Taming the beast

How to keep news-hungry media fed

Smooth talkers
     In the dating world, the smooth talker is the person who says all the right things at all the right times to get what he or she wants. In law enforcement-media relations it pays to be a smooth talker and say things the right way, and the reward is information control.

     Ryan reminds agencies to use keywords that spotlight the traumatic situations and difficult decisions officials face. A PIO, for instance, might state after an officer-involved shooting that "the officer, in a very serious situation, with limited options and fearing for his own safety and the safety of others, made a difficult, split-second decision to fire his weapon, and unfortunately that person died." The keywords in this statement include: difficult, split-second, limited options and unfortunately. "These are important words that help people realize this wasn't easy," he says. "It helps them see there were not a lot of options at that point."

     Ruffin warns agencies to refrain from using the word "not." He says this word raises red flags and leaves the public with questions." It's better to say something less adversarial, he says, such as: "We will be getting you that information at a more appropriate time."

     Using "not" in instructions for the public also merits concern. After some school shootings, departments noted, "Parents, do not come to the scene." But this creates more problems, according to Ruffin. "It's almost like you've scolded the public, and you've scared them to death," he says. He recommends instead reminding the community they can assist police by avoiding the area.

     "You can have the public's confidence if you express yourself in a proactive way," he explains. "The public wants to help and will help if they're asked to do so."

     Law enforcement comments lacking emotion or sounding too polished also raise red flags. Ryan says a PIO must be a little less of an officer, who's been trained in the academy to suppress his emotions and remain detached. He discusses a video shown at PIO Boot Camp to illustrate his point. In this recording, a choked up, distraught commander announces an officer's line-of-duty death. "The impact of that is powerful," he says. "If you're trying to be too perfect, the powerful impact of being genuine is lost. You have to give a little of yourself."

     That means if a child has been victimized and the person who did it is still at large, it's OK to be angry. "Why hide that?" Ryan asks, citing a notable news broadcast by Sheriff Mike Carona of the Orange County (California) Sheriff's Department. While investigating the murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runion, he solemnly stared into news cameras, addressed the murderer and warned, "Don't sleep, don't eat, because we're coming after you."

     "That's what I want people to think about," Ryan says, "because that's powerful. Ordinary people are not powerful. People who change, challenge and question are."

Controlling the beast
     "The media only has the control you give them," Ryan emphasizes. Just because a journalist asks a question a certain way, does not mean law enforcement has to do what they want. "You make the decisions," he says.

     While law enforcement calls the shots, it's still a tough line to walk because like a hungry beast, the media must be fed. PIOs quickly learn when they fail to furnish information, journalists simply find another way to uncover the facts. Ryan speaks of a reporter who candidly explained during an interview that her only goal for that day was to "break" a news story. "That's a reporter's goal every day," Ryan emphasizes.

     But what happens during a crisis? How can law enforcement meet journalists' needs as well as their own? The Portage PD's recent case provides insight into how law enforcement can successfully navigate a media snarl while maintaining the integrity of a case.

     Portage officials were fortunate that the media remained largely unaware as their case exploded in several unexpected ways. A Florida department asked Portage officials to visit a nearby residence, where Candace Clark was believed to be living with her 2-year-old daughter, whom she'd abducted. Two Portage officers paid a visit to the home and spoke with several women, who denied they knew or were the woman in question. Officers brought them to the station for further questioning and during their interviews learned one of the women was Clark, that a mistreated 11-year-old boy was locked in a closet at the home, and that the boy's mother had been murdered and was buried in the backyard.

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