Agencies need the ability to kill bad stories and to accomplish operational goals.
Reluctance to engage the media shows fear and a lack of confidence. It doesn’t get us to where we need to be.
We are honorable people doing honorable jobs. Why isn’t that story being told?
The number of law enforcement personnel reached a peak of 724,690 in 2013. Police departments lost 23,500 officers over the next three years, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many departing officers counsel friends and family members to find another career path, Pew. The same is happening in corrections.
First of two articles on improving media relations.
I’ve been involved in media relations for over thirty-five years for law enforcement and criminal justice agencies at the national and state levels. I’m a former cop. I’ve seen everything from police-involved shootings to emergency management to prison riots. I wrote a book about my experiences, “Success With the Media,” available at Amazon and a variety of booksellers.
I understand that most of us in the justice system don’t like or are mistrustful of the media. My book offers a subtitle, “Surviving Reporters and Your Organization,” simply because of our skepticism and reluctance to engage.
I understand that internal wariness is valid to some degree regarding inaccurate news stories. You’re not alone; there are a variety of polls indicating that the public holds the media in fairly low regard.
When I wrote, “The Media Is Not Our Enemy,” I got blasted by cops and others who thought I was nuts. They said as much via email and social media. We seem willing to declare a war that we are bound to lose.
There’s little to be gained by needless confrontations with reporters and their management. I have said, “Thou shall not ‘p’ off the media needlessly. Reporters are no different than cops; they simply want to do their jobs without unnecessary drama. If we defend and explain, most are willing to listen.”
Dysfunctional discourse is harmful to our cause. There are ways to conduct business that protects us and respects journalism. It’s not that hard to do.
Violent Crime Reduction
The US Department of Justice just released the “Violent Crime Reduction Operations Guide,” to examine the components of successful crime control projects, Bureau of Justice Assistance.
What’s interesting is the document’s incessant call for improved media and public relations. Proactive outreach is embedded throughout the document.
It acknowledges a basic tenant of criminology; the public needs to be involved and take ownership of crime problems.
The premise is that savvy media relations can help us control crime, kill bad stories, improve our public relations and accomplish operational goals.
Our unenthusiastic views of the media can be both valid and contradictory to the goals we pursue. There are times that require discretion. But we want and need the public’s support.
We want funds for a well-trained and properly paid officers. We desire citizen input in criminal investigations. We want the community we serve to understand who we are and what we do. We want criticism to be measured and based on trust.
Can we get what we want while having constructive interactions with the media and public? I believe we can.
We now have tools at our disposal to communicate directly with the public. Websites, audio and video, podcasts, self-created television and radio shows, photography and social media allow us to tell our story unfiltered. I used these tools extensively. I introduced the first audio and video podcast series in government and had great success with numerous national and regional awards.
We now control our own proactive destiny “if” we are fair and are committed to honesty, not advocacy, and by telling both sides of the story. I would book critics on my audio podcasts thus giving them an unfiltered forum. It always turned out to be a reasonable discussion; it lessened the hostility.
Dismissing The Media
Dismissing the media is foolhardy. They have the ability to put us on the front page of the newspaper or to be featured in television or radio reports with positive stories.
They also have the ability to make our lives miserable for months or years. There are endless examples.
Being on the front page of the Washington Post allowed me to “talk” to hundreds of thousands of people. Being on radio talk shows helped me reach many more. I was on television often. Although many of the questions were daunting, and more than once I got a bit flustered, most worked to our benefit.
I want the public to know that we are honorable people doing an honorable job. Being “out there” makes us unafraid of issues; it gains us respect. We may make mistakes from time to time, but we are trustworthy people who were worthy of the benefit of doubt.
Print reporters understand that they can write what they want, but they do so with the knowledge that I can be on television, radio and talk news shows the same day with “clarifications.” We are not defenseless.
The public and the media come to an understanding as to who we are and what we do. That consensus is often shaped by our willingness to engage.
The most important benefit of media and public relations is deniability. We in justice agencies have our fair share of detractors.
When something negative happens, they will exaggerate or simply lie. Having the ability to talk freely and a reputation for fairness and objectivity allows you the ability to stop a false story or to put it into context. I’ve killed hundreds of false narratives simply by saying that I knew the circumstances of the case and the allegations simply were not true. Many other stories were significantly modified. What looked like a disaster simply wasn’t.
No reporter wants to get his or her facts wrong. Having an open dialog saved many from writing false stories. Everyone wins.
But They Have to Trust You
To get the support we need, we have to communicate. We have to be transparent. We have to be available. We have to be honest. We have to know our facts. Like salespeople facing an objection, negatives are opportunities for clarity.
But to get this much trust, you have to be trustworthy, and honest enough to admit wrongdoing.
You have to be an advocate for the media when warranted. To get fairness, you have to give it.
Most reporters appreciate you being a reliable partner in co-producing a story.
When things go south, getting all negatives out as soon as possible builds credibility. People within the agency will question your sanity, but it will pay off in the long run.
You’re not there to win every battle; you’re there to win the war.
What I offer here scrapes the surface. There’s much more to know both philosophical and tactical. There needs to be a rededication to good media relations. It’s in our best interest.
There also needs to be a new breed of skilled and knowledgeable public affairs officers who have the trust of superiors and rank and file. They need to know content creation, social media and agency issues.
If you follow my writings, you know that I and many others are frustrated by negative news and what it means to our mission, recruitment, retention, crime control, and our overall morale.
We need to be very smart as to our media and public relations. There are endless tactics that I advocate that seem counterintuitive at first, but they pay off in the long run.
The bottom line is our ability to accomplish our goals. We do that by being aggressively proactive with self-created products. We do that by talking to reporters.
I’ve been in the justice system most of my adult life and the men and women I’ve met are impressive, committed individuals. We are honorable people doing an honorable job. It’s a story we need to tell.
Hiding from the media and public shows fear and a lack of confidence in ourselves. It doesn’t get us to where we need to be.
Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Former advisor to the “McGruff-Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. Aspiring drummer. You can contact me at [email protected]