Thursday, December 08, 2011

"We'll just arrest the reporters:" What's your security team communicating?

At one organization where I was conducting a crisis-scenario media training for top executives, we talked about the open nature of the headquarters location and its easy proximity to some major news capitals--which means news media can make their way there quickly in a crisis. "So what will happen in this situation when swarms of reporters come here? You won't be able to close off access to the property easily," I said.

"That's okay," piped up the security chief. "We'll just arrest the reporters." The communicators in the room were shocked. They'd talked to security about all sorts of scenarios and coordination, but he'd never had the chance to say what he'd do with a lot of in-person press coverage. (This led to a discussion of what the headlines would look like if those arrests happened, and agreement that arresting reporters was not, shall we say, sending the right message.)

Apparently, he's not alone: It seems as if police action (and some inaction) are all over the news these days, and not for positive reasons. Police masquerading as protestors infiltrated the ranks of Occupy LA. Pepper-spraying police at the University of California-Davis, thanks to video and photos shared virally, have seen a wide range of reactions to that security decision, from a popular meme to a wider discussion about controlling large crowds. On campus, police involved were placed on leave and protestors called for the chancellor to resign. CBS reported on tasers as the police "weapon of choice" recently, and some police departments are experimenting with putting body-mounted cameras on officers, to capture video of arrests and encounters with suspects.

Perhaps most useful to communicators is this: The New York Times stepped back from the Penn State sex abuse scandal to document how campus police handle a variety of security threats and questions, or are circumvented by administrators. The wide-ranging piece was based not on the current scandal coverage alone, but primarily on a years-past series on problems with campus police forces. From the Times's "story behind the story" email to subscribers:
Dean Baquet, our new managing editor, also had the very smart idea to turn an old piece of great work to new, immediate advantage. Years ago he had worked with Nina Bernstein, an award winning reporter, on a series about the failings of campus police forces. Nina remembered the stories, their lessons, some sources, and perhaps most importantly this: things as screwed up as campus police forces almost never get fixed, or fixed for good. So she returned to the subject, found the same problems, and turned out a story that led to an avalanche of thanks, tips, and calls for action.
That paragraph's telling, and you should share it with your security forces: Reporters (and the public) keep an eye on the public actions of police and security forces, and their mistakes....with long memories. You may not be able to control your security force, but have you talked through with them how their choices will look and what message they're sending?

This issue isn't solely one for university campuses, but you'll find many recent examples in my notebook on university PR issues--a shared notebook on Evernote that anyone can access. I've trained executives and security officials in thinking through what happens under media scrutiny; if you want to schedule a training, email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

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