By Lynn Hightower, Communications Director, Boise Police Department, Boise, Idaho
magine a scenario in which a police department’s chief, public information officer (PIO), or patrol officer gives an interview with a television reporter about a recent incident. The department is satisfied with the reporter’s questions and the responses given. But that night on the evening news, the story is not at all what the department expected! The reporter chose quotes and soundbites that did not correspond to the message the department wished to convey. The news story did not explain the important facts. The result left the TV station’s viewers and community residents confused about the police view of the issue.
Unfortunately, this series of events happens all too often. Important messages are left out of a final version of a news story. Even well-trained chiefs or PIOs who give media interviews or speak publicly almost daily sometimes find themselves reviewing a news piece for which they were interviewed—and then asking what went wrong.
Agencies frequently seek the easy way out by blaming the reporter, only to see it happen again the next time with a different reporter. The solution is not to ignore the media or to try to hand-pick reporters but to learn to deliver a clear, unmistakable message. People who speak to the media must manage their message.
Why Manage the Message?
The law enforcement message is too important to become lost in the clutter of softer news. This message concerns security for the community and safety for an agency’s officers. What an agency says and how it says it directly affects the public’s confidence in and support of that agency. This public support in turn affects the opinions of the elected officials who set budgets and salaries. Whether an agency has the people, training, and equipment to achieve its mission safely and effectively may indeed depend on community support—which itself often depends on how well the department manages its message.
To enter into a media interview, a city council presentation, or even a speech to the local Rotary club without a focused message is to give responsibility for that message to someone else: the listener, who may not have the agency’s best interests in mind.
Taking responsibility for the message requires a strategy for managing the message. The appropriate message may not be the initial focus of the reporter or the audience, but competent spokespersons make sure their audiences are left with no doubt about what the agency believes to be important.
Defining the Message
The message is what the agency deems important: what does the chief, the PIO, or another spokesperson want people to know? Does the agency have timely crime prevention information? Can it reassure the community that a certain investigation is indeed a priority? Can it explain how officer training best serves community safety?
The first step in the preparation for any media encounter is for the spokesperson to stop and think—what is the message?
Studies show that the public appreciates
four important qualities in their government
- Empathy and caring
- Competence and expertise
- Honesty and openness
- Commitment and dedication
A study undertaken by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, based in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was discussed at a recent IACP PIO training conference. The study reveals something most law enforcement audiences find surprising. The message people most want to hear from their government officials (including police) is one of empathy.1
Citizens want to know that officials care about the safety and security of their families, neighborhoods, streets, workplaces, parks, schools, and downtown area. As PIOs begin to craft a message, they should bear in mind that most messages should begin and end with statements that show empathy.
For example, a series of car burglaries in a neighborhood may make news. The message could begin with an empathetic statement that shows that the speaker and the police department understand the difficulties faced by the victims. The statement does not have to be profound or emotional; it needs simply to make clear that the agency understands how the victims and the community feel about this crime. An example might sound like this: “We understand this has been a difficult morning for residents in this neighborhood. To wake up and find your car has been broken into is something no one wants.”
The fact that law enforcement agencies care about their communities is at the heart of the law enforcement mission. Officers are also residents of the community; their children go to the same schools and enjoy the same parks as other residents. By effectively letting the community know that its law enforcement officers care, the audience will be touched and will therefore be more likely to listen to whatever else the spokesperson has to say.
Competence and Commitment
Today, law enforcement agencies are better trained and equipped than ever before. Obtaining that expertise is part of the law enforcement commitment to community safety. The community needs to know this.
Continuing with the example of the vehicle burglaries, the spokesperson could go on to say, “Our officers have been here since the first citizen call came in early this morning. We have our best team out here searching for evidence. We’re doing all we can to find whoever did this.”
Statements that ask for the public’s help or offer useful advice are also welcome. They send the message that public safety is a concern that involves the entire community and that everyone benefits from community vigilance and assistance. In appropriate cases, asking residents to watch for a suspect vehicle or advising them on how to be alert in their neighborhood can help them feel reassured and empowered and take away some of the fear or helplessness that they may feel after a random crime (see figure 1).
