Public Safety Media Relations: 6 Tips for Working with Journalists

You pull up to a scene and before you are even out your vehicle, you see the media huddled outside, waiting to shout questions. Already you feel the irritation rising in your chest. You’re trying to size-up the incident and decide on next steps, and they’re getting in the way—again.

The tension between media and first responders is natural, but it’s important to remember you both have a job to do—and both roles are important. You both serve the public. And remember, the Founding Fathers believed a free press was so important they called it out in the Constitution.

Keep in mind the media also help document history. Memories we have of important local, regional and national events—from flooding to heroic rescues to 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing—have been created by the photographers, videographers and reporters who captured those dramatic moments.

And while many of the partisan personalities that pass for journalists on national television may be making their mark with bad behavior, they have little in common with your neighbor who works for the local television station or newspaper.

So, those media members who are waiting for you as you arrive on scene? They really aren’t there to make your life miserable. They’re there to do their jobs, and here are a few things they wish you knew about public safety media relations:

#1: They aren’t the enemy.

Most media members are hard-working people who take their jobs seriously and don’t make much money. Sure, some are looking to make a name for themselves and move up the career ladder, but the vast majority got into the work because they believe it is important, they care about their community and they are passionate about telling stories.

#2: Help them get what they need, and they’ll work with you.

Videographers and photographers need to get the images—the burning building, the rescue, something that sets the scene—to help tell their story. If you allow them to get what they need, they will be much more likely to adhere to the guidelines you set for them. If you try to block them or prevent them from getting good photos, they’ll work around you, and that will just make your job harder. Give them access, even if it’s limited. If you can’t give provide access immediately, tell them you are working on it and when they can expect it. Treat them with respect, and the odds are good they will do the same for you.

#3: Never try to hide information or shut the media down.

Doing so will only make reporters more determined to get what they need and may suggest you are doing something wrong. It doesn’t help you to make the relationship adversarial. 

What may seem pushy to you is just somebody trying to finish their assignment. Even if you can only give them a little information, that will help.

#4: They report to a boss, and they are on deadline.

Journalists have a limited time to file their stories. What may seem pushy to you is just somebody trying to finish their assignment. Even if you can only give them a little information, that will help. Remember that even small details help too—they are key to helping the reporter tell an authentic story.

#5: Forgive the dumb questions.

They aren’t the experts, so they may ask about something you think is obvious. Keep in mind you work in one area—fire or policing—every day. Journalists may be at a crime scene one moment, a school board meeting the next and a complicated legal hearing after that. They need to know a little about a lot, and they need to be able to translate what you tell them into language the average person will understand. Another possibility to consider: Sometimes journalists ask “dumb” questions because they know their viewers and readers likely need more explanation, and they know the message will be more compelling coming from a fire or law enforcement official.

#6: They can help if you keep the lines of communication open.

Do you need help finding out who set a string of incendiary fires? Lean on the media to get the word out and give community members a place to call or email if they have information that could help. You’ll likely get better coverage if you are willing to have a police or fire official be interviewed on camera, and if you have photos of the fire scene. Photos tell a more memorable story, which can increase the tips you get.

With public safety media relations, you’ll have much more success if you commit to working with the media, not against it. They are the eyes and ears of your community in many ways. Once they know you will shoot straight with them and are responsive to what they need (as much as you can be), they’ll respect you and be easier to work with. Sure, journalists are going to annoy you from time to time, but they can help you if you take the time to work with them.

Connie McNamara

Connie McNamara is a founding partner of Preparedness Global and has more than 30 years of experience in strategic communication and crisis response. McNamara has served as a senior leader in a variety of organizations and has handled communications around complex situations involving natural disasters, finance and civil and criminal investigations. A former journalist, she has presented on communications at national and international conferences.

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