Throw those talking points in the trash

Almost every executive or public official interviewed for television news or print speaks through the filter of public relations, mainly because everything has to be “spun” these days. Never has this been more obvious or obnoxious than when I was on the phone doing a recent interview for Law Enforcement Technology. The executive and I had scheduled a 30-minute time slot, but the interview ran slightly over, and while the interviewee, a pretty darned intelligent guy, was answering a question, the PR woman cut in and asked him, “Do we need a hard stop here?”

My reaction was one of amazement. First, “hard stop” is current slang for “a computerized break” and mostly used on cable news shows where they program in commercial breaks so you have to listen to some B-List actor brag about how wisely he invested his money. Why the inappropriate jargon? And second and most important, why does this successful executive need a PR person to run interference for him to begin with?

I know a lot of police and sheriff’s departments have public relations or media offices and I don’t really have a problem with it in practice, but the jobs of media liaisons should be to facilitate providing accurate, appropriate and jargon-free information to the press. Even better, they—and by extension, you—should do it by speaking like people really talk. In other words, leave off the bureaucratic baloney and avoid the current hot trend of speaking in what PR people refer to as “talking points.” I call it “double-talk” and so do the people we serve.

Think about it: How many times have you seen a politician or political pundit asked a direct question only to drone on and on without ever really answering? Instead, they try and drive home the things they want to lodge into the voters’ minds. For example, the Obama camp insisted that rich people don’t pay “their fair share” of taxes, while Romney’s side kept saying that Obama was “leading from behind.” Sound familiar? That’s because the strategists behind this catch-phrase country don’t want you to hold their feet to the factual fire; they want you to associate the other candidate with negativity.

How should this affect you and the way you handle your business with the press? I don’t think law enforcement should fully embrace the PR bandwagon. Like I said, having someone who can get the media timely and correct information when a big case busts wide open is fine, but you should draw the line at spinning the public. They aren’t stupid—and just like you, they recognize when someone is attempting to hook and reel them in. Law enforcement already has an inherent built-in mistrust factor with the general population, so using overly bureaucratic language and not really answering the question makes cops seem like they’re lying.

How do departments build a better verbal rapport with the public? USE PLAIN ENGLISH. Don’t resort to talking points; don’t rely too heavily on industry-specific jargon; don’t insulate yourself from the press (by always using a spokesperson) to the point that your constituents don’t know who you are; don’t be afraid to be human and let your department’s empathetic side show; and don’t parade a million officers in front of the camera (and by that, I mean even if there are 25 agencies involved, not every single department has to address the press—decide on one or two spokesmen and let it go).

Be clear, to the point and gracious. Don’t lie or mislead. If you don’t know or can’t give an answer, simply say so. Remember: If you give the public a reason to trust you, they will.