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Managing a media frenzy? Stick to the script.
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 06/25/2007

Media As all of you know, Paris Hilton is spending some quality time at the Los Angeles County Jail for a probation violation. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer ordered Ms. Hilton reincarcerated after jail officials allowed her to spend her time on house arrest after three days in the facility.

How would you handle the throng of media descending on you and your institution if you found yourself in similar circumstances?

In my 18 years of handling media for institutional and community corrections as the Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and the (federal) Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, I responded to a wide variety of media requests regarding well-known offenders. Mike Tyson (on Maryland’s parole and probation caseload) produced endless calls. The “Beltway Shooters” who terrorized the Washington D.C. metro area several years ago were incarcerated in Maryland’s Super Max prison. They and many others produced a fair share of national and international media attention.

The bottom line in media relations is ensuring that celebrity offenders are treated no different than any other offender. “Friends” in the media will call for the inside scoop. Relatives will ask for information. Staff will be asked to act as informants. To say that handling all of this is a challenging is an understatement.

You will hear the media report circumstances that only people directly connected to the case would know. While it’s disconcerting, it happens all the time.

Staff may talk. Most will not talk to the media, but you should anticipate that some will. Some relay experiences to friends and families who may call the media. This could produce unfounded rumors, which, as we all know, have a way of snowballing wildly. What we call a standard adjustment to incarceration could be major psychotic meltdown to others.

Note that it’s not unusual for the superintendent, commissioner or warden to feed information to their favorite reporters. Yes, it happens.

Maybe your executives (or you) have to brief the governor’s office or city or county executive or their spokespersons. They may pass this information on to media.

All of us have public information policies or privacy laws to contend with as well. So the first thing to remember through all is to stick to the script. Stray from what’s permissible, and you will find yourself on the receiving end of negative news. Generally speaking, we can provide name, charge, start and end date, date of birth and confirmation that the offender is in the institution. Medical, psychological, criminal history and adjustment issues (how well they are doing) are off limits.

Obviously, staff operational issues are extremely important. Having the right administrator take charge of the case and making sure staff are aware of what’s coming and what’s expected is extremely important. Let them know that the media might try to contact them and then review the procedures on how to handle the situation.

Some spokespeople do not respond to celebrity related media requests until release. That’s wise policy. My suggestion is to create an extensive fact sheet on the institution and routine day-to-day activities for all offenders and place it on your web site. That should answer many standard questions.

Note that there is a huge difference between the mainline and entertainment media. The entertainment media knows no bounds. They will probably try to speak to every member of the institution’s staff (and their families) by phone or at home. They will try to visit any offender in the institution just to get a scrap of information or rumor. They will offer thousands of dollars for a photograph.

Regardless of the posture you take regarding day-to-day inquiries, you will have to deal with rumors. So make sure updated information is sent to you daily. Visit the institution so you know the lay of the land. It is important to be in a position to respond immediately to inevitable false accusations. While you may refuse to answer day-to-day questions about the celebrity, you do not want triple the number of media at your doorstep because of the false belief that you are hiding something.

Have the cell or private telephone numbers of the institution’s executive staff and shift commanders to make necessary connections fast. Be sure to brief your executives as to breaking situations before talking to media.

Finally, you may want to be available for off-the-record conversations with a small number of mainstream (not entertainment) media or media management. Why? Because they want to clarify rumors, and your briefings may be your best bet to keep all media under control.

You cannot give up privacy act or public information act information, but you can provide access to clarify an informant’s exaggerated remarks. You may want to provide some reporters with quick access by providing your cell phone number; getting a unique cell phone and number for the occasion would be helpful. Trusted media who know the truth (i.e., no suicide attempts, no hunger strikes, no mental breakdowns, etc.) can be your best friend.

They’ll think you are helping them establish the truth, and you are. In return, you and your institution get accuracy and some control over the story.

Experienced public affairs personnel, not part-time PIO’s or institutional employees, may want to consider this tactic. There is an art to doing this without violating privacy considerations that veteran public affairs staff routinely employ as needed.

I look forward to your suggestions or comments. Please contact me at leonard.sipes@csosa.gov.

Leonard Sipes is the Senior Public Affairs Specialist at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, DC. For more information about his organization, contact him at 202.220.5616 or leonard.sipes@csosa.gov

Related resources:

CSOSA podcasts about the work they do

Other articles by Leonard Sipes:

A Capital strategy, Part II - Making reductions in re-arrests possible, 6/18/07

A Capital strategy, 6/11/07

So you want to podcast? 5/22/07

Media relations and community corrections, 1/22/07



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