Earning the Badge: Media Relations

Staff Writer

Why is it important for law enforcement to interact with the media the way that they do?

This question was posed to the cadets in the Wright State University — Lake Campus Police Academy to start Thursday’s class. Over the course of the next four hours, cadets learned the importance of their interactions with different forms of media. 

“If you don’t have an understanding of proper interactions with the media, you can have a negative outcome with your interaction,” academy Commander Mark Ernst told the class. “If, however, you know how to effectively interact with the media, you have the opportunity to develop and promote positive public and media relations. Media relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and the public essentially is how an agency communicates with the public.”

Ernst encouraged the cadets to remember that the media have a job to do just the same as them and the local media can provide a safe way for the general public to learn information about a specific event. He used different scenarios — hypothetical and anecdotal — of different emergency scenes where vetted and justified news sources are permitted into areas that are off limits to the general public.

According to the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission, traditional media sources include television, radio and print sources and the social media and internet accounts they maintain.

While the cadets were encouraged to be courteous with the media outlets that cover them, the commander reminded them that they should avoid doing things that would violate their department’s protocol for media relations.

And the reasoning was simple.

“Typically at a police agency, you want to speak with one voice,” Ernst said. 

Ernst noted that local media can provide a means to get important information to the general public quickly and effectively. He stated some examples where the media can be very helpful include missing persons cases, wanted subjects, serial crimes and scams.

In releasing that information, however, Ernst said officers need to be aware of exactly what they are portraying when they issue releases either for assistance or for information at a scene.

He encouraged them to prepare key messages and decide on one or two major points they wish to make to help keep the release on track. He also warned cadets to be cognizant of personal appearance and of what is in the background.

While giving a statement, Ernst told the class to remember simple things to help get their point across such as avoiding distracting mannerisms, making eye contact but not staring into the camera and to keep their voice at a normal, conversational level as well as being aware of how their tone may be perceived.

“Remember, language that works within law enforcement circles may sound less tactful to a civilian audience,” he added. 

In the end, Ernst reminded the students that everything they do can appear on the news or in the local newspaper but he added that it may not all be bad, as long as the officer is acting appropriately.

“You guys are the people who are actually out there day to day in contact with the public and you have tremendous power to affect the public's image of what the police department is,” he said. “And that that's just simple little things like stopping in a shop and saying hi to people; stopping in at the gas station talking to people, having a cup of coffee talking to everybody's coming in in the morning — just being a human and showing everybody that you're just a normal person.

“A lot of cops think that's not my job that's not what I signed up to do. It is part of your job. That's what it is. It comes along with everything else.”