For about six years, I served as a police public information officer (PIO) in the metro Detroit area. The personal and professional lessons that came from this role are as abundant as coffee is on a midnight shift. Please join me as a I recount six “lessons learned” from the world of police media relations.
1. The single most important lesson is that communications, like police work, should come from a place of genuine care and concern for the community, the customer, the people that you serve. Communications efforts, and communicators themselves, should be rooted in understanding of the community or the people you are otherwise trying to reach. This includes embracing the fact that people want to know, need to know and may even have a right to know what’s happening in your organization.
2. “That’s not what I heard.” Information travels fast, and so does misinformation. Whether it’s about vandalism at the local high school or a tragic crime, getting the facts out quickly helps avert speculation, fear and even chaos. The motivation for speed should come from a place of truth and transparency, however, rather than “controlling the narrative.” Invest time to build social media PRIOR to a crisis, so that you can use it to spread facts when needed.
3. Don’t get mad, get newsworthy. Are the news media too busy covering crime and disorder? The reality is that the news covers humanity, good or bad. Find the human element in the stories you pitch to the media, and you may have better results “competing” against the crime-related stories that can dominate the news.
4. Reporters are people too. We all know people that think of reporters as enemy operatives for one side or another. As the PR pros, it may now be part of our job to advocate for journalism and the continued free flow of information. My frequent dealings with local media bolstered my faith in their integrity and professionalism. Crime related-stories are full of easy opportunities to embarrass or exploit in the interest of entertainment, and most reporters truly pass on this most of the time.
5. You never know when something newsworthy is going to happen. A media-worthy event can strike at anytime, anywhere. If you are an on-camera spokesperson, you better be ready or at least have a back-up that can step in on the days you are having a really bad hair day. While most people are likely more interested in facts than hairstyles, being and looking professional in unexpected circumstances is part of the gig.
6. “Look ma, I’m on TV!” Being an on-camera spokesperson is “not about you,” it’s about conveying information from your organization as accurately and professionally as possible. Nevertheless, there may be some people fascinated with the perceived opportunity for fame and self-promotion. Try to keep these people out of this role or risk damage to your organization or client.
Meghan Lehman, APR, is a non-profit communications director in the Detroit area and a former police public information officer and social media manager.