The trouble with "No comment"

The scene is a staple of TV cop shows and police movies.

A crime occurs. The press corners the department spokesperson, the Public Information Officer (PIO), peppering her with questions.

Flustered, and a little intimidated, she replies, “No comment.”

Dramatic? Sure.

Realistic? Not so much.

In fact, public information professionals will rarely, if ever, say “no comment.”

“Anyone who responds to a question with ‘no comment’ has failed miserably as a communicator,” says Sgt. Charles Warner, Police Public Affairs, Franklin (Tenn.) Police Department and president of the National Information Officers Association (NIOA). “We know it, from experience, to be the one phrase that incenses journalists and causes the person who said it to immediately lose credibility with their constituent public.

Public safety PIOs should, instead, put information into three categories:

1) Information that I know and will tell you;

2) Information that I do not know; and

3) Information that I know, but will not tell you—followed by a reasonable explanation as to why the information is currently off-limits.”

In today’s world of social media, handling communication duties for a modern police department is certainly challenging, but with the right approach, it can be rewarding and beneficial to both the department and the community that department serves.

“The policy of the Montgomery County Police Department’s Media Services/ Public Information Office as defined in the department’s Directive on Police/Public Media Relations is: ‘to establish and maintain cooperative working relationships with the community and members of the news media,’” says Lucille Baur, PIO, Office of Public Information, Montgomery County (MD) Police Department and the Montgomery County Government (she was the PIO during the 2002 DC Metro area sniper attacks). “In fact, to the extent possible, members of the media should be treated as invited guests at incident scenes rather than viewed as a hindrance. In most cases, their reporting of our involvement at newsworthy events will portray the work of our officers and employees in a positive light, which will help to enhance our image and reputation within the community.”

“My number one goal is to provide the media with accurate information in a timely manner,” says Stephanie H. Slater, Public Information Officer, Boynton Beach (Fla.) Police Department. “As a former journalist, I believe that this is the key to ensuring that coverage of your agency is factual and consistent, but it’s also critical to developing trusting relationships with your local media.”

 

The right to know

Our nation was founded on the premise that a government of the people should be transparent so the people can determine whether they agree with how government officials are conducting their jobs. Transparency is the key to public trust and confidence in the legal system, and that includes the police, typically on the front lines.

“The goal, when working with the media, should always be effective communication with the public,” says NIOA’s Warner. “Our responsibility as public safety PIOs is to every member of the community that we serve, not the individual reporter. That reporter and their employer, however, give us a huge microphone, allowing what we say to be heard—by the masses. That, in and of itself, is a huge responsibility that none of us should take lightly.”

PIOs have to be careful not to be perceived as being anything less than forthright with information. “Perception is reality,” Slater points out. “If the media and public perceive that you are holding back information or not being truthful, then right or wrong, that is what they are going to believe. Since 2007, we have been using social media to ensure transparency with the public. We were the first police department in Florida to use social media to engage, educate and inform the community. My role as the PIO is to keep the public informed and educated while positively promoting the incredible work done here at the Boynton Beach Police Department.”

Dan Ferrelli, Director of Media Relations, Aurora (Ill.) Police Department adds, “As far as the public information function is concerned, disseminating accurate, timely information goes a long way in demonstrating transparency and candor. Availability to the public (and media) is likewise critical. Seemingly minor tasks like making sure phone calls are returned, addressing questions or comments that arise on social media, helping citizens get through the sometimes all-too-familiar bureaucratic web—along with more major jobs including availability at neighborhood and civic and social organization meetings—put a human face on the department and go a long way in building trust in the community.”

 

The need to be first

Today, news has evolved. With the popularity of news websites, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other forms of communication, the desire to be first has overcome most news outlets. Oftentimes, being first trumps being completely right.

The answer is for the modern PIO to embrace the technology that the public is using, and master it for the department’s benefit. It’s possible to counter misinformation with the right information presented on Facebook, Twitter or other social media outlets.

Facebook can be used to spread information quickly, asking for the community’s help or reminding them about ongoing investigations or community programs. One post can spread around the community and the world immediately, depending on the range of a department’s network. For some departments, Facebook has removed the need to e-mail, fax and call media outlets to promote a story or spread news.

