Taming the beast

How to keep news-hungry media fed

     Realizing a media surge would soon be upon them, Manthey scheduled a press conference for 3 p.m. The department notified all media via a fax blast. "Once we sent that out, we had the media calling saying they wanted information before 3 p.m.," he says. "We were firm, saying we're going to give it to everyone at the same time. If we had started doling out information prior to that, it would have caused more headaches for us."

     Once news got out, helicopters soared overhead and reporters lurked near the crime scene. "It helped that the scene was behind the house because it afforded us further protection from reporters and made it difficult for them to see anything," says Portage Det.-Lt. Mark Hahn. To further keep things under wraps, a portable tent and tarps protected the grave site as crime scene technicians worked. Crime scene tape, a command post and a road block also prevented the media from getting too close. "The media was pretty good about respecting that," says Manthey, "but they did everything they could to get photos from every direction."

     Manthey and Hahn took steps to make sure they controlled the event. They held it on their own terms and on their own turf, at police headquarters instead of at the crime scene. Three spokespersons hosted the 20-minute press event: Manthey, Hahn and District Attorney Jane Kohlwey. To ensure they didn't answer something they shouldn't, Manthey and Hahn paused between questions to give Kohlwey time to jump if facts should not be released.

     Case information quickly went national, and Hahn says they underestimated how many additional media outlets would request information. He negotiated this media frenzy by summarizing the facts of the case in a written press release. This document also contained information on the date, time and place of the next news conference. "It alleviated having to answer questions from new agencies wanting the same information," Hahn explains.

     The agency hosted a second press event as the court arraigned the four suspects. This time the department moved the event to the Columbia County (Wisconsin) Sheriff's Department Law Enforcement Center. This facility afforded them more room and had a backdoor, or escape route, in the media room. "It's just nice to know you have an exit route if the media goes into a frenzy," Manthey explains.

     Hahn, Kohlwey and Marc Playman, the county medical examiner, hosted the second conference. Hahn discussed case details while Kohlwey explained the criminal complaint, and Playman shared the victim's autopsy results.

     "I would say from the compliments we received, that maybe some departments have too many press conferences, or if they hold one, they are not giving out new information," says Hahn. "Reporters told us we had the right amount of people, the right amount of press conferences and the right information. With the information we gave, they had enough to do their own press investigation."

     To make sure your department experiences similar successes, experts interviewed for this article recommended that officials:

  • Determine how often to meet with the press. There are two schools of thought on this. While some advocate speaking to the media every hour on the hour to quash rumors, other experts say it is best to only talk when new information becomes available. The key factor is to maintain the lines of communication.
  • Have a PIO deliver information. A story can be quickly sidetracked when the chief presents the facts because he can answer questions a PIO cannot. "A PIO can only report as much information as he's been given," Ruffin says.
    "I train PIOs to sometimes censor the information they receive," adds Ryan. "If an officer tells you this happened, that happened, then this, but you can't tell the media that information, you're in a very uncomfortable situation. A good reporter with enough time can get that information out of you."
  • Put some ground rules in place. Tell the media you'll hold a 10-minute briefing. Ask reporters to please raise their hands, let you acknowledge them before they ask a question. "This keeps the news conference from becoming a circus," says Ruffin. "And it keeps law enforcement in control."
  • Set media policy. Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke set some important guidelines in the Ownby case. Officials had to clear information for release through the FBI, sheriff, U.S. and district attornies. Spokespersons were designated in advance. "Everyone can't have free access to the media," Copeland says. "All of our guys know to be courteous but to tell the media they have to speak to the sheriff or the major."
  • Establish a rapport with the local media. It sounds easier than it looks, admits Copeland, noting the adversarial relationship between the two groups is well ingrained.
  • Enhance your experience.

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