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How to...Cope with the Press

Keep your cool when reporters are beating down your door.

December 01, 2003  |  by Charles Gary

“They have their jobs to do, too,” Dias says. “If we’re not upfront with them, they’re going to do what it takes to get what they need—climb trees, use telephoto lenses, or find alternative sources.”

Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school of journalism, agrees. “I think press misbehavior is sometimes caused by a lack of access to information from official sources,” he says. “That being said, there also has to be a tremendous amount of restraint by the media when they get sensitive information. They need to ask themselves, ‘Is this accurate? If so, is it important to the story?’”

Dias recalls two related Honolulu homicide cases in which two women had been stabbed in the same, unique way. Homicide detectives had kept details of the murder weapons under wraps as the investigation continued. But at a press briefing, a police spokesperson accidentally revealed this detail to reporters.

“He stopped and told the reporters, ‘I shouldn’t have told you that. I ask that you do not release this information as it might jeopardize our investigation,’” Dias says. “The media complied and no one put the info out in their reports. Too often we give the media a simple ‘no comment.’ That invites them to ignore future requests for assistance. But if you work together with them, they can be reasonable.”

Avoid These Traps

However, when the press isn’t being reasonable, it’s important to recognize certain traps and avert them when possible. For instance, a reporter can make a simple microphone a powerful weapon for extracting information from unsuspecting PIOs.

“It’s classic when a reporter will ask you a leading question and then just stand there silently with the microphone in your face even after you’ve answered the question,” Stoneman says. “People are just compelled to say something more. But you’ve only got so much to say before you start telling them things you shouldn’t.

“A simple, ‘Hey guys, that’s all I’ve got, thank you’ will end this, and then you just walk away.”

Or, there’s the old media trick of talking to multiple law enforcement sources and patching their discrepancies together into news.

“I saw this one happening a lot in the coverage of the Columbine High School shootings as well as the sniper shootings,” Stoneman says. “The press was able to find different agencies within the same investigation and turn their differing statements into a controversy.”

When they’re not triangulating sources close to the investigation, info-thirsty news media will often resort to pundits.

“I learned early on that you need to feed the media information or they’ll find their own way to fill the time,” Demme says. “During the sniper investigation, they went and got many speculative talking heads—retired police, retired FBI, former profilers—who filled air-time with what they thought might be happening without any of the facts that we had available.”

At the very least, PIOs need to work with their counterparts from other agencies to determine a minimal number of authorized spokespersons so there are fewer discrepancies to exploit.

Regarding Leaks

Inevitably, there are going to be at least a few unauthorized, anonymous spokespersons in every high-profile case. At their worst, these leakers will put their own agendas ahead of the investigation.

“In some instances, leaks happen because the leaker wants to show the media, ‘Look how much I know, how powerful I am,’” Dias says.

Unfortunately, this attitude can carry consequences in an investigation. A week after the sniper incidents began, police found a note presumably left by the killers, near the school where a 13-year-old boy had been shot. Written on a Tarot card known as the “Death” card, it read, “Dear policeman, I am God.” Hoping to coax more communication, Moose went on live national television to deliver a thinly veiled response, alluding to God in his statement. But by the next day, the Tarot card’s message had been leaked. Pundits and psychics had taken their own 15 minutes to comment on its significance. Moose was outraged.

“What they had put out there was the back of the tarot card, with everything except the part that said, ‘Do not release to the press.’” Demme says. “It (the leak) sent a message to the shooters that law enforcement was not to be trusted. We now had to regain whatever confidence we could from the shooters.”

The dynamics of the Tarot card leak are unique. After all, most cases don’t require a department to respond to leaks live and in front of a national audience. In more common scenarios, some forthrightness can keep a leak from getting out of hand.

“I come from a standpoint of being honest,” says Dias. “When a leak comes out, it’s often good just to acknowledge the leak and say, ‘Yeah, that exists and we would prefer not to reveal that right now due to the investigation.’”

Credibility Counts

In a job where reputation is so important, credibility is everything. PIOs can’t afford to be inaccurate, play favorites with the media, or—God forbid—be lazy.

As she enters the second year of her tenure, Demme is duly aware of this, having survived her baptism by fire.

“I never want any other public information officer to have to reinvent the wheel in a situation like this,” Demme says. “I want them to learn from my experience so they can be far ahead of the curve.”

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