It is important to deliver crime prevention information in such a way that does not blame the victim: “What happened here today is a good reminder for all of us to lock our cars.” This is much better than saying, “If these people had locked their cars, they wouldn’t have been burglarized.” It may be essentially the same message, but the first example will be much better received.
Reach Out, Rehearse, Repeat
The Boise Police Department uses a catchphrase to help remember how to deliver a message: reach out, rehearse, repeat.
First, reach out to the community. Does the message concern crime prevention? Is it a plea for tips on a high-priority investigation to help find answers for the victims and their families? It is important to assess how an agency can reach out to the community with these important messages.
Next, the speakers need to rehearse the message. It helps to write the message down in two or three bullet points and then to practice delivering the same message two or three different ways. Many officers sit in their patrol car for a few minutes to prepare the message and then repeat it to themselves over and over again. Mock interviews are also a good rehearsal technique. Television news reporters never go on the air without writing and practicing what they are going to say first—neither should a law enforcement spokesperson.
Speakers should repeat their message as often as possible during the interview. Often, people do not hear the message the first time it is spoken. They might hear it the second time, but it can frequently take three or more times to ensure that listeners truly understand the message. When spokespersons feel they are being repetitive, that is usually the point at which the audience actually begins to hear the message!
The Boise Police Department experienced this phenomenon when a reporter had questions about the response to a certain incident. The department felt it had a good message, one that it wanted the community to hear, and the department spokesperson prepared and rehearsed the message prior to the interview. However, during the interview the spokesperson dutifully answered all the reporter’s questions, which, since the reporter was not an expert on police issues, covered various issues that only marginally related to the message. Over the course of the interview, the spokesperson gave the actual message only once. As a result, in the story that aired on a local television channel that night, the message did not come through clearly. The message was not repeated often enough for the reporter to understand or even hear it. The spokesperson had failed to help the reporter focus the story. The department had not taken responsibility for its message and lost a valuable opportunity.
Reporters often end interviews with an open-ended question such as, “Anything else you want to add?” This is an opportunity to repeat the message once again.
But what if the reporters never ask the right question? What if they never say, “So, Chief, what’s your message?” The fact is that they will not ask for the message. The astute spokesperson gives it anyway.
For example, if the question is, “Officer, do you have any suspects?” the answer could simply be “No.” But a more carefully managed response might be, “No, we don’t at this time, but we have all available resources working on this case. We’re asking anyone with any information to please call, because finding the perpetrator is a priority for our department. We understand that this has been extremely difficult on the victims who were targeted, and we’re looking for answers for them and this community.”
But what if the spokesperson forgets the message? When faced with a television camera or an impatient stare from a newspaper reporter, or when the mayor unexpectedly hands over the microphone, it is reasonable to feel nervous. This is where rehearsal and preparation come in. Prepared spokespersons write down their message points, carry them into the interview, and glance at them quickly if needed. They understand that the message is important enough to deliver properly and effectively, despite their own anxiety or the need to field off-the-wall questions.
The Message Is Too Important
In the modern world, the public is bombarded with sophisticated messages hundreds of times a day from dozens of different directions. Local law enforcement agencies have an important message that the community truly wants and needs to hear.
It must be remembered that people will form their own opinions and reporters will take varied angles on stories. But managing the message allows law enforcement spokespersons to provide focus to an issue, cutting through the clutter and educating the community on the good work done in the agency.
During a media interview, keep in mind that the reporter is not the audience. The audience is the community, an agency’s employees, the mayor and city council, and crime victims and their families. Taking the time to reach out to them with messages of caring, competence, honesty, and commitment is good for the agency and good for the community.■
1“The Psychology of Messaging,” presentation by Ron Edmond, senior technical specialist, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, at the IACP PIO Section Mid-Year Conference in Arlington, Virginia, April 21, 2006.