When the Headline Is You: IACP 2016 Session Recap

By Shannon Pieper

Few law enforcement leaders cherish the media spotlight, and many can share examples of things they or other officers said when questioned by reporters that they later deeply regretted. That’s why media relations and crisis communications remains a hot topic at law enforcement conferences.

IACP 2016, which kicked off on Thursday in San Diego, is no exception. One of the Saturday morning sessions featured Jeff Ansell, a media and crisis communications adviser and former investigative journalist, speaking on the topic, “When the Headline Is You.”

“Law enforcement today is challenged as never before,” Ansell noted, citing the recent murders of two Palm Springs officers. “Your judgement is in question.”

As a former journalist, Ansell isn’t out to blame the media for everything. But he argues that they have a powerful effect on how law enforcement is perceived. “Media set the agenda. If a story is accurate, it’s a happy coincidence,” he says. “Your role in the narrative has been defined for you.”

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To illustrate how difficult it can be to speak with the media when they’re bent on creating a certain narrative, Ansell brought up an audience member, Chief Lianne Tuomey of the University of Vermont Police Department, and had a reporter call in and interview the chief on the spot. Chief Tuomey kept her cool and did a great job, but at the end of the presentation, the reporter was back on the line, playing the story he’d written for a fictional radio show. Although he accurately quoted Chief Tuomey, he also took some of her quotes out of context, twisting them to make it seem, for example, that she supported Black Lives Matter and even calling into question whether she was an active user of illegal drugs.

This exercise served to underscore Anselle’s main message: “At the best of times, talking to reporters is an unnatural dynamic. When you talk to the media in controversial situations, you have to expect curve-ball questions.”

And that means law enforcement leaders must train and prepare to succeed during aggressive interviews.

Preparation starts with understanding the reporter’s situation. Ansell notes that most news organizations are severely under budgeted, and reporters are expected to provide audio, video, an online story and a longer piece for print. As a result, they’re rushing, which leads them to use time-saving measures such as looking for black-and-white themes (e.g., good vs. evil) and casting people in the stories as familiar characters – the villain, the hero, the village idiot, the witness.

“Context and perspective can be casualties of the reporting process,” Ansell says. “In the court of public opinion, in the battle between fact and emotion, emotion always wins. Ignore emotion at your peril.”

Next, learn to frame your messages so you gain control of the narrative. Messages must:
-Show an appropriate level of concern for the situation. “If bad news happens on your watch, you need to be the one who’s most concerned, angry, etc.,” Ansell says. “First of all, because it’s the right thing to do. And second of all, because it makes the problem go away.”
-Convey accountability. Don’t shirk the blame or try to lay it on anyone else. Take responsibility in a forthcoming way.
-Be honest. Although Ansell stresses that honesty isn’t enough when talking with the media, he also underscores that it is essential to be honest.

Ansell also recommends the problem/solution formula: If possible, use one sentence that both identifies the problem but also gives the solution. This makes it more likely that your comments on the solution won’t be edited out of the story. “Penetrate the media edit,” Ansell says.

Other tips:
-Don’t answer in half-sentences, because these can be unclear when quoted or allow the reporter to insert their own words to introduce the quote, thus controlling the context.
-Consciously control your breathing during the interview. Try to slow down your breathing, and breathe in and out of your nose if possible.
-Slow down. “Speaking slowly allows you to come across as thoughtful and measured, and gives us greater control over our words,” Ansell says.
-Don’t repeat the same message over and over. This tactic erodes trust and makes it seem like you’re hiding something.
-Think about what you’re actually being asked. Ansell notes that aggressive questions such as “Are your officers trigger happy?” “Why are there so many bad cops?” or “Is your department racist?” are actually opportunities to comment on much deeper issues. He calls this the iceberg model. “When you approach an iceberg, you only see about 7% of it. But it’s the 93% that you don’t see that will hurt you,” Ansell says. Anticipating what issue the reporter is really trying to get at can lead you to reframe your answers so that you’re not responding defensively to an aggressive question but rather taking the opportunity to talk about how your department is working positively on the particular issue at hand.

Now, imagine a reporter accosts you on the street, shoves a microphone into your face and asks, “Is there blood on your hands?” Are you prepared to respond? Will you be able to bring the conversation around to the positive work your department does in the community, while also acknowledging any wrong-doing in an honest, authentic, empathetic way?

Remember: First, breathe.

Shannon Pieper is director of Marketing Communications for Lexipol. 

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