By Inspector Douglas Bem, National Public Information Officer, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Washington, D.C.
he U.S. Postal Inspection Service has been called the “silent service” because, for most of the 20th century, this federal law enforcement and security agency did not seek publicity. However, for as long as there has been a mail system in the United States, there has been an agency in place to fight crimes involving the U.S. Mail, the Post Office Department, and, later, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
Postal Inspection Service managers had believed that postal inspectors enjoyed a tactical advantage against criminals because the agency was not part of the cultural lexicon like some of its colleagues, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Secret Service. In the past 20 years, however, the Postal Inspection Service has tried to move away from its reputation as the silent service.
There are, of course, direct benefits of a proactive effort to make information available to all of the Postal Service’s audiences. Public knowledge of laws, regulations, and policies promotes understanding and compliance. Understanding the role and accomplishments of the Postal Inspection Service enables the employees and customers of the USPS, as well as its other law enforcement partners at the state and local levels, to identify when it is appropriate to call a local postal inspector. When the Postal Inspection Service speaks proactively about its work, it also demonstrates its value to its government overseers in Congress, as well as the postmaster general, the USPS’s Board of Governors, and the other executives of its parent organization that regularly evaluate its operations and provide it with resources. Mail affects everyone; so must the message of the Postal Inspection Service.
The Postal Inspection Service public information program addresses the following objectives:
- Informing the public through the news media of postal crimes, mail fraud, and other harmful uses of the mail, making individuals aware of what they can do if they have been victimized by such schemes
- Making postal customers aware through the news media of the broad range of services they receive from postal inspectors—services that are financed solely by postal revenue
- Emphasizing crime prevention and security as an integral part of the Postal Inspection Service’s law enforcement effort
- Making postal customers aware of the integrity of the postal system as a result of efforts by the Postal Inspection Service
- Promoting the added value that postal inspectors bring to the USPS and reinforcing public confidence in the mail
- Providing the media with timely information regarding Postal Inspection Service investigations when the release of such information will not compromise the integrity of an investigation
- Helping put events that might have a short-term negative impact on the USPS or its stakeholders’ confidence into proper perspective
- Ensuring that Postal Inspection Service personnel receive proper credit in news stories for their role in investigations
- Providing relevant and timely information to Postal Service employees
- Enhancing the image and developing a positive perception of the Postal Inspection Service and the USPS, both internally and externally
- Ensuring that the local and national media efforts of the Postal Inspection Service are coordinated with other organizations that might be affected by release of information, such as USPS Public Affairs and Communications; federal, state, and local prosecutors; federal, state, and local regulatory and law enforcement agencies; and congressional members and committees
- Keeping Postal Inspection Service leadership informed of significant media events and developments in the field
The Five Cs
Postal inspectors assigned as public information officers (PIOs) are asked to bear in mind the five Cs of effective communication: credibility, candor, clarity, compassion, and commitment.
Credibility: If PIOs lose the ability to deal in an honest, straightforward manner, they are not far from losing sight of the truth altogether. Reporters like dealing with a contact seen as a “straight shooter,” and they are likely to go back to a source who provides good, factual, accurate information.
Candor: Credibility goes hand in hand with candor, which requires the communicator to acknowledge errors, quickly admit mistakes, and handle the bad stories along with the good. The media appreciate contacts who disavow attempts at “spin” when a story or an event is negative, and the temptation exists to put a silver gloss on even the darkest clouds.
Clarity: Only precise and sharply defined messages stand out in the blur of information overload.
Compassion: Having some compassion and empathy for reporters and understanding their pressures or deadlines goes a long way toward putting some human balance into what is frequently an adversarial relationship. Listening carefully to questions, understanding and being polite to critics and naysayers, and avoiding snarling at persistent interviewers—all this helps make a difficult job easier to handle, for both reporters and communicators.
Commitment: Organizations need to treat communications seriously. The PIO function demands articulate, dedicated people who need to be apprised of all pending searches, arrests, and task force operations, as well as pending court proceedings. PIOs also need to know when activities are being planned that present an opportunity to spread a positive message. Lastly, in order to ensure consistent messaging, all media inquiries should be referred to the agency PIO. This commitment must start at the very top of the organization chart. Not all executives must be perfect spokespeople, but they should realize the importance of communicating professionally and effectively.
Tips for PIOs
Here are some tried and true tools that have been found to make the lives of PIOs easier:
- Create subject files to keep track of applicable documents that might be needed for quick reference if an unexpected telephone call is received or if it is necessary to rush to a crime scene.
- Contacts are a huge asset as PIOs move through the media world. When meeting new reporters, PIOs should exchange business cards and save the contact information. When taking over for a previous PIO, it is wise to ask for the outgoing PIO’s contact list, but it is also important to continue to make new contacts. Also, wise PIOs do not forget about the videographers handling the camera. Even though the audience will not see these individuals, they will be coproducing the story.
- Knowing the essentials that will be thebasis of media contact will assist PIOs in taking control of interviews.
- PIOs should dress conservatively and professionally when they know that there will be an interview. Both viewers and the media more readily accept information from someone who appears to be an authority. That means it is wise to have a business attire change of clothes at all times in the office. Many PIOs have arrived for work thinking that they were going to have an easy, casual day, and before lunch they were engaged in an interview about a violent crime that had just taken place.
