9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Film at 11: How to Handle Media Inquiries, Part 2

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazaine July 2007
Written by Bob Smith
This is the second article in a two-part series dealing with the relationship between comm centers and the media. This month, we talk about management-and-agency-level media relations.

Today's culture revolves around a 24-hour news cycle. The need for fast, regular news and constant updates sometimes makes it difficult for public safety agencies to rely on written press releases and press conferences scheduled days in advance. As the public's need for information grows, public safety must adapt while still securing the agency's vital data.

Many public safety entities view the media as an adversary and maintain a policy of releasing information only when required by law. In recent years, however, it has become apparent that media attention can benefit both journalists and the public safety agency. Journalists benefit from having a known, knowledgeable source to call on when they need background information of a comment on a breaking story. Public safety agencies benefit from having regular, positive exposure in the local media.

If you've built an honest relationship with journalists, they'll be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to respond when a call goes bad. Consider the alternative. If the only time your agency is mentioned in the press is during a crisis, then the public is likely to develop a negative attitude toward your agency.

Public safety agencies are often supported by property taxes, local sales taxes or other government revenue sources. A public that has a negative--or even neutral--view of your agency can vote against comm center funding measures, such as tax increases and bond or levy issues. This can keep your agency's staffing levels low, equipment old and working conditions substandard, as well as prevent salary increases.

A dissatisfied public is much more apt to file lawsuits or other legal actions. If the community thinks the agency is substandard or unlikely to respond quickly, they may not call to report crimes, suspicious people, etc. They may take matters into their own hands or be afraid to leave their homes. When the public doesn't lend a hand, crime increases and quality of life decreases.

In compliance with the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and its Incident Command System (ICS) component, many agencies have appointed a public information officer (PIO) to serve as a direct liaison to the media and other outside entities. Whether the role of PIO is the sole responsibility of the individual or a single component of a more comprehensive job description, it's vital that the PIO be aware of the issues and intricacies of dealing with the many facets of media coverage, including deadlines for print and televised media outlets, and audio/video needs for online-and television-based media.

A few things to keep in mind when communicating with the media as an agency respresentative: Make sure that you know the informatioin you need to convey and that you're comfortable with public speaking before you take the lectern. Most mistakes are made by those not prepared to speak. Review your comments ahead of time. It's not necessary to memorize your notes word for word, but be familiar enough with the message that you can avoid reading your notes and easily find your place if you're distracted by a question or comment.

Use plain English, and be prepared to offer detailed explanations. Media outlets have specific audiences that are not public safety personnel and that are likely unfamiliar with public safety terminology and operational issues.

Be confident and honest. If you don't know the answer to a question or if you're asked a question you need to get some guidance on, respond that you'd like to answer that question after you do some research, or something similar. Don't try to make up an answer on the spot. Also, avoid saying "No comment." This phrase tends to convey an unwillingness to cooperate or an attempt to hide something. If the question deals with something that needs to remain confidential, then express that as a reason for not answering a question. Most journalists today are aware that public safety needs to maintain confidentiality in some areas and will accept this answer if it's explained to them adequately.

If your agency intends to make statistical information available, provide it in written form for distribution at a press conference or as supplemental information to a press release. Try to meet the needs of thet media. If you're dealing with print or television media outlets, be familiar with their deadlines and try to hold press conferences and issue press releases at times that accommodate those deadlines.

The bottom line: Dealing with the media can no longer be viewed as a chore that public safety must endure when a major incident happens. In fact, incidents can rapidly be thrust into the national spotlight. The tone of the media attention and the information offered during these incidents will reflect directly on the agencies involved, including the comm center. A PIO can ensure media relations are mutually beneficial arrangements. Media outlets can fulfill the public's need for information, and the comm center can ensure the proper message is being broadcast and that its agency is being shown as offering the most professional services possible to the citizens it serves.

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