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Get ready to go on the record

Follow these five steps for improving police interaction with the media


It’s best to assume that there’s no such thing as “off the record.” Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to hear quoted on the nightly news.

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Over the course of my law enforcement career, I’ve witnessed countless acts of bravery. I’ve watched cops dive through windows and rappel out of helicopters. On a routine basis, cops around the country charge toward gunfire and rescue people from burning automobiles. It is the height of irony, then, that many of these same heroes go into cold sweats at the thought of dealing with the media.

To be fair, it’s an understandable concern. In the current climate, one misspoken word can lead to hateful emails, calls for your termination, or activists splashing your home address online. If done properly, though, media relations is not as risky a venture as it seems.

While fair-minded reporters may not be the enemy we often label them, it would be a mistake to assume that they won’t make an inexperienced cop look like a fool if they provide appropriate fodder for such a characterization. It’s imperative that any officer who may interact with the media know a few basic things about doing so. Here are things to consider:

1. Messaging

When you do an interview, the media outlet will take your five minutes of speaking and distill it down to a 20-second sound bite. The part they choose to include in their final product may not be the part you really wanted to convey. The best way to combat this is through good messaging. Pick the two or three things you most want to convey in your interview. No matter what direction the interview goes, bring it back to these two or three base points. This increases the likelihood that your desired messages will be included in the final product. It also decreases the chance that you’ll end up saying something you shouldn’t.

Along those lines, it’s best to assume that there’s no such thing as “off the record.” Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to hear quoted on the nightly news.

2. Know your audience

Different types of media will use your interview differently. Television media uses visual imagery to lay over their spoken report. They’ll also probably intersperse a very short clip of you saying something at a place that fits into their storyline. Radio news looks for longer sound bites that they can interject into their pre-recorded story. Finally, written media will make the amplest use of quotes from your interview.

3. Neighbors gotta live together

If confronted, are you more likely to have a big fight with an out-of-towner you’ll never see again or a longtime neighbor? Most of us would be much more hesitant to pick a fight with the person we’ll have to see again. The same principle applies to dealing with members of the media.

The horror tales you may have heard about reporters sneaking past checkpoints, spying on people, or outrageously violating officers’ privacy usually involve out-of-town reporters who are there for a big national story. They’re under intense pressure to do whatever is necessary to advance their career, and they might not care who they upset in the process.

The majority of reporters that most cops will deal with are local or area reporters. They understand that they’ll have to work with you again at some point and are typically respectful as a result. In the same way, it’s important to remember that you will probably have to work with them at some point. Even if it’s inconvenient for your schedule, going out of your way to make sure they have the material they need for their deadline will go a long way toward building a mutually respectful relationship.

4. Be a human

The ability to control emotions is one of a police officer’s greatest strengths, but it can be a massive weakness when dealing with the media (or the public in general).

There are segments of the population who try desperately to portray law enforcement officers as unfeeling robots. Neither they (nor the general public) see the incredible emotional trauma that the average officer undergoes in the course of their career. They need to.

You don’t need to shed crocodile tears for the camera, but you do need to be willing to show your humanity. Was the officer involved in the traumatic incident torn up over it? Maybe the public needs to know that. Are all the officers at the department upset over the discovery of corruption within the ranks? The public needs to know that.

Most of all, they need to know that law enforcement is a noble profession whose practitioners take their oaths seriously. There are very legitimate reasons that officers learn to hide their emotions, but it’s good for the public to see that they’re human too.

5. Get training

Treat media interaction as a necessary, legitimate skill. We train for driving, shooting, and a plethora of other things. The perusal of a short article about media relations may be sufficient for an average cop, but supervisors and media officers should spend time studying and practicing the skill. There are countless quality courses on the issue, and taking one usually serves to show just how much more you still have to learn about the subject.

Modern media activity is prolific and there’s a high probability that every law enforcement officer will have to deal with a reporter at some point in their career. But that’s not the chief reason to take the interaction seriously. Now, more than ever, it’s important for departments to bridge the gap between themselves and their community. Working effectively with the media allows the profession to do just that while honoring the much-needed concept of transparency.

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Cliff Couch is a police chief in East Tennessee. He’s also led two departments in Kansas and served as a deputy with the Leon County (Tallahassee) Sheriff’s Office in Florida. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminology and psychology, and a master’s degree in public administration from Florida State University. He’s also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Follow him on Twitter at CliftonDCouch or on his blog,