Time pressures during emergencies are not an excuse to release inaccurate information to the public. Regular communication and engagement with media sources help facilitate the flow of reliable information. Relationships built on mutual trust and respect between news reporters and public affairs officers ensure timely and accurate public reporting during a crisis.
The art of public information seems quite simple, but is actually a nuanced field with a litany of challenges. Crafting the right message, making sure the media gets the message right, and then handling the public’s reaction are all key elements of successful public affairs operations. The media’s task is to get the right information quickly and report it accurately. Perhaps one of the foremost challenges in public information is that bridge between the two – the trust that reporting will be accurate and express the message that the public information officers are trying to convey. From the very beginning, the relationships cultivated with media contacts are the foundation of success, or not, in public affairs.
A practice that has proven to be advantageous in working with the media is to answer calls, texts, tweets, and emails whenever possible. By building this regular rapport, reporters would know when to expect a response from public information officers. The law enforcement world relies on the media to help convey critical public safety messages. By being available to media contacts, these contacts would be more willing to assist public information officers when needed. This results in mutually beneficial and trusting relationships.
Fact Checking To ensure accuracy, the public information officer or trusted colleague must read everything the media publishes with his or her name or agency’s name attached. The only way to verify that a message is being published accurately is to read it. When a mistake or an inaccuracy isentified, it is essential to address it. Perhaps a reporter is interpreting incorrectly, or it could be that he or she is taking liberties with others’ words – there are many explanations. In any case, it is up to the public information officer to demand accuracy.
It is difficult to trust a reporter who continually makes errors, deliberately or not. When communicating with new reporters or those that are not yet trusted contacts, have them repeat back the information provided. This practice ensures that the words and statements were understood, and it helps mitigate the chance of an error. This has proven to be beneficial on more than one occasion for the United States Park Police.
Although there is immense pressure to push messages out for public consumption, it is critical to not ignore the elemental purpose of a public information officer – to communicate. Public Affairs offices and the media have a codependent relationship. Lay the groundwork for success by cultivating and fostering good relationships, always being available, and demanding accuracy. The time for building relationships is always – not during a crisis. A relationship built on mutual trust and respect results in accurate and timely reporting.
Sergeant Anna Rose is the public information officer (PIO) for the United States Park Police. After patrolling the National Mall and the George Washington Memorial Parkway, she served in the horse-mounted patrol for four years, the last of which was in Great Falls, Virginia. She was then promoted to patrol sergeant on the Baltimore Washington Parkway before being selected as the PIO in July 2015. She is looking forward to launching the USPP’s social media platform and developing strong community ties.