- PIOs should check themselves in the mirror before conducting an interview. This may sound conceited, but it is better to check before conducting an interview than to have the audience pay most of its attention to a cowlick or a turned-up collar instead of the message.
- PIOs should always ask reporters in advance of an interview being recorded what questions they are interested in having answered. Sometimes it is best to stop stories the way reporters want to report them for a number of reasons: they could give away an investigative technique, or by reporting on the story at that time, they could tip off defendants.
- PIOs should look at the reporter, not the camera.
PIOs should never lie to reporters. If they do not know the answer to a question or cannot answer it for some other reason, the proper response is to say that they simply cannot answer it and explain why (for example, it could compromise an investigation). The phrase “no comment” implies that the speaker is defensive and that the agency has something to hide. PIOs should always keep emotions in check. It is also critical to remember that the microphone is always on!
Do not try to block the view of the camera. If a videographer is on public property and capturing footage that an agency considers undesirable, explain why filming should stop. A clear explanation of consequences can work wonders: “If you put that vehicle on the air, the widow may see that this is her husband’s car.”
Prior to an interview, if time permits, it is helpful to jot down some brief, to-the-point sentences that convey the central message, which will hopefully become a sound bite. Each one of these sound bites should be 5 to 10 seconds long. It is helpful to practice those sound bites out loud to work out the proper emphasis. It is also helpful to identify two or three basic themes for the topic that are important to get across during the interview. Regardless of the question, it is both effective and persuasive to phrase answers in such a fashion that they lead back to these themes—a technique called “bridging.”
If at all possible, it is good to invite victims who are well spoken and would be willing to go on camera to an interview. Reporters love having an actual victim of a scam or fraud to interview. As opposed to the traditional agency spokesperson, a victim provides firsthand proof of the message. Fraud investigators can be on the lookout for victims of such crimes who they believe are well spoken and would be willing to participate in an interview. PIOs can contact victims and ask them if they would be interested in being interviewed. It is always imperative to get approval from victims before giving out their name, telephone number, or address to reporters.
Presentations should be clear and warm. Language should be conversational and not filled with cop-speak. PIOs should avoid acronyms or technical jargon, speaking as though they were talking to a neighbor or friend but also remaining professional at all times. It is also important to manage nonverbal communication (also called body language). Successful speakers smile when appropriate and are serious when the subject warrants it.
Resources for PIOs
Wise PIOs make use of available resources. The challenge for many postal inspector PIOs, who hold this title as a collateral duty (that is, in addition to a regular criminal or security assignment, with no extra pay) is to make time in the midst of their own investigations and assignments to promote stories. Like many law enforcement PIOs in other agencies, they turn to available resources for assistance. Fortunately, postal inspectors are closely affiliated with the USPS’s full-time public affairs and media relations staff throughout the country. These specialists have been helpful in offering their frequent media contacts, and they and their consultants have beenvaluable in helping to frame the message of the Postal Inspection Service so that its corporate parent is properly seen as acting in the best interests of its customers. In turn, they keep their USPS field managers and headquarters executives apprised of immediate information on breaking investigations that must be passed forward through the organization and to Congress and the executive branch of the federal government. PIOs in other agencies also need to remember their responsibility to keep those within their agencies informed of media interest in events or story ideas, and they need to develop and use resources within and outside their agencies.
PIOs should coordinate public information when engaged in a multiagency operation. All parties speaking to the news media, whether from within their own agency or from other agencies, must speak with the same message and must treat new information with the same level of care. They must also agree ahead of time to lead agency roles and coordination of media inquiries in anticipation of a media event. Failing to do so breeds doubt and mistrust, both within the partnership and among the reporters who will question every detail no matter how normally reliable their source may be, and can subsequently defeat an interagency agreement.
Remember that the medium of television depends on visual imagery. If the story has nothing interesting to show (other than the PIO as the “talking head”), it might not be given priority coverage. Media-savvy PIOs will consider such visuals as sample documents or pieces of mail representing evidence of a fraud scheme, with personal information in wide focus or pixellated.
Finally, protecting operations is critical. In any law enforcement agency, the public information function should not adversely affect the law enforcement function. The Postal Inspection Service must protect sensitive information about USPS operations and mail security gathered during its investigations. In cases still being developed, where no formal action has been taken and no public record (such as an arrest or indictment) exists, the prosecuting U.S. attorneys working on these cases require the Postal Inspection Service to make special efforts to protect all concerned from undue media exposure. In such instances, PIOs must limit themselves to the terse acknowledgment that the agency is conducting an investigation, withholding any details that would compromise the agency’s ability to put together a thorough case or would prejudice a pool of jurors who might see or read about a potential defendant.
As safety and security issues dominate the tone of the news in the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there is heightened awareness of the Postal Inspection Service’s crucial role in ensuring confidence in the mail. This agency has long been known as the “silent service.” Postal inspectors once used this to their advantage, conducting investigations behind the scenes to avoid publicity. But silence is no longer seen as always golden. Keeping the public informed is now the rule rather than the exception. The Postal Inspection Service’s stakeholders are better served when the agency reaches out to them through the media to show how its accomplishments benefit the USPS as an institution, everyone who works for and with the USPS as an employee, and everyone who uses the mail as a trusted communications medium.■