Written by Gerald W. Garner
How departments handle dissemination of the news that individual agencies produce can go a long distance in determining how the organization is viewed by the public. One means for effectively reaching that public is the news conference.
Every administrator is already aware of the effect for good or evil that the news media can have on an organization. Law enforcers and their activities—good and bad—are big news. Crime, especially violent crime, is equally valued by today’s editors for the impact it has on viewers or readers of the news.
A news or press conference amounts to a planned calling together of news media representatives for the purpose of sharing information on a topic, event, or incident that is believed to be of widespread interest. It is generally a good idea to call one when media interest in a particular item, such as high-profile crime or other occurrence, is so great that it is difficult to respond to media inquiries on an individual, one-on-one basis.
Agencies might also consider organizing a news conference when: 1) the agency needs help from the public on a major case; 2) there is an ongoing danger of which the public should be made aware, such as a new and highly hazardous drug on the street, 3) there are major personnel or organizational changes within the department; 4) there are important new crime prevention or other programs being launched, 5) administrators are honoring employees or citizens with significant awards or other recognition; and 6) administrators feel responsible for answering serious allegations of law enforcement misconduct.
It often will be up to the agency head to determine when to call a news conference. It is critical not to overuse this major attention-getting device. An organization that calls one too frequently is soon likened by the media to the boy who cried “wolf” once too often.
Nothing falls flatter than a news conference at which virtually nobody shows up. Once administrators have decided to make a call for a conference, there are a number of steps to take in order to assure that the information spread receives the widest possible dissemination, and, as a potential bonus, makes the organization look very good in the process.Getting Ready for a Grilling
Know what it is you want to say. Before calling a news conference, know the important information that is necessary to disseminate and why it is necessary to summon the media representatives. Be able to explain the objective—does the department need help in catching a crook, defense of the department, or publicity for a new police program? Be sure to keep in mind if the conference is a better option than doing one-on-one reporter notifications? If after thoroughly considering these points it is still optimal to hold a conference, then plan your message. Generally speaking, an opening statement of no more than five minutes will hold an audience’s attention, all-the-while get your point across.
To preserve the integrity of the conference invite everybody who might be remotely interested. This is necessary to avoid being accused of leaving some news organization out of notifications for an upcoming conference. Do not omit reporters who may have ill treated you in the past. Leaving them out will only make relations worse and earn you the allegation of playing favorites.
After sending invitations, gather facts, check, and double check them for accuracy. The last thing you want to do at a news conference is disseminate bad information. If it is a crime story you will be talking about, clarify names, addresses and charges. A serious error here could land an agency in litigation.
Departments should consider putting statements into writing, proofreading it for absolute accuracy, and handing it out at the news briefing. With this in mind, if certain facts have not been confirmed, don’t validate it as such. If you do not know the answer to a question from a conference attendee, say so. Get it right the first time. Corrections and clarifications, while often necessary, can be a major headache.
Also important to the conference is selecting a suitable location. Large police agencies have auditoriums for press conferences. Others may have to rely on a multi-use facility, such as a city council chamber or training room. Try to select a site that is spacious and has comfortable and sufficient seating for the number of people you are expecting. Reserve the room for at least an hour ahead of and after the scheduled conference.
Location considerations should take into account space at the back of the room for photojournalists to set up their equipment. Before announcing the location of the room, listen for distracting noises, such as an overwhelmingly noisy cooling system which may distract or muffle sound. In addition, someone should be present before and after the affair to help attend to facility issues and other problems that may arise.
As with every good plan, consider having a backup. If the subject you have called the news conference to talk about is a technical or complex one, unless you are an expert on the topic, it might behoove you to allow someone with in-depth knowledge of the subject matter to stand with you at the conference. You can then call upon the expert to respond with specifics when questioning begins. Doing so can also provide credit to someone who did the work.
If possible, have some visuals available for reference. As with a typical audience, every reporter loves visuals. Visuals also can help you get your message across. Whether it is still -photos, copies of a department-produced videotape, a display of seized property, or a PowerPoint presentation, illustrating what you are speaking about can liven up a news conference and keep your audience riveted. That is important if your press briefing is going to be as effective as you would like. Be weary if visuals are a crutch for the conference, however—information, not the visuals, should be the main focus for reporters.
Professionalism at a press conference takes practices. Even the seasoned news reporters rehearse. It is perfectly acceptable for you to do the same. Practicing the presentation and potential questions in front of a mirror is one means of rehearsing. Videotaping a practice run-through can work even better. Realize that you do not have to give a flawless performance. The professionals frequently don’t, either. Just practice sufficiently to become reasonably comfortable with what you are doing. It’s enough!Putting on the Big Show
Speakers must limit opening statements—the previously mentioned five-minute rule is a good guide to follow. Speakers run the risk of losing audience attention if introductions go much longer. You can bet that most reporters are anxious for the question-answer opportunity, and the longer they wait the more antsy they are likely to become. After ending your initial statement, control the situation by letting the reporters know at which point you will accept their questions.
Part of the big show involves language—speak in a “normal” tone of voice, for instance. There should not be a need to raise your voice for your audience. Just speak in a normal, conversational tone. Try to avoid using police slang and do not get carried away with utilizing acronyms most people do not know. Be sure to clearly know the meaning of any word you use, and don’t choose a “fifty cent” word when a simpler one will do. You are trying to communicate clearly with your audience, not convince them of how many big words you know.
Also involved in language is body expression: make eye contact with your audience. Connecting with your audience will help you get your message across. Making eye contact with as many people as possible while you are giving your statement will assist you in doing that. Likewise, make good eye contact with your questioners while they are talking and during your response. It is just good manners!
