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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
An incident or event that attracts media attention can happen anytime, anywhere, even in the smallest towns. The school shooting in Columbine Valley, Colorado is but one example of a small police department finding itself in the middle of a huge news story.
However, the news about law enforcement is not always grim; there are many more positive stories that deserve to be publicized too. In any case, it is important to know how to manage your message.
The news media has a huge influence on how the public perceives the police. Getting the facts out in a way that is fair to everyone, including victims, suspects, the community, and your department, is of utmost importance. Here are some basic guidelines to help you manage your message.
Develop relationships with the news agencies and reporters who cover your department before you need them, and maintain them by checking in periodically for casual talks in non–breaking-news times. According to Gary Nurenberg, a partner in Media Training for Law Enforcement, LLC, news outlets value relationships with law enforcement and welcome story pitches.
All officers, detectives, and other personnel, as well as departmental leaders, need to know how to communicate well with the media and the community under a variety of circumstances—not only to keep the public informed about your activities, but to support a positive image in your community. And media training is an investment that can pay off in many ways. Many law enforcement associations offer such training.
You need an established mechanism to respond to big or breaking news 24 hours a day—maybe a rotating on-call officer or a monitored e-mail that can alert you to inquiries. If you don’t respond fast, someone else will control the narrative and you will have lost control of the story at the outset.
Your chief should be your primary spokesperson, but other department leaders, officers, or subject matter experts who can discuss details you can’t, such as the fire marshal or a health professional, may be called upon to answer questions or address the media.
Those chosen should be strategic thinkers who are able to handle stress well, project the image of being in command, and have a good recall of details. If an incident occurs, get your facts together before writing a report or news release, or meeting with the press. Also check with legal counsel to be sure you don’t run afoul of state laws, union contracts, privacy requirements, etc.—but be adamant about getting a timely response from them.
Meet with all relevant subject matter experts—transportation, mental health, etc.—to get their help in crafting your message. Make sure your spokespeople are on board with the message, and have them practice how to respond to a variety of questions, including hostile ones. Most importantly, they must know departmental policy about the affected issues so they don’t contradict it.
Today, anybody with a cell phone camera can record an event—and once it’s on YouTube, it will spread like wildfire. If your department doesn’t get the facts out first, you may be seen as trying to hide something, and rumors and inaccuracies can grow out of control.
Whoever speaks first frames the story and owns it. And if it’s a negative story, being the first to report it will minimize its impact, demonstrate transparency, and increase your credibility. A tweeted announcement, followed by a news release posted on the department’s web site and sent to the news media, is a good way to start.
Take time to inform local government officials as well as your entire staff at the same time by sending your news release to them via email when you post it and send it to the media. They need to have the correct information before reporters, special interest groups, or members of the community start asking questions.
Though the department must be seen as not hiding anything that should be public record, it is vital that you not divulge information that could hinder your investigation, violate privacy concerns, identify witnesses and informants, or cause problems for the victims.
Reporters want a good story—the most sensational details. But telling them that a bloody knife was found in the next door neighbor’s yard, etc. can interfere with your investigation. Anything you say or show to the media becomes public information.
If you have a press conference at the scene of an accident or crime, designate an area for your team to discuss their statements beforehand. Then create a separate area away from the crime scene for speaking to the press, one that provides a visually interesting background or a good image that relates to the crime scene but keeps photographers from getting too close to it.
Being truthful goes without saying. But you may be pressured to provide answers you don’t have or don’t want to share. If you don’t know something don’t hesitate to say so. But don’t appear uncooperative or evasive either—say you’ll try to get back to the questioner with the answer. If you have to retract something later, your first statement can be repeated along with your retraction.
Stay calm and professional, not stiff. Act natural, and be aware that body language, tone, and word choice could send the wrong message. You don’t want to come across as hostile or defensive. Especially during tragic or frightening events, the speaker’s job is to calm the public as well as inform them.
How you look and move are important. Stand at ease with your arms by your side, and move them only to gesture or emphasize a point—but do this in an open-armed, inclusive way. Avoid pointing fingers, shifting your feet, or crossing your arms.
Make your story as simple and brief as possible while providing all important information and details. Your audience will only recall up to three key facts, which should be repeated to reinforce them. Too much information can overwhelm listeners or readers and the main points can be lost, especially in press conferences.
Avoid legal terms, acronyms, and law enforcement lingo that the public may not understand. And whether your words are written or spoken, think of how they will sound when quoted. Consider providing your own quotable “sound bites.”
Whether it’s written in a news release or spoken to the camera, be sure you include details that tell the full story—especially if they explain the actions taken. If the story concerns a problem with the department, describe how you plan to rectify it.
Think visually and provide photos or video such as bodycam footage, if possible. And if you can, demonstrate your response by showing what your people are doing to handle the situation, such as pulling people out of harm’s way.
Assume that the camera is always on—and beware of the “hot mike,” left on when you think it is off. Look at the questioner when you reply, not at the camera. You will not only come across better, but may be able to see whether this person gets what you are saying. If they look confused, ask them to repeat your words or read their notes.
Social media is ideal for publicizing your story or event, and if it’s newsworthy, it may be picked up by local news people. To increase the odds, make the story or the event sound enticing. Important community news, humorous stories, or events that tug on the heartstrings are most likely to be covered.
Send a news brief, a one page description with the Who, What, When, Where and an attention-getting headline to your paper’s city editor or the TV station’s assignment editor. Mention if you have photos or video. And if you want TV coverage of an event, keep the timing of the news cycle in mind when planning it. The best time for them to cover to cover an event is between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. “And don’t hesitate to reach out,” says Nurenberg. “News organizations are hungry for good, positive stories about police.”
For more information, please see the resources below:
Sr. Technical Writer
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