“Things have changed dramatically with the advent of the Internet and social media,” says Montgomery County PD’s Bauer. “With social media, the department can communicate directly with the general public and not just rely on the news media to get information out. It also allows PIOs to get direct community feedback to information posted and directly respond to clear up any misconceptions that have arisen on the part of the public. The opportunity to tweet out information and post on Facebook also allows our community members direct access to information without it being filtered by the media. The public can watch an entire press conference on YouTube rather than just seeing a sound bite from it on a TV newscast.

“Because social media provides the ability to get out information immediately, it also creates an expectation of a more immediate release of information,” she adds. “Print, radio and TV outlets all have websites and their goals are all to get as much information as possible as soon as possible. TV stations don’t need to wait for a scheduled newscast and newspapers don’t need to wait for a print deadline. The pressure is on and there is a very real need to always weigh the speed of release of information versus holding back and having the time to make all the necessary contacts to confirm accuracy. But, providing information through tweeting also saves time in getting information out to everyone (public and media) and keeping everyone up-to-date with new developments.”

Social media also allows departments to have direct relationships with their “publics,” without the media as a filter.

“We’ve embraced the power of social media,” says NIOA’s Warner. “Doing so has allowed us to break our own news--getting timely, accurate, unedited information directly to the public we serve. People no longer have to wait for a story to post or to see it on the evening news. While those avenues of information remain extremely valuable and relevant, our responsibility to get it right should always outweigh any desire for traditional media to tell it fast or first. Social media, when used responsibly, allows for both.”

The most forward thinking departments are active on social every day. “We began in 2007 with YouTube and MySpace, and then Facebook in 2008 and Twitter in 2009,” Slater says. “We use it every day to humanize our officers, talk to our community, educate them and give them access to their police department like never before. We use Twitter to take the community on virtual ride-alongs using the hashtag #ridewithbbpd; We live stream our press conferences on ustream.tv; We post numerous times throughout the day on Facebook--everything from photographs of our Officers of the Month to surveillance photos of suspects we are trying to identify and a daily briefing of crimes going on citywide. The response from the community has been overwhelming, and the number of people who engage with us daily continues to grow rapidly.”

 

Communicating your message

Despite the use of social media, it is still important to work with news agencies to disseminate accurate and timely information. Every time your department is contacted is an opportunity to get positive information out about the services you provide, the successes you have had, and to develop a relationship.

“Every effort is made to establish and maintain a cooperative relationship in which the news media may freely obtain information, unless such information is legally privileged or would violate the constitutional right of an accused individual, or is otherwise specifically prohibited due to a negative effect on an investigation,” says Montgomery County PD’s Bauer.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, an antagonistic relationship is created with some journalists. “We recently dealt with this involving a local news station,” Slater details. “No matter what positive news we presented to them, they found a way to report it negatively by rehashing some issues in the police department’s past. They also employed two reporters who ambushed our chief for interviews at city commission meetings. We were at the point with them where we essentially said ‘we’re done talking to you, and if you want something, make a public records request and we’ll get it to you in a reasonable amount of time.’ I then reached out to the station’s executive news director and asked for a meeting, during which time the chief and I expressed our frustrations. The meeting was mutually beneficial and in the months since, we have worked to rebuild the relationship. Their coverage of our agency is finally balanced and accurate, and as a result, we make more of an effort to provide them with sound bites or videos that they need to best present their stories to the public.”

“It can be a challenge to work with antagonistic journalists,” echoes Montgomery County’s Bauer. “If a PIO is having trouble with a particular reporter, another PIO or the PIO Director may take over working with that reporter. No PIO is expected to have to take any abusive behavior from a reporter. We would also have no problem speaking with the supervisor of an antagonistic journalist and explaining our concerns about the reporter’s behavior. The goal is to always be professional, and to have a good working relationship.”

