Recently, many smaller police agencies have been in the news for the wrong reasons: active shooter incidents, mass casualty events, line-of-duty deaths, and real or perceived wrongful acts of police officers. While larger agencies have trained Public Information Officers (PIOs) and professional staff to deal with the onslaught of both traditional and social media, most smaller agencies do not.
In the past, traditional news media rarely covered events in smaller or rural communities as they did not have the resources, nor did information travel as widely. Today, with the advent and exponential growth of citizen journalists and social media, any small town can become international news within minutes. In fact, a recent Edelman (a global communications group) survey found that almost one-third of local crises are conveyed worldwide in about an hour. Small town leaders today are expected to manage not only their local community’s concerns but inform and educate national and international media about incidents occurring in their region.
Communication should be high on any chief or sheriff’s priority list during a critical incident. Even within smaller agencies, there are some things you can do before, during and after a crisis that may help your agency – and your community – deal with the overwhelming media attention that may come with a critical event.
Before a crisis
People have so many places to go for information today that they are not sure who to trust. If you can create trusting relationships in advance of a crisis, navigating through one will be much easier. Most smaller agencies have strong community ties, which is a huge plus during a crisis. Build similar trusting relationships with your local news media, your elected officials and your employees. Those “pillars of trust” are key when it comes to a crisis since these people can be strong third-party endorsers for your agency and may be asked for a comment by the media.
Create and maintain social media accounts so you can issue factual statements and be the source of correct information for your community. Agencies should have a Twitter feed, as well as a YouTube channel. Many smaller agencies already have Facebook accounts; however, national and international news media will go to Twitter to get information about a critical event.
During a crisis
While staff wear many hats during a crisis, do not forget to assign someone to communicate to your community and the media. The more reliable, factual information you can get out quickly, the better chance you have for framing the narrative and establishing your agency as the source for credible information.
Use your Twitter feed to provide information and correct falsehoods and rumor. Have someone in your agency – be it an administrative assistant, member of your youth program, or even a family member – monitor social media and look for inaccuracies. Here is an example of good use of Twitter during a crisis from the York County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina:
If someone is not available right away to provide sound for news media arriving at the scene, consider recording a short video on your phone with an update of what has happened and posting it to Twitter and your YouTube channel.
Your statement should start by showing you care or are concerned about what has happened, what you and your community are doing/should be doing right now and putting the incident into perspective. For example, if you have an active shooter, your statement could simply be:
Our number one concern is for the safety of the people in that building. We are using every resource we have along with our partner law enforcement agencies to safely end this situation. Until then, for your safety, shelter in place and follow our social media for additional information. The town of XXX is strong, and we will be there to support everyone through this event.
A statement for a video that has gone viral showing what appears to be excessive use of force by an officer could read:
This video is concerning. I have launched an investigation and asked the XXX to investigate as well. If anyone has additional information or video that shows what happened before or during the incident, we ask that you bring it to us or submit it to the XXXX. This department is accountable to the people of XXXX, and we will share the results of our investigations as soon as legally allowable.
Sometimes, it is prudent to lead with a chronology of the incident before the statement. Have both ready to go.
If the incident is a longer event or draws media to a specific area, consider conducting a media briefing. A media briefing is just that – a brief update. You can choose to take questions, or just make a statement. Be clear at the beginning of the briefing if you will or will not take questions. Do not set a time for a media briefing until you know for sure you will be able to do it. Nothing is worse than a bunch of national and cable networks waiting to go live with a media briefing, and it is delayed. They will then fill the air with speculation and suppositions that, typically, are not beneficial to your agency.
When conducting a media briefing, talk only about what you know as fact. There will be lots of conjecture about what happened, the how and the why. Do not respond to questions that ask you to speculate. Reporters will sometimes take those responses out of context and use, “I think” statements as fact.
During briefings, give yourself room for correction as things develop. Use terms such as “preliminarily,” “as of right now,” and “things may change as more information comes in.”
Once media begins to descend on your jurisdiction, your phone and email will be swamped. Simply put an “out of office” message on both your cellphone and email directing all requests for information to your Twitter feed. There is no way you will be able to return every call from a media outlet.
Here is an example of an “out of office” email:
And speaking of traditional news media, make every effort to address your local reporters first. While there may be a desire to speak to Lester Holt of NBC or David Muir of ABC, take care of your locals. They will be covering you long after the national news has left. Give them front-row seats at media briefings and answer their questions first. Use bike racks if necessary, to separate locals from nationals (they can get rather pushy). Your local media will be grateful.
Know that crises follow a tried-and-true trajectory. They typically start with “surprise,” followed by insufficient information, escalation of the event, loss of control of the narrative, and stage five is intense scrutiny by outsiders. At this point, you must be ready to answer questions about things that may not have been an issue before. Media and your community may be looking for a pattern or practice of bad judgment, poor training, internal cultural issues, or lack of preparedness. This is typically when media and others will begin to assess blame. In anticipation of this stage, you can prepare to define (not defend) these issues and put them into perspective. Be as transparent as possible with facts, statistics and evidence to support your statements.
After a crisis
If the media are still around or the story is still active on social media, consider hosting a formal news conference when your critical event is over, or your investigation is complete. Formal news conferences include a written news release, typically one or more speakers, and an opportunity for reporters to ask questions. This is a good way to formally “end” an event. Your statement should recognize the impact felt by the victims (and their wider circle) of the incident and focus on moving forward.
Check the well-being of your people after a critical event and consider a debrief with your local media to learn how you can work better together to provide factual and timely information to your community and beyond.
Finally, don’t forget. If your agency experienced a line of duty death, an officer was involved in a criminal OIS or there was a significant loss of life, know the media will revisit the incident on anniversary dates. Be proactive in arranging memorials and interviews that frame a narrative of healing and moving forward.
Continue to learn, continue to train and strive to be strong a communicator. People will often remember you and your agency more for your response to the crisis, than the crisis itself. Your reputation, your agency and your job may depend on it.
Fill out the form below to download a checklist of 10 steps to take to manage the media before, during and after a crisis.