Less than a month into her job as director of public information, Capt. Nancy Demme of the Montgomery County (Md.) Police Department was looking forward to attending a media training program in neighboring Arlington. Demme never got to attend a single session. Instead, a deadly shooting spree began, and—ready or not—she was thrust into a real-life media tornado that schooled her better than any seminar could.
In retrospect, last year’s sniper crisis is as much an anomaly as it is a brilliant case study, holding surprises that would have rattled the most veteran of public information officers PIOs. But while it is impossible to anticipate every media situation, a few guidelines do exist.
Fortunately, a PIO’s life is not one long crisis, although at times it may seem that way. Down time is valuable for implementing a rapid response system for your department.
“It’s so important for PIOs to constantly ask themselves, ‘What if that were us?’” says Bob Stoneman, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department PIO. “I think all departments should have some sort of standard media plan ready for big cases.”
For Stoneman’s department, that meant a coordinated beat system. In the event of breaking news, the public information office would call the spokesperson nearest to the scene. The result: ‘round-the-clock accessibility.
“That immediate response was so crucial because, with all the news competition and the 24-hour cable news cycle, no one goes to bed at eleven o’clock anymore,” he says.
The Baltimore City Police Department has recently eliminated a layer in its media strategy, giving district commanders, lead investigators, and arresting officers latitude to speak directly to the press at a crime scene. BCPD public affairs director Matt Jablow, a former journalist, says the new policy is good for officers as well as reporters.
“It’s nice for the officers who are doing a good job because they can be recognized for it, and the media likes it because they’re talking directly to the person in charge,” Jablow says. “Of course we give them guidelines on how to talk to the press, but beyond that, we find that officers on the street know more about their cases than we do.”
Stoneman says PIOs should also have a system for keeping each other in the loop during an investigation.
“If you’re out in the field and something new happens, you need to relay that information back to the PIOs in the office,” he says. “They’re your partners, so you don’t want to leave them hanging when the media calls.”
During at least part of Stoneman’s tenure, cellular phones were not in common use, so he often had to hunt down a phone booth to get information back to his fellow PIOs.
Setting the Scene
Here’s a list of fundamental duties a PIO performs at a crime scene:
• Reassure the public the department is doing all it can to solve the crime.
• Ask the public for help.
• Find and correct any inaccuracies.
• Field media questions.
• Accommodate the press, but steer them clear of areas and behavior that may have an adverse effect on the investigation.
When breaking news happens, a PIO often needs to balance media needs with police needs. Reporters want to get their cameras as close to a scene as possible, but sometimes this can interfere with an investigation.
Demme learned this on the job, as the second day of shootings unfolded and it became apparent that a serial sniper was on the loose. In the second of five shootings that day, cab driver Kumar Walekar had been gunned down at a Mobil gas station in Aspen Hill. The press that had gathered was especially hungry for information.
“Their whole demeanor was different from the previous day and understandably so,” Demme says. “Many of them were our local reporters. They lived there, had children that went to the schools. They were concerned for their own safety and the safety of the people they cared about.”
“I have a wife, one kid in school and another one in daycare,” says Bruce Leshan, who covered the scene for WUSA-TV in D.C. “Nancy was extremely knowledgeable and made the reporters comfortable that we were informed and understood what was going on.”
“She did an excellent job of setting the tone,” says Scott Broom of WMAR-TV in Baltimore. “She acknowledged that these were shocking events and used language that made her sound like a regular citizen, instead of using police speak.”
“At one point,” says Demme, “I had to shoo the media back because as the investigation progressed, we realized we were standing in what might’ve been part of the crime scene if it had been a long distance shot. So I told them all to back up. They looked perplexed, but they did back up.”
Sometimes the media needs to back up to get the big picture. In these instances, a PIO can help put the scene in its proper context.
“Let’s say reporters or photographers get there shortly after an officer-involved shooting,” Stoneman says. “They might get some pictures of the officers smiling and hugging each other. Well, these guys aren’t celebrating someone’s death, they’re basically celebrating the fact that they’re alive. It’s important that we explain that.”
Stoneman adds that PIOs should also keep the media at a practical distance so investigators can go about their work without distractions.
At every crime scene, PIOs and their departments need to decide who will speak to the media. Representing the first jurisdiction hit by the sniper attacks, then-Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose emerged as the most prominently featured spokesperson for the investigation. This continued even after the Washington Post reported that more than 100 federal law enforcement officials had joined the investigation.
“Chief Moose explained that people would have questions about why I was the PIO and not making more press appearances,” Demme says. “But that, ultimately, he was responsible and would be held accountable for anything that happened, bad or good.”
“It gives your department credibility to have your top guy out there telling the story,” adds Stoneman.
In more isolated cases, PIOs are acceptable proxies for lead investigators who need to devote their time to solving the crime.
The Media—Friend or Foe?
While much is made of the tension between reporters and police, a little understanding can pay mutual dividends.
Gary Dias, a retired homicide lieutenant for the Honolulu Police Department, has a unique perspective on this subject. He and his wife, journalist Robbie Dingeman, met while doing their respective jobs. “She helped me to realize that media people are human, and like police officers, they are emotionally attached to their jobs.”
With this emotional attachment comes a need for information—as much information as they can get.[PAGEBREAK]
“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.
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.’”
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.”