Another crisis management expert in a different venue recently offered multiple practical pointers on handling mainstream media in the face of a potentially incendiary use of force, like an officer-involved shooting.
“Any OIS–no matter how righteous–is going to be a critical incident for your organization,” said Rick Rosenthal, president of RAR Communications. “When the media come knocking, you have only one choice: DWI–Deal with It.
“Engagement is inevitable,” he said. But depending on your approach, “victory will be optional.”
A leading consultant on the media for North American law enforcement, Rosenthal was on the faculty last month when the Force Science Institute launched its two-day course on Body Cameras & Other Recordings at its Training Center near Chicago’s O’Hare airport.
Much of his two-hour presentation to the capacity crowd dealt with the “worst-case scenario,” when camera footage seems to confirm that an officer’s use of deadly force was unjustified. Other speakers explored in depth the legal, technical, and human performance factors that should guide efforts to dig out the truth during an investigation. Rosenthal confronted how to meet media demands–for “information, sound bites, and pictures”–in the meantime, across three phases of “an ugly situation.”
“The instant when mainstream and social media find out about an incident, that’s ignition–the clock has started,” Rosenthal said. “The longer you wait to respond, the longer you give them time to beat you with sticks.”
Within two hours maximum, your agency should have a “full-dress, indoor news conference,” complete with lectern (“don’t meet the press sitting”), flags (“to enhance the overall professional appearance of the speaker”), and a photographically desirable background (no vending machines or other eyesores; “watch your back”), in a facility with ample parking.
“In an ugly situation, the on-camera spokesperson must be the top person in the agency,” Rosenthal advised, “dressed in civilian clothes to separate him or her from the uniform. (In good situations–cops rescuing people from a burning building–that’s when to wear the uniform.)”
Confer with your legal advisor about what details can and can’t be released, but in an ugly situation at least acknowledge that “what appears in the video is extremely disturbing.” That’s not the same as agreeing that whatever seems to have gone wrong did go wrong.
In lieu of incident details, talk about the process that will ensue.
“Voice your care and concern about what happened and your commitment to a thorough, chips-fall-where-they-may investigation, in cooperation with an outside agency,” Rosenthal suggested. “Tell them, ‘Whatever the findings and conclusions, I will be back here reporting to you on the outcome and what actions I will take as a result.’
“Don’t just deliver your statement and refuse to take questions. But spend time in advance crafting answers to the five questions you most fear the media will ask. Even if you really can’t do much more at this stage than talk about the process and the three Cs (care, concern, and commitment), that’s better than a stonewalling ‘No comment.’
“The greater the degree of threat you’re facing, the greater your preparation should be. And in your statement and in answering questions, don’t try to ‘spin’ the facts and never speculate about what happened.”
While investigators are working to reconstruct the incident, someone other than the top administrator should deal with the media, Rosenthal said. Even in lieu of an official PIO, someone who’s articulate, personable, and enthusiastic about the job should be appointed to supply the media with information.
This contact should be as forthcoming as possible with reporters but “help them understand that while the investigation continues to be the agency’s top priority, there are some things that can’t be released right now. Let them know that you understand they’re in a hurry, but emphasize that ‘We’re going to do it right and then do it fast, not the other way around.’ ”
Of course, the quicker you can legitimately move through this phase, the better “since that cuts down on the amount of time your critics can attack you, and minimizes innuendo, hearsay, and speculation,” Rosenthal said.
When results of the investigation are known, their announcement requires another full-dress news conference, with the top boss again in charge, Rosenthal said. How evidence was collected and analyzed and what conclusions were reached should be fully explained.
“If the officer involved was wrong, he’s punished–disciplined, reassigned to a less sensitive position, or dismissed–for the good of the agency,” Rosenthal advised. “In an ugly situation, if you’ve messed up, you ‘fess up–and then explain what’s going to be different in the future to prevent a recurrence.”
During his animated presentation, Rosenthal cited an engrossing example of “masterful media relations” involving a West Coast sheriff who faced an angry community after deputies fired 120 rounds at an unarmed offender at the end of a wild pursuit in a residential neighborhood, damaging multiple homes and “terrorizing” innocent residents in the fire zone.
After an initial news conference that mirrored the tone and format Rosenthal recommends, the sheriff (with media in tow) personally called door to door in the neighborhood, seeking out homeowner concerns, promising compensation for damage that would be double the actual cost of repairs, and promising results of a thorough investigation within 30 days.
Inevitably the Sharpton-Jackson bandwagon blared into town, but, Rosenthal said, “they never gained traction with the media because the sheriff had skillfully gotten so far out in front of them.”
As Rosenthal told Force Science News, “An ugly situation will rock your boat. But you don’t have to let it sink your boat.”
Rick Rosenthal can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org