as valuable to journalists and the public as saying what you do know, and is a great alternative to simply offering “No comment.”
A former television journalist, Skoogman currently teaches media relations workshops for police chiefs, sheriffs, and other high-ranking officers. At a time when law enforcement agencies are continuously being scrutinized by the public, it is especially important for department leaders to cultivate media relations skills.
“Don’t be an obstructionist when a reporter is seeking a story,” says Skoogman. “It benefits law enforcement agencies to help reporters get information and navigate the system.”
Don Reeder is assistant communications director for public affairs with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 215-4031.
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