Hands Up! Police learn to manage news media effectively.

Talking to a reporter is way harder than it looks on television.

Real life has real challenges. Life would be much easier for law enforcement if the general public was more cooperative and police could solve crimes in one hour.

Here’s an interview I did recently with the Executive Training Institute / ETI 2017 for my April 25th presentation at Supervisor’s Day –  the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Conference


Thankfully, police officials have a number of tools to make their professions safer and more effective in protecting the public and getting bad guys off the streets.

The most effective tool in a police officer’s kit is communication.

Officers need to know how to “say what you mean, and mean what you say“. A leader who hesitates and stumbles can quickly turn a manageable situation into a crisis.

Narrative is defined as “your story within the story“, and it is framed by a reporter even before a police spokesperson has a chance to speak. It’s easy for reporters to take a paint by numbers approach, which means police officials need communication tools and skills that allow their messages to come across effectively and to be reported in a way that helps keep the peace.

A journalist’s mind is already made up regarding the characters in a story, and their questions often put police on the defensive. The skills required to get a message to the public through news media do not come naturally to anyone. Learning and adopting new communication skills is relatively easy once you know a few secrets.

During my presentation at the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Conference on April 25th, I’ll share decades of experience on the front lines as an investigative reporter, and give law enforcement officials insight that will ideally help police improve how reporters hear their message, and more importantly how they relay it to their audiences.

Mark Twain wrote,
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.

As we’ve all seen recently, a lie does not have to be clearly stated. It can be implied and remain questionable until an untrained spokesperson in authority inadvertently and mistakenly confirms it through an improper statement. Once it leaves your lips it is out of your control and can be repeated over and over until the public believes the lie.

If you’re going to load and aim that mouth, you need to know how to use it responsibly before you pull the trigger on a sound bite that could reverberate around the world.

Spokespeople only have one shot at getting their message right. Speaking to news media is not a casual conversation. It is a performance, and you need to be on target at all times. Reporters are expert at baiting you to let your guard down, and it is at these times where you could say something you regret. Police officials have to come across with authority, but do it in a way that demonstrates concern for public safety.

Bad news is riddled with emotion, so when an incident occurs it’s important to recognize the emotion inherent in the situation. It’s a mistake to ignore how a person feels and instead only focus on the facts. Emotion always wins in the court of public opinion, and it’s where a spokesperson’s battle is fought.

Reporter’s are always on the prowl for an inflammatory sound bite, and will work hard to elicit something you would not normally say. If you recognize the set up you will more easily be able to direct the conversation so it meets your needs.

Social media today allows everyone to be a news reporter. Very often the narrative in social media is also framed first, while mainstream news media try to catch up. It’s a tidal wave game-changer that spokespeople need to recognize and respect. Ignore it at your peril.

It’s critically important to go into an interview knowing what you want to say. Information comes at you fast and furiously so you must be prepared with messages you want media to report. Know how you want to come across.

Media now talk to police in ways they never did before, which makes police feel disrespected and elicits a negative defensive response. Police spokespeople need to identify what words they want used to describe how they want stakeholders to regard their message specific to the particular situation. I address this concept in detail in my book, “When the Headline Is YOU” and call it your “Value Compass“.

My goal during my chiefs of police presentation is to provide law enforcement with a framework to tell their story in media, in a manner that allows them to influence the way journalists edit the story.

Reporters cast characters and very often look for a “star” of the show.

Speaking to the media represents a very unnatural dynamic. I’ll also show and discuss videos related to law enforcement in media, from both a pro and con perspective.

No doubt that talking to reporters today is much more difficult than in the past, but the good news is that managing media effectively and how your message comes across is a skill that can be learned.

I am going to open the Executive Training Institute’s segment, ETI 2017 Supervisor’s Dayof the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Conference on April 25th at the St. Cloud River’s Edge Conference Center, and expect everyone there will come armed, with questions.


FBI Director James Comey and Jeff Ansell at IACP 2015