Press Conferences-Lessons Learned
March of 2009 has seen another rash of active shooter tragedies, and the resulting crunch of national media coverage. These events along with high profile missing persons cases, child abductions, and other sensational events often thrust small town departments and agencies into the media spotlight.
As a consultant, it’s always interesting to see how these departments respond to the pressures. As part of our process, we often record press conferences and make notes on how the crisis was handled. For those in the business, this can go well beyond a simple critique of performance and drill into detailed cataloging of which reporters were on site, lines of questioning, source tracking, etc.
While this kind of attention to detail is great for consultants, there is a lot of value in reviewing these press conferences as part of an inexpensive training program for any Public Information Officer. In effect, you can create a simple after action review of these media interactions, and take away important lessons from them.
Try this simple exercise to help you quickly see how valuable this can be.
YouTube As a Training Tool
Go to YouTube.com and type in a search for things like “Police Press Conference”. It’s helpful if you can find examples that are similar in size and scope to your own organization. If you run a County Sheriff’s Office, you may learn something from watching an FBI Press Conference, but you’ll glean a lot more from watching another Sheriff struggle with the sudden exposure of a major case.
Once you’ve found something suitable, sit down with two or three co-workers and ask them to take notes on what they thought was great, and what they think could have been improved on.
You’ll quickly get a nice list of things to consider. Now, you may be tempted to think that this input is meaningless. After all, it’s just coming from another deputy or a secretary from the office, not a media consultant.
One of the things that we stress to clients is that everyone watches television. In a way, we’re all “experts”. People usually know what represents a good press conference performance, without a lot of formal training. Sure, experts can provide a lot more detail, but for the average small department, you don’t need that last 10% of coaching. You need to be certain that your PIO or spokesman can handle a press conference, even a high profile one with confidence.
Here is a short list of things that you’ll likely find on your makeshift critiques:
- Clothes make the man (or woman)- It’s important that the PIO or spokesperson dress professionally and present a strong public image. If you’re going to wear a uniform, make sure that it would pass an academy inspection. Avoid wearing badges, ID lanyards, etc. that may reflect light or distract viewers. Avoid clothing with tight patterns. These may cause a camera condition called “moire“.
- Accent your department, not your region-All too often spokespersons are chosen on the basis of rank, political importance, or other factors. Instead, evaluate your spokespersons for speaking ability (avoid regional accents like the plague!), appearance, poise, and confidence. To be effective, a spokesperson has to be knowledgeable of the facts, and the objectives of the press conference. They don’t have to be in charge, or hold a high position.
- Just the facts, Ma’am- Often people feel pressured to provide an answer to every question that a reporter asks. Not only is this not necessary, it may not meet your own objectives. In an ongoing investigation, some facts about the case need to be kept private. Victims often cannot (and should not) be named until next of kin notifications are completed. Don’t allow yourself to be tempted to speculate. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t have that answer”.
- The Boy Scouts were right-”Be Prepared” is still the best motto. Before you hold a press conference, make sure that you’re prepared to do so. Ask yourself, “Why am I holding this press conference?” ” or “What do I want to accomplish with this press conference?” Anticipate the type of questions that you’ll be asked, and be prepared to respond. We often advise clients to hold a “mock” press conference witih co-workers prior to the actual one. This type of red-teaming exercise helps to identify weaknesses in your preperation, and gets the PIO up to game speed.
- Be your own critic-Understand that everything you say in the glare of the public spotlight will be critiqued later. If an investigation drags on, every statement will be taken apart and speculated on by both the media and armchair detectives on blogs around the country. When you’re considering who to chose as a spokesperson, be critical and honest about those choices. The local Sheriff may be a great lawman, and well liked by his community, but if he’s got a Southern drawl and fourty extra pounds, he may come off badly on camera. Many men in this position feel that they must take on the role of PIO to avoid being seen as weak or not in control. Quite the opposite usually happens. If you and your department come off badly on TV, that’s what folks will remember. Good leaders know how to chose the right person for any mission, including being the PIO.
