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How to deal with unexpected media inquiries

Bruce Mendelsohn

From the Thin Blue Line: Lessons for PIOs and Law Enforcement Leaders

Last month you read about The Insight, a concept loosely adapted from The Secret. As you may recall, The Insight is nine simple words that should govern every interaction you have with the media and the press: Tell The Truth. Tell It Early. Tell It Often.

We saw a great example of The Insight in action during the media conferences held in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre. It was clear that from the outset—in spite of the confusion and uncertainty—VT PD Chief Wendell Flinchum worked closely with the VT administration, providing the information he knew without jeopardizing the ongoing investigation. Chief Flinchum’s comments to the media were measured, thoughtful, and truthful; his appearances on TV were marked by a calm and reassuring demeanor.

Which brings us to the subject of this month’s column: How to deal with unexpected media inquiries.

The fact is, in law enforcement we never know when we will be called upon to respond to and deal with a crisis situation. And with every crisis situation comes a media component: You have to communicate with the media. Done properly, the media could be a valuable asset in your requirement to disseminate vital information regarding your response to a crisis.

It goes without saying, then, that it is in your best interest to create solid relationships with the media in your jurisdiction. But what do you do when the media shows up unexpectedly and puts you on the spot?

There are diplomatic ways to handle the situation without damaging the relationships you have built. Here are some tips that will help you deal with unexpected media inquiries:

• Make sure you have assigned one or two people to be official media spokespeople and everyone in your organization knows who those people are. Give your staff the emergency contact information for these designated spokespeople and make sure they are available if for any reason you are not. It’s also advisable to create a media relations policy and disseminate it to staff.

• Develop talking points for every aspect of your organization (e.g., programs, operations, community policing, crime data/statistics, etc.). This will give you and your staff a general script to follow should the media show up without warning.

• Remember: You don’t have to talk with the media if you’re not prepared. You can tell reporters it is your department’s policy not to talk to media unless prior arrangements have been made. In a crisis situation, this may not be possible. So you could say your policy is not to comment on an ongoing investigation. If you do say that, though, be sure to give reporters an idea of when you will be available to comment. You can always ask a reporter for time to gather information and facts.

• Never say “No Comment.” This gives the public the impression you’re hiding something. The public is already somewhat cynical and suspicious when it comes to law enforcement. If you don’t know, say so. Don’t speculate. Assure the reporter you will get the information requested and get back to them as soon as you have it.

• You’re in charge. If media representatives are pushy, you have the right to ask them to leave. But instead of making a scene—and making an enemy—you can simply issue a blanket statement containing the information you know, and state in advance that you will not take any questions until a later time.

It’s a challenge to carry out your law enforcement duties and responsibilities while simultaneously catering to the needs of the voracious media. But in this age of the 24-7-365 media cycle, the tips mentioned above should help you interact positively with reporters.

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