 

Spokespeople

Some departments designate one particular spokesperson who deals with the media, while other departments allow certain other officers to speak to the media

“We do not necessarily designate a single spokesperson. Outside the PIO office, subject matter experts in the department may also speak from the rank of police officer through captains,” Bauer details. “Directors of divisions, detectives, assistant chiefs and of course the chief of police can all be appropriate spokespersons depending on the incident and circumstances. The sergeant who leads the Collision Reconstruction Unit that investigates fatal traffic collisions may be the spokesperson for media responding to the scene of a fatal crash. While any officer has the right to speak, [they] are requested to work through the PIO for a coordinated release of information. Officers are asked to notify the PIO if they have been contacted directly by a member of the media to provide information.”

Some departments strictly limit access, making sure the right officer speaks to the right reporter. “I am the designated spokesperson for the Boynton Beach Police Department, however, I often reach out to detectives and other officers to speak to the media,” Slater says. “They are the subject experts and no one knows their cases better than them. If they are not comfortable speaking with the media, they will brief me and I will speak on their behalf.”

In most cases, PIOs deal with the majority of media requests, enlisting other officers when specialized knowledge is needed.

“Our media relations policy designates the public affairs office as the primary source, and designated media spokespersons,” Warner says. “Others, however, are authorized. The chief of police, deputy chiefs of police, or those authorized by them may speak to the media in certain situations.“

 

Emergency response

Even in an emergency, the same protocols apply. “All information released during an ongoing tactical operation (barricade, large-scale disorder, etc.) would be vetted and approved by the incident commander,” says Bauer. “If it is a weather emergency, for example, the county’s PIO takes the lead in the release of general information. Police would still take the lead in releasing information, if for instance there was a traffic fatality directly attributed to the storm. It is still our goal to provide an accurate and timely release of information, but it may need to be vetted differently. It may have to be coordinated with other agencies and we may rely more heavily on social media to get information out more quickly.”

Certainly, it is so much easier to deal with media requests when there is not an emergency. Warner often uses social media to get the most important information out quickly, while letting requests of lesser importance sit until he can get to them.

“We executed a SWAT entry for an arrest warrant in a neighborhood,” says Warner. “Within moments of arriving on the scene, I saw housewives in their homes leaning out of upstairs windows taking pictures with their smartphones. Two minutes after that I started to get phone calls from the media and community organizations asking what was happening. I waited to respond to make sure we knew what we are talking about [for] our initial statement. I didn’t have time to answer them individually, so I put a tweet out within five minutes that SWAT made entry, telling the neighborhood that everyone was safe and there was nothing to worry about. That caused even more inquiries because the press follows the tweets. I put up my own photo of the arrest, which is what I do routinely. People want to see what is on the other side of the crime scene tape.

“Honestly, this is no one’s news to break but ours, and our responsibility to get it right is not greater than the media’s desire to get it out first,” he concludes. “Bad examples abound, like all the mistakes that were made in the Boston bombing, and many media outlets had to apologize afterwards for getting the information wrong. Our responsibility to get it right is greater than the pressure to get it out fast.”

Ferrelli from Aurora PD emphasizes local media outlets during emergencies. He says that, depending on the size and scope of the incident an agency's responsibilities may be taxed (or complicated) by reporters from national or international outlets. Still, in it is in an agency's best interest to make sure local reporters are taken care of. “Emergencies are local events. While disseminating timely, accurate information should never be compromised. There is a difference in why an emergency is being covered by local media (it affects the local community) and the national or international media (dramatic pictures, emotional stories, etc. that do not impact a national or worldwide audience, at least not immediately). Since in any emergency, first responders want to help those in need, mitigate danger, and return the situation back to normal, it is important to team with the local media as they are the ones that can best assist with messages —or get the right information to the right people at the right time. These efforts are bolstered by social media and website use. Plus, when the national and international media pack up and go home once the emergency has passed, it is still the local reporters who will be covering your agency and community every single day.”

Communicating the police department’s message is not an easy task, especially in today’s rapidly evolving media world. That’s why departments leave it to the experts: the PIOs.

 

Keith W. Strandberg is an American freelance writer and award-winning screenwriter/producer of feature films living in Switzerland. He was a former contributing editor for LET more than a decade ago and is happy to be back writing for the magazine.

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