Taming the beast

How to keep news-hungry media fed


     Weeks after Elvis Presley was buried in August 1977, then Nashville news anchorman and police reporter, Russell Ruffin, got wind of a plot to steal the King's entombed body.

     His first journalistic instinct might have been to wield a camera and a microphone to capture the scoop before other media personnel. But that's not what Ruffin ultimately decided to do.

     "I actually called police to alert them to head it off," he recalls. "It was a situation where I trusted them, where I was getting the story of a lifetime and giving it up so no one got hurt. They paid me back and said, 'Since you did this for us, we're going to give you the exclusive and let you come with when we make the arrests.'"

     Because of his tip, police quickly foiled the plot to snatch the rock-n-roll superstar's body and arrested the three men involved.

     This kind of partnership between law enforcement and the media might seem odd, since a lack of trust often characterizes the police-media relationship. Law enforcement officials fear journalists might disseminate information that could harm their cases, and reporters worry that the closed-mouth, "no comment" wielding law enforcers they encounter are hiding something.

     But Ruffin, an Emmy Award winning news veteran who worked for NBC News, Fox News and others for more than 30 years before starting a training firm to help improve law enforcement-media relations, says in today's news-hungry world this climate needs to change.

     "The attitude that we don't have to say anything or explain anything doesn't work anymore. Those days are gone," agrees Chris Ryan of Ryan & Associates, who conducts law enforcement-media relations training in his four-day "Public Information Officer (PIO) Boot Camp."

The more we work together...
     A good rapport with the media fosters a positive relationship with the general public. "If you have a good partnership with the media, you generally have a good relationship with the public, because that's how the public gets its information," Ruffin explains.

     He bases "Russell Ruffin's Law Enforcement Media Training" on his experience covering the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. He says this tragedy defines how law enforcement-media relationships should look. Here, the PIO had implemented a crisis media plan before the tragedy.

     Part of their strategy included designating one spokesperson to speak to the media no matter how many agencies responded to an event. "We didn't have 15 PIOs saying 15 different things," he says. "There was one person. That person did such a good job I thought we could use some of these examples to help others."

     Law enforcement must learn to manage the media, stresses Chief Deputy Michael Copeland of the Franklin County (Missouri) Sheriff's Department. "The media can be an aggravation," he admits. "But they also can be a helpful tool if they are managed correctly."

     Copeland makes this statement after Franklin County found itself in the middle of what he describes "a full-blown media circus" while investigating two kidnappings less than 6 months apart. In one instance, a manhunt ensued after a woman slashed a young mother's throat and stole her 11-day-old infant. In the second case, authorities searched for a 13-year-old boy who went missing after he got off the school bus near his home.

     During the investigations of these two cases, Franklin County authorities received a crash course in why it pays to work with the media. In the Ben Ownby kidnapping, authorities employed the media to release descriptions of a truck seen in the area around the time the teen went missing. A tip from someone who'd heard the broadcast and noticed a similar vehicle led to the recovery of Ownby, and a second boy, Shawn Hornbeck, who'd been abducted by the same man 4 years before. In the Baby Abby kidnapping, a family member turned in the abductor after media releases raised her suspicions.

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