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Controlling Media Coverage During Major Cases

Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton

The media can be intimidating, much like the big bully who has always gotten his way. Reporters can be demanding, pushy and relentless in their quest to get what they need for their stories. You give them the facts and they want more. You tell them the status of a case, they try to get you to say it another way to convey more emotion. You hold a press conference and wind up sticking around for an hour afterwards to repeat the exact same things to individual reporters and their videographers.

Media relations can be frustrating and it takes a skilled public information officer or skilled spokesperson to keep the media not only satisfied, but under control. There are several things an agency can do to assure the media is controlled, which in turn will result in controlled media coverage.

Controlling how your agency is presented to the public via the media should be a primary concern for an agency head, especially if you care about how your effectiveness as a law enforcement leader is perceived. The following are five basic steps for controlling media coverage during a major case when multiple media outlets are clamoring for information.

Information Control

Repeat to yourself: I am in control of the information. In fact, you are the keeper of the information. The media need the information. You have the upper hand. You make the rules. You can cut the media off from the information they need and they will die. You have the power, use it wisely—but use it.

The media cannot demand that you give them something at a certain time with a certain backdrop, they do not have that power. The only thing you are obligated to give them is the information, but the circumstances of information released should always be dictated by the agency. Do not get bullied into releasing more than you want to release. Do not get bullied into a location. Do not get bullied into a specific timeframe.

Make a Plan

Sit down and hash out a down-to-the-letter plan for information dissemination and for media strategies. Keep it simple, yet detailed. For major cases, anticipate national media attention and the ensuing needs. Remember that a national story will start off gangbusters and eventually taper off, the initial media storm will be fast and furious—it will be too late to start planning once it hits so start creating a media disaster plan now.

If the story is huge, you might need more than one person to act as spokesperson, so start listing who will do what and when, i.e., the public information offi cer handles the local media while the agency head deals with the national news programs or vice versa. Some agencies break it down by shifts. Can the back-up public information offi cer be brought in on a full-time basis? Can an administrative professional be brought in to assist with the inevitable logistical nightmares (parking, facility space, photocopying, phone coverage, etc.)? Where will the briefings and press conference take place? Remember you control your backdrops, and outside briefings are almost always better. Find a place where your agency name is prominently and proudly displayed so your visual message is one of control and authority, not a traumatic and terrible crime.

Stick to Your Plan

This, of course, assumes you have formed a plan. The only way a good plan works is if all parties stick to it. If you plan on having certain people disseminating information to certain media outlets and then someone strays from the plan, you lose control. For instance, if the back-up PIO was tasked with dealing with the local newspaper and then the lead PIO entertains questions from a newspaper reporter, the reporter knows there are more information avenues to pursue.

Once news hits the press pool that other sources are available, the other media representatives will try and bypass the established rules. The established plan will fail and you’ll spend more time trying to regain control than establishing a positive public image.

If you want the media to follow your plan, then you tell them what the plan is. In no uncertain terms, you tell them who will be releasing what, when and where. Set the ground rules and stick to them. If you’re going to stick to only giving out information en masse, then you stick to it and let the media know when and where that will be, and then if they miss the appointed time, that’s their problem. Remember the first rule, you are in control—you establish the rules and the media follow.

Don’t Get Starstruck

When you’re being courted by the national morning news programs and the cable networks, it’s easy to start thinking that YOU are the story. After all, it’s your face out there and your name and quotes being run by the wire services. It’s a very heady experience, especially when the on-the-quest to impress (and ingratiate) reporter approaches you about doing a “profile piece” on “who you really are.” Remember that at most, it’s about your agency’s ability to handle a major case and at least, it’s about the major case itself.

The reporters will try to get the most salacious details out of you that will almost always involve trying to get you to focus on you by leading you to comment about how this is “the most horrifying thing you’ve seen if your entire law enforcement career.” They’ll placate you, treat you like you’re important and sycophant producers will lay on the star treatment without apology—don’t fall for it. You’re not a TV star; you’re the spokesperson for a law enforcement agency upon which the public relies.

Seek Assistance

Unless you have been trained as a ringmaster for a media circus, there’s very good possibility that you will find yourself in over your head. It’s OK to get some help, however PR firms are not the best source. Find a PIO or communications director from a major government or non-profit agency who can lend some advice; call a trusted (yes, trusted) retired media person with whom you had a good relationship; find someone well-versed in crisis communications, even if they cater to the business world.

Be aware of some caveats, though. If the person you consult, though, will not be brutally honest with you and tell you what the problems are, drop them. If the consultant does not give you options, drop them. If the consultant does not appreciate the notion of “law enforcement sensitivity,” they are not the ones to use.

When your agency has a major case land in its lap and it certainly will eventually, the key is to maintain ultimate media control. If you follow the five basic steps, you will keep the chaos at bay and the public will watch and be reassured its police force can handle anything thrown its way.
 
Cara Donlon-Cotton is a reformed newspaper reporter and a former course developer and instructor with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. She currently teaches Media Relations and Public Relations to local law enforcement agencies. She can be reached at cdonloncotton@ yahoo.com or through the Public Safety Training and Education Network at http://psten.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2011

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