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Fine Tuning Your News Briefing.

Today's modern law enforcement agency rivals nearly any Fortune 500 corporation in complexity, their use of technology, and especially their value to the community. As with any large corporation, law enforcement agencies quickly can become the focus of media attention around the world when a crisis or major event occurs. Today, the public recognizes that law enforcement activities impact more than just the crime rate--they can affect citizens' health and social welfare and impact environmental and economic issues as well. Most law enforcement executives recognize that they no longer have a choice whether they deal with the media. Because the media covers issues of public interest, prudent managers should realize the importance of proactively using the media as a tool to get their department's message out to the community.

Most public information officers (PIOs) and law enforcement spokespersons have a stable relationship with the media and a policy of openness and cooperation, without intentional deception. When a newsworthy event occurs, PIOs should disseminate facts to the public as quickly as possible by bringing them to the attention of the media. To accomplish this, PIOs frequently employ a news briefing. Using this method, the department quickly disseminates the information, the media accurately can report a story, and, ultimately, the public receives factual information and becomes better informed.

To assess their agencies' news briefing program, PIOs should ask themselves two questions. Are they satisfied with stable media relations programs and good news briefings? Do they constantly strive to present the information in the best means possible? With some fine tuning and recollection of what the media wants, PIOs can turn news briefings into comprehensive, first-rate performances that prove valuable to the department and the community.

PREINTERVIEW PLANNING

Designated PIOs or department spokespersons should consider numerous factors prior to conducting a meaningful news briefing. For instance, when possible, the PIOs should prepare by considering the target audience, anticipating questions, and practicing responses to the questions. Further, PIOs should have an agreement or establish ground rules with the media prior to conducting the actual briefing. In fact, PIOs can inform reporters of particular topics they will not discuss during the interview, or they can agree to provide related resource material (e.g., maps and diagrams) after the briefing.

Analyzing the Audience

PIOs often overlook the fact that professional reporters represent a conduit for relaying news to the community. Law enforcement officials should remember that when they talk to a reporter, they are talking, essentially, to their community. Department spokespersons should conduct news briefings as though actual community members are sitting in front of them and listening to every word spoken. Using this technique may force PIOs to change their language and demeanor. They must remember that a news briefing not only conveys information, but provides assurance to the citizens that the department serves its community. Similarly, law enforcement spokespersons always must remember that their agency's employees also listen to what they and how they say it and form opinions on their management's leadership and support of their agency.

Anticipating the Questions

When law enforcement responds to a crisis, PIOs immediately should consider the need to hold a news conference and make a statement to the media. When the media questioning begins, PIOs often respond with statements, such as "I can't comment on that right now," or "we are not releasing that information yet." Although in many cases PIOs have justification to refuse comment on certain information, they frequently use those standard refrains when unprepared to answer a particular question.

Department spokespersons should take time to write down questions that reporters could ask and develop responses to them as well. This may help PIOs recall answers to questions asked later and will allow for reflection on the most appropriate way to answer the questions. Additionally, PIOs should write down at least three questions they would feel most uncomfortable answering if asked by a reporter. Depending on other critical issues involving the department (e.g., prior controversial use of deadly force), these written questions and answers may or may not be on the current topic. PIOs should exercise time and patience when writing answers to these questions and preparing suitable, polite, and diplomatic statements to help keep discussions focused on the current issue. In doing so, department spokespersons can reinforce their own self-confidence.

Prior to actually holding the news briefing, PIOs should practice aloud and enlist the help of their staff to help conduct a mock interview. This rehearsal will help them become better organized and more informed about the topic.

PUTTING "LIFE" IN THE NEWS BRIEFING

To keep a story interesting, most reporters incorporate certain features in their report, such as appropriate visuals, relevant sound bites, and the "human element." Too frequently and quite unintentionally, PIOs conduct the news briefing without giving serious thought to these features. Oftentimes, PIOs merely provide routine facts, display seized drugs or weapons, and then end the briefing. Most reporters want additional information to make a story more thorough for the public. Many times, PIOs can provide extra information by simply giving additional thought to the preparation and structure of the news briefing.

PIOs can stimulate a briefing by detailing the "how" and "why" of the issue. This will provide the reporter with a more detailed account of what happened and may help prevent speculation by the reporter "filling in the blanks."

Many law enforcement agencies have added additional life to news briefings by making the officer, lead detective, or department subject-matter expert available to answer questions upon conclusion of the prepared remarks by PIOs. Those officers who do not face the media on a routine basis may experience anxiety or have some reluctance about facing the media; however, these symptoms vanish quickly if the officer has received prior police-media relations training and assistance in understanding and interpreting the department's media policy. Oftentimes, involving officers in news briefings and helping them become more comfortable in responding to questions, by preparing them beforehand, may even lead officers to a sense of self-pride in appearing on television and confidently representing their department.

POSTINTERVIEW CRITIQUE

Far too often, the absence of controversy or ability to avoid probing questions leaves PIOs with the mistaken belief that the news briefing went well, which leads them to conducting each briefing in a similar style. After each briefing, they await, often days or weeks, for the next briefing while continuing with their regular duties.

PIOs should not have merely adequate news briefings, as this often leads an agency to a state of complacency or even stagnation. PIOs can improve performance effectively by critically examining and critiquing their own actions and reactions after conducting a news briefing. PIOs should consider occasionally video recording a briefing for later review to determine any mannerisms, responses, or idiosyncracies that they can improve to result in more effective news briefings. In doing so, department spokespersons will find ways to physically, psychologically, or academically prepare themselves and become a believable and influential representative of the department.

CONCLUSION

A news briefing can either glorify or destroy the reputation of the principle information officer, as well as the law enforcement agency itself. By coming to the briefing prepared and conducting the interview with confidence, control, and professionalism, PIOs will help to deliver a message in a manner that the public will receive well. Creating an atmosphere of mutual understanding, trust, and respect will solidify the department, the media, and most important, the community.

The PIOs should use each news briefing as an opportunity to convey a message to the public in the most effective and professional way. Critically reviewing and examining each media briefing will lead to changes that will make future briefings more dynamic and comprehensive.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:law enforcement agency media relations
Author:Staszak, Dennis D.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
Words:1282
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