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Sage Advice

Written by Christy Whitehead

Becoming a public information officer can be confusing and extremely frustrating without the aid of someone to give the proper advice. We have asked PIOs from all over the country what advice they would give to new PIOs.

Always tell the truth. That does not mean you have to answer every question, but what you do say should never be a lie. If you can’t or won’t answer a question, tell the reporter why. Your value to your agency is only as good as your credibility with the media; if they don’t trust you, you’re of no value whatsoever.

Educate the people in your agency about who the media are, how they operate, how important it is to maintain a strong working relationship with media, and how to properly handle media interviews. 
   -David J. Cohen, media services program manager, San Diego Police Department, CA.

Get to know the individual officers, from patrolmen on up, and don’t deal with the brass only. Keep your sense of humor, it’s important.
   -Buck Donham, Hawaii County Police Department, Hilo, HI.

Develop relationships with the local media. Have coffee, call them, establish ground rules or work protocols and foster mutual understanding and respect. This will be invaluable in your endeavors. Respond directly to the scenes. That’s where the media will be. That’s where the picture and sound is, not at a PD station.

Talk to the officers, watch commanders, incident commander and make yourself a regular integral part of the team. Never, ever say “No Comment.” There is always something you can say for a sound bite even if it is, “we are not able to provide anything new, but will as soon as we can.”
   -Sergeant Mary C. Kusmiss, former PIO, Berkeley Police Department, CA.

Take the time to develop a rapport with the people who represent the media in your city. The hours devoted to those relationships will pay dividends when an unusual or sticky situation comes up and both sides are called upon to trust each other.
   -Sergeant Dave Hill, Orange Police Department, CA.

Be fair, be truthful and expect the same from the news media.
   -Jean Motoyama, Honolulu Police Department, HI.

Develop and maintain the best possible relationships with members of your local media. It is your responsibility to remember that they are part of the public for whom you serve, and you owe them a professional and complete effort. Most peace officers undergo training in cultural diversity and an effective PIO must recognize that the media is a “subculture” that requires sensitivity and forethought from the PIO for mutual benefit.

A mutually trusting relationship also requires unquestioned honesty and reliability from the PIO. Never lie to the media or attempt to dance around any unpleasant truths. Be open, honest, and human….not a uniformed automaton that recites the party line. Inevitably, an event will occur that may tarnish your department’s image.

Be forthright, honest, and dump all the details (without compromising an investigation or violating statutorily-protected confidentialities.) A bad story will likely have short legs, but deception and “cover up” statements by the PIO will have extremely long-term destructive effects to your department’s reputation.
   - J. Eric Poteet, Round Rock Police Department, TX.

I was given this advice by my predecessor: Never lie!
   -Robert C. Hurst, director of media relations, Houston Police Department, TX.

Always return reporters calls immediately. Don’t wait until the end of the day. Even if you know it’s a negative story, at least you’ll have an early handle on what to expect. Reporters judge your professionalism by your swiftness and accuracy. I know. I was a reporter for 35 years.
   -Commander Tom Marshall, California Highway Patrol

Have a clear understanding of your department’s mission, values, and procedures. Remember that you are not only speaking on behalf of your chief, but you are representing every man and woman, sworn or civilian, who work for your agency. The citizens of your community are your customers, treat them with respect, be open and honest, and answer their questions...they have a right to know what THEIR police department is doing.

Take total responsibility for the information that comes out of your office. Take time to meet with the media representatives that will be covering your agency and develop an amicable working relationship.
   -Sergeant Dan Masters, Tempe Police Department, AZ.

Be honest, never lie, keep your credibility! This is what makes a good PIO.
   -Trooper First Class Karen O’Connor, Connecticut State Police.

Christy Whitehead is a freelance writer/photographer based out of Jacksonville, FL. She worked for a time in public relations and has done freelance work for a daily newspaper for seven years. She can be reached at WritingArticles@aol.com.


Published in Law and Order, Feb 2005

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An officer fields questions during the G-8 Summit. Photo courtesy of Christy Whitehead.
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