Over the past few years the growing antipathy between law enforcement and the media has turned into the 800-pound gorilla in the room. I think I understand the media fairly well since I've been in virtually every aspect of it, from newspapers and TV, to radio and magazines. My take is pretty simple — the idea that the majority of the press is unbiased and objective is a pretty one, but with rare exceptions, it's baloney. Reporters bring their biases and political agendas to their jobs, just like everyone else. And many media outlets are dominated by factions that look upon police and the military with suspicion and, sometimes, outright hostility.
For their parts, police have been taught to treat the press like an armload of hot coals. To protect themselves from the media, they wrap their departments in as much bureaucracy as possible. While this policy may make it harder for reporters to get their stories, it only serves to plug up that conduit to the public. The police come off looking like they have something to hide. While it's understandable for the finer points of an investigation to be withheld, it's amazing how often inconsequential details are held back from release for no good reason.
Sure, it's not easy to have a reporter in your face while you're trying to do your job. But there is at least a partial cure for that problem: designate an officer as press liaison. And please, give that officer some leverage to release information without having to ask permission each time a simple question is asked. It's frustrating for everyone and takes bureaucracy to a whole new level.
Here's another thing to avoid in a press liaison — a camera hog. I once knew a high-ranking police officer who was in love with his image on the television screen. His nickname (strictly behind his back) was "Hollywood." If there was a camera rolling, he'd be in front of it, and often took full credit for good police work in which he had no real role. On some occasions he even ordered investigators to wind up their cases prematurely so he could make press releases before leaving work that day.
The officers couldn't stand him because he pandered so shamelessly to the press. The press laughed at him because it was so easy to extract from him highly confidential details that should not have been released. And the community was poorly served by the entire arrangement.
While a good public information officer (PIO) can't deflect all potential bad press, that officer can provide a buffer for investigators and a good resource for the press. If you don't already have a PIO, then get one. Here are some points to consider:
- Appoint a PIO who understands the media is neither friend nor foe. Treat reporters as you would any member of the public — with courtesy and as openly as possible.
- Allow other officers to answer simple questions about their duties without fear of reprisal. There's nothing more frustrating to a reporter than to have to wait for a honcho to explain a traffic accident diagram, or give basic, public record information that any officer could competently handle.
- Give the department's media spokesperson a backup so there's more than one officer authorized to represent the agency.
- Teach officers to use plain English when speaking for the department. You'll reduce the opportunity for error and get the intended message across more effectively.
- Understand the media needs you as much as you need them. While your relationship should be professional, it's also symbiotic in many respects.
- Find ways to make the department's good news newsworthy. Good stories can bolster the agency's trust within the community. Make the media's job easy by providing real life interviews, illustrating the story's impact on their audience or readership and covering all your bases ahead of time (have figures, photo ops and experts ready).
The road to better media relations isn't an easy one; but if you're calling most of the shots, you can make it a better one.