- Don’t let them see behind the curtain- If a press conference is being carried “live” or if you’re unsure, then avoid doing any housekeeping chores from the podium. For instance, telling reporters that they can get some nice “B-Roll footage of our command center” after the briefing is fine in private, but it will come off as self-serving if you do it from the podium and it’s carried live. This is why we encourage PIO’s to build strong relationships with the media in advance of any crisis.
- It’s the mission, stupid-As PIO or spokesperson, a part of your job is to help put forth the best image for your department. You may also have other political sensitivites that you need to pay attention to. But the public doesn’t want to reminded of those. Focus on the mission at hand. Find the missing child. Catch the bad guy. Calm the community. There may be other items on your “to do” list, but keep those to yourself.
- Know when you’re out of your league- Most fire chiefs wouldn’t dream of trying to analyze an accelerant using a department store chemistry set. They rely on experts for tasks that are beyond their day to day duties. Dealing with a sudden influx of national media attention is no exception. While you may be forced to “triage” such an event, consider hiring a media consultant, public relations firm, or other professionals early in the process to assist you. Even better, obtain media training for your PIO’s and retain a firm if your budget will allow it.
Manage The Media
We often tell clients, “Either you manage the media, or they’ll manage you”. This doesn’t mean shutting off the flow of information, or remaining tight lipped over every detail of the event. Contrary to what some believe, the public really does have a right to know. In a democracy, the press serves a vital function and should be respected for the service they provide to all of us.
But their objectives are often very different from those in the public sector. It may be vital to your investigation to hold certain facts in confidence. You have a responsibility to determine the facts and take appropriate actions before releasing other information…but to the extent possible, you should strive to work with the press, not against them.
Understand that they have a job to do as well. A service that is just as vital as your own. They are not the enemy, but rather an important safeguard for the public good. Strike a balance, and above all else, manage the flow of information. Correct misprints, or false information at the earliest opprotunity. Monitor coverage of the event, and hold reporters accountable for what they report. When errors are made, insist that they be corrected.
The best Public Information Officers are those who establish relationships with the media prior to a major event. Take time to get to know the reporters who cover your agency or business. Keep track of those whose reporting is fair and accurate. (Notice that we didn’t say “flattering” or “positive”)
Reward the reporters who do a great job. Consider granting them exclusives whenever possible, or providing them with some unique access for a feature story. Feature stories may provide a “behind the scenes” look at your crime lab, or a sneak peek inside your fancy new mobile command center. These types of stories help fill in during slow news cycles, and can be an image booster for your department.
Building these relatioships during quiet periods can make managing a media firestorm much easier in the future. Those same reporters know that they can count on you to provide them with straight information, and you can have confidence that they’ll be responsible in their coverage. Even in a story that gains national attention, the “first responders” from the media are likely to be those same television and print reporters that cover your agency locally. Get to know them now.
Don’t disregard correspondents from non-traditional media outlets either. A “blogger” who covers your local community can be just as vital an ally as a TV anchor. The editor of a college newspaper can become suddenly very important if there is an on-campus incident.
Training for the Unthinkable
Most small town police officers will never face an active shooter scenario. Most fire fighters will never encounter a bioterrorism scene. Most hospitals will never face a hazmat decontamination. But chances are that you’ve trained for these events, even though the possibility of having to deal with one seems remote.
Why? Because when these events do occur, the magnitude to the community is so great, that you can’t afford not to train for them. The same is true of a fast breaking, national media event. Chances are that you’ll never get that phone call from Fox News, or have to face Nancy Grace on CNN…but if you do, your performance will affect everything that follows.
Entire investigations can be cast in doubt by a few misspoken words during an impromput press conference. Citizens may take inappropriate actions that jeprodize their own safety because your messaging wasn’t clear and concise. Most of the time, the job of a PIO or spokesperson is routine, but on these occassions, it can suddenly be the most important job of all. Take the time to prepare to do it well.
So, the next time you see someone at a department, agency, or business like your own confronting those cameras, stop and listen. Pay close attention to what they’re doing well and what they do poorly. Resolve to do better if you’re faced with the same situation.