Working with the Media in Times of Crisis: Key Principles for Law Enforcement

By Sewell, James D. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 2007 | Go to article overview
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Working with the Media in Times of Crisis: Key Principles for Law Enforcement


Sewell, James D., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


The sight has become all too familiar in today's media: a crisis occurs in a law enforcement agency. Perhaps, a child is missing and presumed kidnapped. While the investigation goes through its normal progression, the department falls under scrutiny for the strengths--or weaknesses--of its efforts to recover the child and solve the case. Or, an officer uses a Taser on a citizen who dies during the process of an arrest, and the community erupts in protest. Maybe a natural disaster occurs, and both the government and its law enforcement agencies are under fire for their lack of preparedness, promptness, and sufficiency while responding.

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Regardless of the precipitating event, the result remains the same. The law enforcement organization becomes the focus of media attention, often drawing reporters from beyond its normal media market. The chief executive and spokespersons are placed in the spotlight, and each word they utter reflects their level of professionalism and the character of their agency. What can law enforcement professionals learn from the experiences of administrators and public information officers (PIOs) of other departments who have endured the media aftermath of crises? How can they learn to better weather a media invasion? What principles can reduce the negative impact of such events and allow the agency and its personnel to come through this time most successfully?

KEY PRINCIPLES

Take Control of the Issue

The approach a department takes when working with the media is the key to success during agency crises. Commanders always should have a proactive communication strategy and consider the time spent with the media before a critical event as an investment in the future. Part of this plan will center on the media's ready access to information concerning the department. Electronic versions of departmental policies, such as those relating to deadly force, ethics, and media relations, and current and past media releases available through the agency's Web site can foster the atmosphere of openness even before critical incidents occur.

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During crises, the law enforcement agency must have a consistent voice and message. In most cases, departments should have only one voice, either the chief executive or a designated spokesperson, speaking on the issue. This helps maximize damage control and minimize mixed messages. Further, agencies should deliver such information in a timely fashion. In addition to the distribution of news releases electronically and by fax, departments can use the Internet to post messages, announce press briefings, and distribute photographs and other relevant material instantly and simultaneously to all of its media outlets. Effective use of the agency's Web site also can reduce the burden of continually answering the seemingly nonstop telephone calls that occur during times of crisis.

The agency's chief executive and spokesperson must recognize that if they cannot promptly provide information, the media will look elsewhere. For media representatives, especially during a major crisis, deadlines and competition are constant parts of their professional life, and the urgency associated with filling the public's need for 24-hour news drives their coverage and interaction with the agency. An experienced PIO has emphasized:

When events break and a crisis looms, there's no time to stop and retreat, pause and prepare. If you don't feed the media beast, it will feed on you. Time is a media commodity that must be filled; if a public relations specialist doesn't supply pertinent, accurate, topical facts in a timely fashion, then the media will find someone, somewhere, to fill the time with speculation, opinion, and innuendo. That's when reputations are ruined, careers are lost, and situations spiral out of control. Once that control is lost, it's rarely recovered. (1)

Finally, the media spokesperson must fully understand the problem before trying to explain it to someone else, especially the media.

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