By Edward M. Morley, Chief of Police; and Sergeant Martin J. Jacobson, Public Information Officer, Stuart Police Department, Stuart, Florida
s the motto of the Boy Scouts of America advises, law enforcement agencies should always be prepared, whether for a critical incident or for interaction with the media. Even occasional media communication requires preparation, not unlike critical incidents.
The selection and placement of the police public information officer (PIO) is an executive decision that can help an agency disseminate its message; can facilitate better interaction among the agency, the media, and the public; and can help put police administrators at ease when dealing with the media. A full-time PIO may be necessary for large agencies, whereas for small to midsize departments such a position might be considered an unattainable luxury. However, all agencies of every size should ensure that they have staff with the skills and training to work with the media.
In choosing a PIO, administrators should perhaps consider an individual’s ties to the community. The PIO must be able to promote the agency’s value and mission statement. A strong background in police operations is a good foundation, but that does not mean that the PIO must come from the ranks of sworn personnel. PIO candidates should be seen as trustworthy. They should possess good public speaking and report writing skills. Although formal education in journalism is not required, academic and professional experience in the field will certainly help PIOs through some challenging times.
Many PIOs come to the position without formal training, but, fortunately, numerous organizations offer “PIO 101” courses. State organizations such as the Florida Law Enforcement Public Information Officers Association (FLEPIOA; www.flepioa.org) and national organizations such as the National Information Officers Association (NIOA; www.nioa.org) offer ongoing training and seminars throughout the year and advanced educational opportunities at their annual training conferences. Some PIO training is offered free of charge through local PIO associations or law enforcement training consortiums, and many for-profit providers offer seminars and training programs.
Police administrators are offered extensive opportunities to participate in training programs including training offered through the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) National Academy, Southern Police Institute Command Officers Development courses, the Emergency Management Institute (training.fema.gov), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Of course, training offered by the IACP is very highly regarded. Throughout the year and at two conferences annually, the IACP’s PIO Section offers training opportunities covering everything from the basics to the use of the latest technology. In addition, cases made notorious by the media are often reviewed in depth to provide valuable information to attending PIOs. The IACP has also published Best Practices in Law Enforcement Public Information.1
Training prepares PIOs for both extraordinary circumstances and day-to-day activities. One of their most important and enjoyable responsibilities is to act as head cheerleader, seizing opportunities to cast their agency in a positive light while helping the members of the media address their own needs.
Local beat reporters have editors looking over their shoulders the same way sergeants watch over their patrol officers. On slow news days, good PIOs can help reporters by providing feature story ideas such as a D.A.R.E. graduation or National Night Out. PIOs can help place stories that share information about the unsung heroes that fill police ranks. Officers who give of their free time as coaches, scout leaders, mentors, big brothers or sisters, religious leaders, athletes, and role models make great stories that serve the interests of both the agency and the community. These stories help balance tragic news with uplifting stories that boost agency morale and set a positive tone in the community.
Take, for example, the Stuart, Florida, Police Department (46 sworn), located in a midsize media market (the 37th largest in the United States). Local media outlets were told about the off-duty pursuits of a Stuart police officer who competes in long-distance bicycle racing. A superb athlete, this officer holds numerous medals in the sport. The zeal he shares for bicycle safety enables him to secure the donation of hundreds of bicycles and bicycle helmets to children in the community throughout the year while serving as a positive role model.
Another area of focus for PIOs when the media lack hard news is volunteering at the agency. Volunteers come from all walks of life: housewives, retired Fortune 500 company executives, college professors, military retirees, and retired police officers all donate their time and energy to the Stuart Police Department. Sharing information about these generous members of the community with the media honors the volunteers, promotes the agency, and enables media outlets to present some positive news while filling the gaps in their publications or broadcasts.
Anything PIOs can do to assist reporters in doing their job helps the PIO’s agency in the future. A positive relationship between PIOs and reporters will not result in a pass when police misconduct takes place; however, police beat reporters are more likely to listen carefully and present both sides of a story if they can remember that the agency’s PIO came to their rescue on slow news days.
Dealings with the media should not be haphazard or result in a fleeting attempt to pacify some inquiring news outlet. Giving daily attention to the police blotter, getting out the “feel-good stories,” and allowing the media to feel like partners help to remove the adversarial barriers that can be found in numerous jurisdictions. In addition, it is important to share information equally and avoid playing favorites. Providing equal access to all media “partners” avoids any claim of exclusivity or favoritism. The Stuart PIO screens reports daily and releases information to as many as 30 different media outlets, ranging from breaking traffic reports, radio reports, television news, daily and weekly newspapers, and minute-by-minute Internet news updates. To avoid claims of favoritism, everyone receives new information simultaneously by e-mail. Followup calls from news bureaus to the PIO receive responses accordingly.
When the opportunity presents itself, agencies should consider allowing media to participate in the training process. When reviewing the agency’s media communication policy, administrators may wish to include introducing local beat reporters to agency personnel. It is helpful to give media representatives the opportunity to introduce themselves and to share their mission with police personnel. Given a name and a recognizable face, friction at events or crime scenes may be reduced or eliminated. Law enforcement training regarding natural disasters or critical incidents should certainly have a media component in place to reassure the community that its police officers are prepared for such events.
It is also helpful to participate in media roundtables. For instance, the Florida Treasure Coast Law Enforcement Public Information Officers Association is a consortium of radio, television, print media, and public safety information officers that promotes positive working relations between the media and the law enforcement community. Members of this organization meet on the first Friday of the month at 8:30 a.m. Meeting locations are rotated among all participants and vary from month to month.
News organizations sometimes consider different news stories to be more importantthan others. A weekly local paper might be interested in the rash of bicycle thefts in the community, whereas other news sources might not be interested in that crime trend. The arrest of a Hispanic male for driving without a license might not be carried by the daily paper or by radio or television news, but it is of major importance to Spanish-language publications and engenders news for them, especially spinoff articles for their readers on how to obtain a driver’s license.
A Need to Know
The public has an incessant need to know; because someone will step up to meet this need, shouldn’t citizens receive information about law enforcement developments directly from law enforcement agencies, rather than from some thirdparty source? Officers deal with events on a daily basis that are considered routine, but the odd call about an alligator in a swimming pool, the vulture that flew into a resident’s open living room window, or the deeds of the community’s unsung heroes are the stories that the media really want. Taking the time to pass such stories along to media outlets helps to build a partnership with the media and the community and reflects the principles of communityoriented policing.
Although the COP acronym has usually stood for community-oriented policing, it can also mean “champion of people.” The appointment of a police PIO and the implementation of a positive media policy will help media to see agencies less as adversaries and more as partners. Agencies in turn can build a positive and professional relationship with the media, receive assistance in solving crimes, promote positive community relations, recognize the talents of police personnel, and increase their ability to act as true champions of the people.■
1Susan Braunstein and William S. Cheek, eds., Best Practices in Law Enforcement Public Information (Alexandria, Va.: IACP, 2006). To order this publication, see http://www.iacp.org/div_sec_com/sections/PIO/PIOOrder.pdf.