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MEDIA... Friend or Foe?
By Chief Ronald Richards
Photo courtey of Valley Stream FD
The media begins to arrive. Like rats reacting when the lights come on, officers on the fireground scurry for cover. Their thoughts... "Oh, no, the reporters are here. Can't they leave us alone..."

Let's face it. We have a job to do. We save lives, take risks, and do all the things that have become routine to us in the emergency services. The media, at the same time, has it's mission. That mission is to provide information to the public through various mediums. With that said, why can't we all get along? A few words come to mind... attitude, perception and anxiety.

The process should be simple. But in the real world, as we know it, nothing is simple because humans always tend to make things complicated. Emergency service units are sent to an emergency. If the incident involves a life threatening situation, high dollar loss potential or is otherwise non routine, you can expect the media to show up at the incident. Assignment editors at TV, radio stations, and newspapers have one ear glued to a scanner listening for incidents that "sound newsworthy" and in a matter of minutes dispatch a reporter, camera man and other resources to the scene. Usually this is  where the conflicts begin.

Both of you have been sent to the incident. The emergency services is there to fix the problem that someone else created and the media is there get the scoop on what happened and how it's getting fixed. Later on, they'll dig into "how did it happen" angle of the story.

Most of time, a reporter who shows up already has some sketchy details. He obviously knows there's been a fire. He know people are hurt since 10 ambulances are there and two helicopters are hovering overhead. At this point, he just doesn't have all the facts. As the media continues to monitor radio transmissions, they begin to paint their own picture of the incident.  Often, as they approach the IC or public information officer, they already have all the information they need. They just need to hear it come from your mouth to make it credible. With that said, if you don't give them a report, they will seek out someone on the fireground who will give them an angle on the story, but maybe NOT the one you or your boss will be happy with!

FEMA Photo by Mark Wolfe
Actually when an incident occurs, the media can be a useful tool for disseminating accurate and timely information. When dealing with the media, be sure that the media knows who the public information officer is. Have the PIO clearly identified. In larger department, the media may deal with the PIO on a daily basis and are probably on a first name basis. In smaller locales, the PIO may be a part time position or may be appointed " on the fly" at the scene. In both instances, it still is very important to let the media know who is the "official" spokesperson.

Before releasing any information, be sure the IC knows what's going to be released. This is imperative  under a unified command structure where there may be various agencies involved, all who may have their own PIO. This is not the time to be competitive. Rather it's imperative that a unified release of information is provided.

Sometimes the information you'll provide the media will be good news. Hurray for our team. Other times, the news will be bad. We may not have done a real good job or did not get the results we thought we would... either way be a  "straight shoot, good news or badů" Let the media know what's happening.

Earlier we mentioned that the media often have a pretty good feel for what is going on. They may ask speculative questions. Never speculate. Release only the information you know is accurate. If you don't know the answer, say "I don't know but I will check and get back to you..." or " I cannot confirm that at this time...."  Remember, if you say you'll get back to them, be sure you do. This will add to your credibility.
 

While it may be easier said than done, stay calm. Remember command presence. After all, your boss is as cool as a cucumber. He's talked in a monotone voice throughout the incident. Take a hint. Try to do the same with the media.  The calmer you appear, the quicker people will realize that everything is under control.

Since there are different forms of media, all have different needs. The reporter for the small town weekly has a week to get his story together and most likely will take a "touchy, feely" approach to the story. How does this incident effect the community? What about economic losses? Will the owner rebuild?  After all, within seven days, all the tv and radio stations will have covered the story in great detail. This reporter will probably be more patient and more amiable to get an interview AFTER the heat is off.

On the other end of the print spectrum is the daily newspaper. There are deadlines to make. After Clark Kent gets his story, he'll head back to the office, share it with his editor and may call back for details. Persistent yes, but less probably not very intimidating. Obviously, a lot will have to do with the time of the incident. If the fire hits at 8 pm and the paper goes to press at midnight, the reporter will be a bit more aggressive than the blaze that kicks off at 8 a.m.
Now here comes the local TV crew on a tight schedule. News at noon, news at 5,  5:30, 6, 10 and 11p.m. They have to get some sound bytes, shoot video, get it back to the studio and fit it into the broadcast. So depending on the time of the incident, traffic and the distance from the incident to the studio, these folks are on an aggressive schedule.  Now you can understand when they arrive on scene and want to talk to "someone in charge", they seem to get "put out" when your reply is "stand back here and we'll get someone", only to have them ask you a second and third time without results. Their paranoia will become evident as the grit on you and continuously look at their watch and talk on a cell phone.

TV reporters like good visuals. If you really want to get a good story high in a newscast, then be prepared to suggest some good visuals.  Most reporters want to-the-point sound bites. When talking to reporters, speak in sound bites.  Most stories are never going to run more than a minute and thirty seconds.

Once in a while, a local radio station will send a lone ranger reporter to the scene. Most of the time they will want a short sound byte. They are also on a timeline, but less stringent that TV.

The Big One

Obviously on the simple single alarm fire you'll probably deal with each of the reporters individually as they arrive and leave, but on the big one or the incident that will have an extended timeline, you'll have to deal with the media several times.

PA DEP photo
Several things are going to happen on a big media event. There will LOTS of media showing up. They will want information NOW. Since the incident is obviously newsworthy, details a probably changing by the second, so it will be imperative to give factual information to ALL members of the media after insure that the IC is OK with what you are going to release.

The key here is ALL the media. Don't get played out of position by giving information to one reporter and not the next one, unless you are looking forward to a four part investigative report next week about all the wrongdoing within your organization spearheaded by the reporter who got scooped.

The best way to insure that all the media get the same information is to provide them a prepared press release so they are all playing off the same page. If you opt for a briefing, set up a media briefing area AWAY from the command post. You, as the the PIO, are in charge here. You give the facts. You choose to take questions and determine how many you will take. You choose when the briefing will end.

As mentioned earlier, stick to the facts. Don't speculate. Don't guess. Don't give your opinion, Don't give any "off the record" comments. Don't say "no comment".  Think before you speak.  Never lie.  Don't be argumentative... remember, the report controls what is printed or shown on TV, not you.

Sometimes a report may call the station or the communications center before you return from the incident. Be sure to return their calls.

Always keep things in perspective. The media is not a foe. To the contrary, they are your friend. Treat them the way you'd like to be treated.
About the author: Chief Ronald Richards has over 28 years of fire service experience, both career and volunteer. He rose through the ranks in the Forest City Fire Department, in Forest City, PA and became Fire Chief in 1995 holgin that that position through 2000 when he retired. He currently serves as the Chief for Training and Safety for Browndale Fire Company in Wayne County, PA. Chief Richards has over 24 years of service with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, having served as a Fire Marshal with the Department of Public Welfare, a Fire and Safety Specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. He is an Assistant to the Superintendent within the PA Department of Corrections, responsible for media relations, litigation coordination, accreditation, and the writing of policies and procedures. Chief Richards graduated from the State University of New York with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Service Administration.  Richards is a PA State Fire Instructor and an instructor with Command School, He is the founder of WithThecommand.com.