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4 PIO lessons from ‘Cecil Hotel’ true crime docuseries

These takeaways from a police PIO can prove beneficial to law enforcement communication pros in future cases


Reprinted with permission from Adam The PIO

The Netflix true-crime docuseries “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” has multiple ingredients to make it required viewing for a law enforcement communication professional: social media, a viral video, a news conference, internet sleuths (YouTubers, really) and conspiracy theories aplenty. Throw all that together and you have a made-for-online mystery that captivated an international audience.

Apparently, none of those ingredients meant much to me when the case unfolded in early 2013. I don’t remember a thing about it and the name of the young lady who vanished at the Cecil Hotel, Elisa Lam, meant nothing to me when I came across the docuseries in my Netflix recommendations. But when I read the summary, I knew the “Cecil Hotel” would offer nuggets for a public information officer as I became familiar with the case for the first time.

I was immediately reminded of a missing person case my agency worked in 2018 that attracted the attention of internet sleuths from far and wide. One woman even drove all night from Florida to South Carolina with her toddler in tow only to bang on the door of a television station and demand coverage of the disappearance of a woman I don’t believe she’d ever met. That case made me familiar with the furor and intensity of web sleuths, so I wanted to see how the Los Angeles Police Department handled them.

Now that the LAPD cat is out of the bag, let me be clear and offer the following disclaimer ... it is not my intention to question LAPD’s decisions to share or withhold information, or critique its effort to manage the narrative of the Lam case. I only want to share what I made note of while watching “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” as a law enforcement public information officer and how those notes could prove beneficial to law enforcement communication pros in future cases.

The “Cecil Hotel” docuseries is a bit bloated at four episodes and a total running time of almost four hours. As a result, the PIO lessons don’t really begin until episode two. That’s where we get this statement from a detective sergeant who comes across as the de facto lead investigator on the Lam case:

“Because we chose to only provide limited information, people took the time to investigate the case on their own.”

1. If your agency doesn’t take steps to manage the narrative of a case, others will step in and do so.

Whether it be internet sleuths, the victim’s relatives, the suspect’s neighbors or community members, they’re all too ready to fill the messaging void if we in law enforcement don’t provide engaging information about a case that captivates the masses.

Position your agency as the authoritative, credible and official source of information with a steady and transparent stream of messages. If there are no new developments, tell your audience there are no new developments. When new developments do arise, share them immediately. Don’t wait for a news conference or a fancy, formal news release. Don’t sit on it and wait for the next “news cycle.” Get it on social ASAP.

Generally speaking, if your agency conveys its continuing work on the case, fewer people without access to the evidence and file will feel the need to investigate it on their own as they did after Lam’s disappearance.

2. Tell your audience if pictures or videos are edited in any way.

The first thing that attracted people around the world to the Lam case is the security video of the young woman inside a Cecil Hotel elevator. She appears frightened, disoriented and confused in various parts of the video. Without much context provided at the time of the video’s release, the internet sleuth community broke it down frame by frame. They zeroed in on a missing portion of the video made noticeable by the uneven movement of the elevator door. What really got them going was the scrambling of the video’s timecode. That’s the number blurred out at the bottom of the screen. LAPD investigators say they didn’t want the public to know the exact time of the events depicted in the infamous elevator video. They also say in “Cecil Hotel” they slowed down the video to show Lam’s face and clothing more clearly.

Those are both perfect explanations for blurring out the time code and editing the video itself. But without those explanations, the internet sleuths concocted all sorts of wild theories as to why the numbers within the video time code didn’t match, why the numbers didn’t flow sequentially and why the time code was distorted in the video.

Avoid conspiracy theories and second-guessing by releasing unaltered pictures and videos. If you must edit or alter pics or videos to protect a case, make it clear to your audience that you’ve done so and share a concise explanation as to why.

3. Correct inaccuracies/mistakes, and address rumors immediately.

The crux of the Lam case and the “Cecil Hotel” docuseries essentially comes down to the position of one item on the roof of the hotel. That item – more specifically, the position in which it was discovered at a crucial point in the case – was referenced in a television interview. The position of that all-important item was disclosed incorrectly during the interview.

The “Cecil Hotel” audience is never told whether that tidbit was cleared up or addressed, but it certainly seems as though it wasn’t or either the internet sleuth community never heard the correction. That item and its position at the time Lam’s body was found fueled speculation and conspiracy theories for quite some time.

This underscores the importance of good old-fashioned media monitoring. Watch and read every broadcast, print and online news story you can get your eyes on during a major incident. Monitor social media posts AND their comments for rumors and wild tales that could take hold quickly. If something shared in an interview is later determined to be inaccurate or becomes obsolete, call the journalist to convey that information is out-of-date or has since been clarified. Use your social media channels to widely share the accurate and newest information.

4. Clear people as soon as possible.

A death metal singer, known on stage as Morbid, spent time at the Cecil Hotel a year before the Lam case broke. He extensively documented his three-day stay at the hotel on his social media accounts. Internet sleuths and, according to Morbid, foreign media outlets picked up on his Cecil Hotel content and the rather gruesome music videos and lyrics he posted and declared him to be a suspect in Lam’s death. This led to an onslaught of trolling, hate messages and the suspension of his social accounts. The singer says he eventually attempted to end his life and landed in a psychiatric facility. In short, he was cyberbullied.

While this is an extreme case and such circumstances will be rare, a public information officer in the digital age knows this can happen and should take steps to make sure personal lives and reputations aren’t needlessly decimated. We have to lead efforts to clear someone’s name when the online investigator community has made a leap too far only to land squarely on someone who isn’t involved in a case in any way, shape or form.

Adam has more than 17 years of media and public relations experience, preceded by nearly a decade in print, radio and television newsrooms.

He became the public information officer, primary spokesperson and media liaison for the Lexington County (South Carolina) Sheriff’s Department in 2015. As a member of Sheriff Jay Koon’s executive staff, Adam holds the rank of captain and leads the department’s public information unit. He is responsible for media relations, crisis communication and issues management, along with the agency’s video productions, social media and digital content.

Adam got his start in the media in 1995 as a freelance correspondent at his hometown newspaper. He went on to cover news and sports as an anchor, reporter, and producer at radio and television stations, and broadcast networks in South Carolina and Dallas, Texas.

Adam jumped to the “other side of the news” in 2004 when he became a public information officer and spokesperson for one of South Carolina’s largest and most high-profile state government agencies.

Adam serves as a contract instructor with FBI-LEEDA. He is also a frequent speaker and panelist focused on law enforcement’s relationship with the news media and the profession’s use of social media and digital content. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Lander University. Adam lives with his wife and their two children in Lexington, South Carolina.