Managing the Media
Sooner or later you will be required to deal with reporters, and how you interact with them will go a long way in determining the public perception of your campus and department. Read on for some basic tips on how to manage the press before they manage you.
For any law enforcement agency today, transparency when dealing with journalists is a key concept. Campus police should be available to the media and have nothing to hide. Granted, some information cannot be provided due to legal constraints. However, the media is seeking information, and your department is a source of that data. In many cases you are the only reliable source.
Take a look at the television news, print media (including news magazines), Internet and radio. If a story involves schools, colleges or universities, campus law enforcement is often involved in the lead article, and in many instances, either the majority of the space or time allocated is devoted to the department’s activities.
Campus police make the news, are first responders to the news or have vital facts relative to the incident. It is only natural that the press will want access to you and your department during and after these incidents.
As a result, all levels of your department should be prepared to deal with the media. Whenever possible, work with reporters and provide them with credible information so they are not required to go to less reliable sources. Before you or a representative from your department speaks, however, you should also have a sound working knowledge of the law and department policy as it applies to media relations.
Different Media Have Different Requirements
When working with the press, realize you are dealing with people who must gather information relative to what is happening in the world at a given time. All reporters have deadlines they must meet. If you do not provide the information, the press may need to go elsewhere so they can meet their deadlines.
Additionally, different forms of media have different needs, and you should be aware of these variations so you and your department can respond appropriately. The different types of media include:
- Television: Obviously, this is a visual medium. Reporters and the public like to see you or your officers at a scene in uniform, hear your siren and see those flashing lights. It looks great on TV. Regardless of what you believe, you speak from a position of authority, and people want to hear what you observed, did and think.
You should be aware of approximately when the TV news shows go on the air in your area (for deadline purposes). You should also know that this form of media could go live and direct at anytime of the day or night from almost any location.
Newspaper/Internet News Reporters: Depending on the incident and the purpose of their story, these journalists also have strict deadlines. They may want more details than the television reporters but cannot keep coming back to you or your department spokesperson for information. Newspaper reporters make a living using words and must fill space in their paper/Web page. If you provide them with interesting words that will sell papers (or advertising space in the case of the Web), they will probably quote you.
Be aware that papers are in large part sold based on headlines (and subtitles) and one still photograph. The same can typically be said for Internet news outlets. With the Internet, however, the spread of news is much faster than newspapers.
- Radio: This medium provides periodic news updates or, in many cases, is strictly a news channel. Radio reporters also have time constraints relative to deadlines and length of story. One of their goals is to get a great sound bite. That audio feed might be an on-scene interview or an interview on the phone.
Large Incidents Often Require Media Areas
Remember, the media want to report on a story, so they need prompt access to information. That means they’ll want either an interview or video. Depending on the incident, you may have one reporter or dozens. You can probably keep an eye on one, but when you have a major incident and numerous reporters, consider setting up a media area.
This area should be outside the crime scene but located in an area where the media is closer than the public. It should also allow reporters to work. Professional media personnel will not interfere in tactical operations but are allowed greater access than other civilians. Most states have sections in their criminal codes that close certain areas to the public, but these codes normally do not apply to the press.
Advise press personnel that the media area is where briefings and updates will take place. If possible, this location should also provide journalists with the ability to take photos. A note of warning: Maintain your professionalism. Some officers may make comments or do something they do not want heard or seen. Officers should realize that, with modern technology, the media could capture unsubstantiated reports (rumors) or inappropriate comments or activities.
Improper placement of journalists can cause a department embarrassment or, worse yet, emotional trauma to families of victims or officers injured or killed during an incident.
‘No Comment’ Doesn’t Work Anymore
This information is meant to get campus law enforcement personnel thinking about the extensive and sensitive area of media relations. Media management training is available from a number of sources, and it would behoove everyone in your department to become familiar with this important topic. The days of putting your hand in front of a camera lens, saying no comment and treating the media as if they were the enemy should be long gone.
The owner of Police Training Services Co., Art Ruditsky was a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Police Department for 30 years. His assignments included mobile field force leader, officer in charge (OIC) of the Rampart Specialized Enforcement Group and OIC of Hollywood vice. Other assignments included Hollywood, Rampart and Newton. Ruditsky also served as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. He can be reached at (805) 526-1460 or [email protected].
For the complete version of this article, please refer to the March/April 2006 issue of Campus Safety Magazine.
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