Taming the beast

     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.

     When working with the press, the sky's the limit. Not only can law enforcement rely on journalists in large-scale investigations, but reporters can help disseminate Amber Alerts, Crime Watch notifications, crime prevention tips and more.

     "There are a number of proactive things police can do," Ruffin says. "When law enforcement does something good, they should tell the media, 'Hey we did this.' If you have a good rapport, the media will almost always respond with news coverage. The police and the media really can work together effectively."

Warring factions
     With all these benefits, why the hostile relationship between the two?

     Sometimes green reporters fail to understand the importance of effectively working with police. "I think inexperienced journalists screw it up for everyone else," Ruffin says. "But there has always been an adversarial relationship between the two."

     Who can blame law enforcement for its negative views? The press has cast law enforcement in an unsavory light many times. These examples create a climate of mistrust, Ruffin points out. He believes if reporters adequately explain the story they are after as well as the information they seek and why, it would help a lot.

     On the flip side, Ruffin emphasizes law enforcement must meet the media half-way and developing ways to work together. Officials might express a willingness to provide reporters with information, but at the same time list their expectations. "Tell the press, 'I want you to be honest with me because I'm going to be honest with you,' " he says.

     Ryan teaches law enforcers to be more maverick-like. The news analyst and commentator, who's been featured on ABC World News, Fox News, Court TV, Inside Edition and MSNBC News, says law enforcement agencies traditionally have been very good victims. "You kick law enforcement when they're down, and they just take it," he says. "They don't fight back because they have cases they're worried about and they're afraid of being sued. But why should you let people kick you when you're down? You can say things in a certain way that gives the news media what they need, doesn't harm the case and gets your side of the story out there."

Say anything
     When faced with a pack of news-hungry journalists, officials often follow their first instinct and turn away. That's the No. 1 mistake law enforcement makes, says Ryan.

     Two words define many law enforcement media releases, and they are: No Comment. Ryan says this phrase means one of three things to most people: "You're hiding something, you're lying or you must be guilty." "Saying 'No comment' is terrible because you have set the tone," he says.

     Police Chief Ken Manthey of the Portage (Wisconsin) Police Department recently spent weeks negotiating a media swell when a case involving a family-member abduction evolved into a kidnapping, murder and child abuse investigation that drew national media attention. He refers to "no comment" as the worst thing agencies can say. "With open records laws, the media is going to get the information somehow. Why not put it in a positive light rather than a negative one?" he asks.

     It's important to specify what information cannot be released, and follow such statements with facts that can be made public, notes Ryan. Officials can simply say: "Out of respect for the case and our victims, we are not going to be able to release all the information you seek because we have a responsibility to keep the integrity of the case together."

     Ryan assigns the name "The Indictment" to the second most common error authorities make. This is where something happens, say an officer-involved shooting, and the department fails to discuss the situation at all. Before long, the victim's family talks to the press, then an activist in police brutality or another cause speaks out. Meanwhile the department continues to say, "No comment" or "The matter is under investigation."

     "To me that's like an indictment," he explains. Like a grand jury, the public hears just one version of events, and that account might be very negative. "Ideas are formulated in the first hours and days of the situation," he says. "Later after the police have been pounded for weeks, they say 'We've got to get out there and say something.' But guess what? You lose; it's too late."

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.

     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.

     "I know it sounds kind of 'pie in the sky' but having ethical boundaries, sticking to your word, being trustworthy and reliable, and giving information when you can helps the media understand your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do," says Copeland. "To be successful you have to establish trust and that takes time."

For more information, listen to Ryan and Ruffin's media relations' podcasts at www.officer.com.

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