Are you prepared to be hounded by TV news crews? How about holding a press conference and giving four interviews before you get a chance to get a cup of coffee and check your messages? And are you ready for the hard-hitting questions on live TV talk shows? And, oh yeah, can you do all of that, plus run your department?
If you think the above scenario is far-fetched, then think again. Better yet, ask the police chiefs in never-before-heard-of towns that became household names the moment an active shooter entered a school, a community center or just opened fire on a quiet residential street. Or make a call to the chief in the town that had the missing baby case. Or the nursery school sex-abuse scandal.
And if you can’t remember their names exactly, don’t worry…when the made-for-TV movie comes out, you’ll be reminded. And then you’ll recall how they acted during the media firestorm—if they appeared to have a handle on the case, then a strong character will be played by a recognized actor. If they bumbled, the no-name actor will have a great time playing the incompetent fool.
Does this sound judgmental? Good. Because you will be judged when the big story comes to you. You will be judged by the media, by your own people, by the public, by the government officials you report to, by all the attorneys involved and by all the victims and their families.
You will be under the microscope and under the gun, and unless you are prepared, you will be judged to have failed. There’s no reason for that to happen—prepare and train for it like you would for any other disaster.
How do you know the big news story will center on your jurisdiction? When you look at what makes a good story to the national media outlets, it’s inevitable. The big news stories are the ones that hit home to the viewing public.
These are the ones that make soccer moms tell their children not to ride their bikes down the street by themselves anymore and the ones that make the average businessman look around the atrium of his office building for people in long coats. These are the ones that make college girls walk in groups and vacate their first-floor apartments. These are the ones that make people realize, “Hey, that could happen here. To people like us!”
The stories sensationalized by the media are not the 15th gang-related shooting of the year, but the ones that chronicle ordinary citizens in boring towns. CNN will devote extra minutes to any and all press conferences about the missing toddler in “the sleepy little hamlet of Our Town,” and the morning news shows will gladly satellite feed in any interviews with anyone who can shed any light on any information—old or new—on the case of “Terror in the Small Town.”
“Murder in Paradise,” “Tragedy in the Heartland,” “Death in Dixie,” “A Small Town Murder Mystery,” “A Killing in New England.” Can’t you just hear the anchors and see the headlines?
Crime has always made good news in the local papers and on the local TV newscasts, but sensational crime has always made great national news. And sensational crimes is almost always going to involve ordinary people in ordinary places…and ordinary police chiefs will find themselves in the glaring lights of the TV news cameras.
A missing child, a murdered socialite, an active shooter, a serial rapist, a serial killer, a mass murderer, or a wife on a mission to poison all of her husbands will put your little town on the map and make it a household name. While no one wants to be remembered for being that city in which that little boy was kidnapped and killed, what’s worse is being that city that a) let that little boy be kidnapped and killed or, b) that city that couldn’t solve the case of that little boy who got kidnapped and killed.
The fact of the matter is most chiefs are not prepared for the media frenzy because they don’t think it will happen. But all the big stories start in small towns—all the killed kids and missing girls are usually from Podunk and then Nancy Grace and the morning TV news magazine swoop in, and the chief sounds like some stuffed shirt that has little empathy and little chance of solving the case.
So what to do? As in most areas of law enforcement, the answer is found in training—good, solid, relevant, hands-on training. Don’t shell out money on a general media relations class or coach, you need a class that is law enforcement-specific and one that will put you in front of a video camera and teach you how to speak in sound bites and handle questions.
Why law enforcement specific? Because law enforcement is entitled to withhold certain information from the public and, depending upon the circumstances of the situation and your state, those entitlements vary. You need to know what you can and cannot release, per state code and you need an instructor who will understand that sometimes total openness will kill a case.
Look for classes that focus on crisis communications and interview techniques. If you are not offered the opportunity to do at least three practical exercises, that is not enough hands-on training. You should leave the class with the minimum ability to write a press release, craft sound bites and do a TV interview. A class that also enables you to practice being a guest on a talk show would be even better.
Remember, too, that while you should be training to handle being in the media spotlight, you’re not trying to turn into a media professional. If you start becoming a media prima donna and traveling with a make-up artist (or your own line of skin-matching cosmetics) and a list of green room “necessities,” you have gone overboard. People can get a dose of a TV talking head whenever they want.
If there’s a big crisis your agency is involved with, then the public wants their cops to look like cops and sound like they are in charge. Don’t worry about the shine on your forehead. Instead, worry about the big picture…your image, the image of your agency and the image of the case being handled / solved.
And once you have taken your class and filed away your certificate, then you need to implement that training at your agency. You know the old mantra “perfect practice makes perfect”? That’s very true. Why wait for the first big media story to be your department’s first practice session? Hold regular media training for your agency.
And before your training officer starts groaning about the impossibility of adding another mandated course to the training calendar, here’s an idea: incorporate media training into your other training. Do you train for an active shooter situation? Yes? Then throw in a media aspect. Give your PIO a workout while also making sure everyone in the department knows the protocol for the dissemination of information.
Here’s another way to incorporate media training. You know that yearly mock disaster drill the local emergency management guys make you do? Well, the media are alerted so they cover the training…why not involve them in the training? Stage a mock press conference (or two or three) and do some real hands-on training.
Don’t forget to plan with policy, too. Does your media policy address a big story possibility? Do your special operations people have a plan for satellite trucks and crowd control? What about the reporters who stake out the crime scene or the victim’s family home? Do they know when they can cite a reporter for trespassing and what legal rights and limitations they have?
What about your detectives? Are they going to advise people not to speak to the media, and are you prepared for the interview question of, “Why are you forbidding the Smiths to exercise their First Amendment rights?” What about the questions about the fine-line distinction of who is a “person of interest” and who is a suspect?
A ton of inevitable scenarios will arise when the “Small Town Murder Mystery” comes to your town, ranging from simple logistical considerations to more complex games of semantics. No matter what crisis demands your presence in the spotlight, you can prepare for those scenarios. In fact, if you prepare regularly, when the big story comes your way, you can avoid that deer-in-the-headlights look and maybe even have a media plan in place that can be easily followed. Cara Donlon-Cotton is the former media relations instructor for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center and a reformed newspaper reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.