Keep your responses brief. A reporter is unlikely to use much of a long-winded, convoluted response to his query. In addition, the longer a response, the more likely it is a reporter will get it wrong. Stay on topic. Answer the question exactly as it was posed in as few words and as directly as possible. By doing so you also are less likely to stray into an area you really did not want to get into.
Stay sharp yet relaxed. You want to look like a professional, therefore wear a properly pressed business suit or a uniform that looks like you just stepped off of a department recruiting poster. At the same time, you do not want to look like a robot with a ramrod stuck up his, err, backbone.
It’s perfectly all right to smile and act pleasant. After all, you want your audience to be comfortable with you. Problems arise when speakers become overly comfortable by slumping, using the podium as a support, or standing with hands tucked away in pant pockets. Look the image of a law enforcement leader and you likely will be regarded as one.
With this in mind, check your hair to be sure it’s combed. Check the mirror to be sure you don’t have last hour’s mustard on your lips or spinach stuck between your teeth. Once more, you are seeking to display what a professional law enforcement leader looks like.
If you look the part at the conference it will be easier to maintain your composure throughout the entire seminar. It is all too easy to get upset, particularly if you feel the questioner is unfriendly to your interests. Stay calm, keep smiling and remain the professional that you are. Losing composure in front of a roomful of reporters can prove a death blow to the career of a law enforcement leader. It can be equally damaging to the speaker’s agency. Keep yourself under control at all costs. If reporters get you rattled you have already lost the game.
A great tactic in public speaking is to repeat questions, which is just as much of a benefit for you as it is to the media audience. Repeating the question will be appreciated by those in the audience who did not hear it clearly the first time. Repeating it also will give you the opportunity to see if you understood the query. You could show confusion and trouble by responding to something you were not asked. Repeating the question also will give you a little bit more time to formulate your response.
Be sure to immediately defuse volatile questioners. Occasionally a reporter will pose an emotion-loaded question just to get your reaction. He may be hoping for a spontaneous response from you that is equally emotional, and just possibly unprofessional. Stay cool. One way to do that is to rephrase the question.
For example, Reporter X may ask you to “…explain the beating that Councilman Jones says your officers gave him last Friday.” You may want to rephrase the query as “As I understand it, you’re alleging that officers of ‘ABC’ Police Department improperly handled a situation involving Councilman Jones last week. Here’s what our investigation into that incident showed….”
Above all, keep the questions moving. It is not unusual for one or two reporters to dominate a news conference, intentionally or otherwise. Avoid responding to the same person over and over again without first shifting your attention. Attempt to give everyone a chance to ask one or more questions. If you reach the point where only one person is asking all the questions, the conference probably has gone on long enough.
Another way to avoid a situation with one person dominating the floor is to put a time limit on the conference. A one-hour time limit is not an unreasonable boundary line for a news conference. You do not want to go on so long that the subject is totally exhausted and correspondents are switching to other topics simply to have something to say. Cut things off before interest runs out. There’s nothing wrong with leaving them wanting just a little more.
Once the formal conference has ended, it is important to remember that all the mikes and cameras are still “live.” More than a few political figures have learned this one the hard way after making an insensitive or inappropriate comment around electronics they thought were “off.” You cannot afford to make the same error. Every microphone and television camera within your vision should be considered “live” at all times.
It is not unheard of for a less-than-scrupulous reporter to indicate that the interview is over and then ask an “off the record” question or throw out a remark intended to elicit an unguarded reply while the recorder continues to roll. Don’t play that game. If you said it or did it, the reporter is under no obligation not to use it. Govern yourself accordingly.After It’s Over…
…expect some follow-up questions. You will have to decide for yourself when the news conference is really over. One way you can end it for sure is to immediately leave the room when it’s done. But do not be surprised if you later learn of reporters whose feelings were hurt because you did not extend them additional time for a “one-on-one”; an opportunity for them to elicit a quote or additional information that none of their competitors have. Try to leave some time to respond to requests for one-on-one sessions. If you do elect to stick around for additional queries, put a reasonable time limit on it. Then beg off to attend to “other duties.”
One way to stem off problems is to avoid exclusives. You are playing a dangerous game if you give a favored reporter information that you hold back from everyone else—particularly if it is a juicy tidbit. The reporters will resent it and let you know. You may even develop enemies in the media who won’t treat you or your agency kindly the next time you are in the news. The safest bet is to treat everyone alike, both at the news conference and afterwards.
Once everything has settled down, critique the event for next time. You want to do an even better job at your next news conference. Evaluate your performance. Better yet, ask a trusted colleague how you did. Seek specifics. If you are on very good terms with one or more reporters, ask them how everything went. The goal is to learn from your experience. Even the most press-savvy law enforcement official can get better.
Proper use of a news conference can bring big benefits to you and your law enforcement agency at the same time it serves the needs of the media and their audience—your customers, the taxpaying public. By doing it the right way you can bring recognition to your personnel for good work done.
You can get help with a major case, secure support for a departmental project or program, and defend yourself against unfair accusations when the need arises. All it takes is a little preparation, an earnest devotion to telling the truth and the willingness to subject yourself to a tough audience: the ladies and gentlemen of the news media.
As a law enforcement leader, meeting the press en masse is one of your obligations as a professional. With a little effort, you really can feed the newshounds without getting bitten.
Gerald W. Garner, a veteran of 36 years in law enforcement, is chief of police for the Fort Lupton, Colorado Police Department. Garner has also served as a police Public Information Officer. He has written two books and several magazine articles on police-media relations. He has lectured on the topic for the IACP and the FBI’s National Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photograph by Christy Whitehead.