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It’s Time To Rethink Correctional Media Policies
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 09/16/2019

Newspaper scaled Introduction

I spent thirty-five years directing media relations for national and state criminal justice agencies before retirement. I represented law enforcement and correctional agencies. I wrote a book about my experiences, “Success With The Media,” available at Amazon.

I’ve handled hundreds of criminal events and controversial issues, and most investigators want as little released as possible to protect the investigation.

But the reality is that spokespeople have always “corrected” reporters as to their misinformation.

Advocates ALWAYS spin conspiracy theories and pump false information to reporters. They will go from one source to another until someone finally gives them the platform they seek, which influences all other media outlets.

Misinformation, false rumors and incorrect assertions didn’t start with Trump or other politicians, it’s been going on for decades.

It’s Different Now

But in today’s hyper-partisan world, it’s taken on a new meaning. Whether it’s politics, race, ethnic background, mass shootings, guns or any other topic, advocates seek to twist and influence.

If spokespersons don’t immediately respond to falsehoods, it spreads like wildfire.

There is an entire industry of organizations and tech companies fighting misinformation. Crisis communicators specialize in rumor control. There are strategies of communication designed specifically for the flood of false data, video, and photography.

Crisis communicators warn that facts alone can’t overcome people’s preconceived notions of the truth. If people love or hate cops, “facts” get lost in emotions. People tend to believe what they want to believe, which is why any organization’s communications philosophy must include a long-range strategy. We must be seen as honorable people doing an honorable job.

Contrary to the traditional bureaucratic admonishment that the less said, the better, openness and honesty (without jeopardizing investigations) may serve us well in the long run.

Associated Press (direct quotes)

Minutes after media outlets identified the gunman who killed seven people in West Texas, a Twitter account that appears to have been computer-generated began spreading baseless information linking the shooter to Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke.

“The Odessa Shooter’s name is Seth Ator, a Democrat Socialist who had a Beto sticker on his truck,” said the post, which also appeared on Facebook.

No such sticker was found on either of the vehicles, one a stolen mail truck, that Ator used during his rampage, according to Sgt. Oscar Villarreal, a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman.

Still, the groundless conjecture after the shooting was spread by thousands online and even retweeted by Anthony Shaffer, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer and a member of President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign advisory board. Shaffer didn’t respond to questions about the claim.

The breakneck speed of the misinformation — and just how far it spread — illustrates an eagerness to blame such events on political ideologies, regardless of whether the facts support that. It’s also an early indication of how difficult it will be for campaigns to combat virulent falsehoods ahead of a 2020 presidential campaign that could be full of them, Associated Press.

The Reality

So a senior executive tells me to say nothing about the investigation. That’s impossible. I’ve spent thousands of hours in off the record conversations with reporters clarifying and correcting while protecting the investigation from harm.

If a media source tells me that a shooter had a lengthy and violent criminal history and if the suspect was only arrested for minor property crimes, it’s in everyone’s best interest for me to say, “that’s incorrect. I’ve seen the suspect’s criminal history. Go back to court records and get the details.”

If a reporter comes to me on an off the record basis and suggests that the suspect in a violent crime had race as a motive and there is absolutely no evidence of it, I’m going to tell the reporter that she’s wrong as I understand the facts provided to me.

That’s why the spokesperson needs to know everything. That’s why the spokesperson needs to be a trusted source.

In my day, If I told a reporter that, based on what I know now, there was zero evidence to support a rumor, it died. I had an Associated Press reporter tell me that if I said that if a section of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge fell into the water, they would consider it credible without further checks. My word was good enough for them.

But for the love of God, please be careful with your denials. More than once a vicious rumor turned out to have elements of truth; the investigators didn’t tell me everything. But an investigator shared inside information with their friend, who told another, who picked up the phone and informed the media that Sipes was full of hooey as to his denials.

It’s the truth that executives and investigators, the same people who told me that it was critical that I say nothing, gave information to favored reporters, friends and associates. When the Governor’s office was briefed, the same thing happened. There are no secrets.

The executive who openly distrusts or hates the media? They are the worst offenders as to passing information on to favored reporters. No, they don’t tell you that they are doing it. There are times when reporters told me that their inside sources were so credible that they already knew what was going on. They only needed me for an on the record statement.

The spokesperson needs to have the trust of investigators and the media. The spokesperson needs to know everything.

Everything Is Political

Those of us in criminal justice circles understand that there is a ton of misinformation distributed to the media about controversial criminal cases and events.

It’s irresponsible for us to ignore the rumors and falsehoods. It’s also dangerous.

Race or politics or any other issue instantly becomes an essential element of media coverage.

“In June, when 20-year-old Brandon Webber was fatally shot by U.S. marshals during an attempted arrest in Memphis, social media users erroneously circulated a photo of a man wearing a Trump shirt to claim he was the officer responsible for killing Webber,” Associated Press.

All of what I’m suggesting is the basis for any crisis communications effort.

Conclusions

It’s time for law enforcement and corrections to understand that saying nothing about an event and failing to put out obviously false rumors can end in disaster.

Yes, we don’t like or trust the media. Truth be known, they don’t like or trust us. That’s irrelevant. It’s about protecting what needs to be protected. That includes public safety.

If we care about the reputation of an officer, his family or the organization, if that’s important to us, we need to immediately correct misinformation. Yes, it can be done without violating laws. It can be done without having any impact on the investigation.

And no, the chief executive can’t be the primary spokesperson. Media are going to call endless times throughout the day and night and you better be available at 10:00 p.m. if you don’t want to let misinformation circulate.

Spokespeople need to be trusted by all concerned and that trust doesn’t come quickly or easily. I’ve seen new executives come in and fire their experienced spokesperson and hire people they know and trust only to go down in flames afterward because their media representative simply didn’t have the credibility needed.

It’s a new day and age folks. It’s time (past time) to have a rapid response plan in place and spokespeople who really know their stuff. It’s crisis management 101.

People lie to the media all the time. Reporters need to know the truth.

See More: See more articles on crime and justice at Crime in America.

Reprinted with permission from https://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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