HAVE YOU EVER BEEN SCRUMMED?
April 15, 2014 By John Muldoon
You’re surrounded by microphones, with cameras just inches from your face. Reporters are yelling questions at you, pushing and shoving to get your attention. You’re being scrummed. It can be quite a daunting experience – if you’re not prepared.
A scrum is a term for a rugby offense. In this context it has nothing to do with rugby. We are talking about a media scrum. This is not an organized media news conference either. Most scrums are usually spontaneous, at the scene of a crime or incidents. Reporters usually try to find a person from the police or a person in authority willing to provide what is known in the news business as the “Five Ws” (Who, What, When, Where and Why). Other times scrums are formed to solicit comments from persons on events or situations such as the outcome of a court case.
Today the media work on a 24-hour news cycle, continually submitting updates on a particular story all day long. In days past, reporters would submit a story and do a follow-up the next day. Today’s media are more competitive than ever before, now covering news from every angle until they have totally exhausted all leads.
The difference in 2014 is the world has changed and now news gathering is almost instantaneous with the “citizen journalist.” With the advent of social media, every person with a cell phone or tablet has the option of becoming a “citizen journalist,” taking photos or video of events as they happen. They then upload it on Facebook, Youtube and other social media platforms. Additionally, news organizations constantly monitor social media and in many cases accept and run with photos or videos of breaking news before all the information has come together.
The advent of social media and new electronic devices makes for the possibility that every officer could become an instant media spokesperson or might be captured in the line of carrying out their duty. Be warned.
If you see something on social media (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter or even in a blog), that you feel should be responded to, don’t take matters in your own hands. Contact your police service, media spokesperson or corporate communications officer in larger police services. They are in a better position to assess the materials and know how to reply on behalf of your police service. Some officers have refused to open personal accounts to social media just so they won’t be contacted on their own time and be expected to reply. What is recorded or said on any of the social media networks is there to stay.
“In terms of ‘citizen journalist’ this is becoming more common,” says Dave Selby, communications director for the Durham Regional Police. “We basically treat a citizen journalist the same as a real journalist, who is just representing the public anyway. We would give them the same answers as a seasoned reporter. A citizen journalist will film anything and post it online without waiting for an explanation, so the same level of professionalism in responding is very important.”
Scrums today take on a different context than years ago because you may never be quite sure who are the working media.
Most police services have a designated spokesperson to be the main contact point with the media, but in some situations, the contact might be the chief, a senior officer, the lead investigative officer or even a patrol officer – whoever can deliver the facts at that moment.
Scrums can be very unnerving for most police officers and media spokespersons. The media is trying to catch you unprepared and off guard, hoping for “off the cuff-type” remarks.
Each scrum is different, driven by its own energy and dynamic. If the majority of the scrum is made up of electronic media, then there is a need for short, punchy sound bites. Print media will typically ask for more details.
Here’s a scenario: you’re the lead investigator at the scene of a serious criminal investigation and there are 15 media people anxiously waiting at the yellow perimeter tape, looking for any information you can give them. How do you prepare for this? The simple answer – you’re the person with the information. Take charge.
In this situation, you need to deliver the framework of a basic story – who, what, when, where, why and possibly how. You can only give the media the “bare bones” details – information that won’t impede the investigation or have legal ramifications. This will provide an official police source and usually puts the story in context with the other versions that reporters may already have collected from neighbours or witnesses. Remember, you don’t give your opinion or personal thoughts. You are to provide only the facts.
There are a few things to consider before you walk up to that line to answer questions or give a statement. First, mentally prepare what you want to say and how much you can say, then prepare answers to questions that you think might be asked.
Second, prepare yourself for the fact that once the scrum starts, you will have little personal space. The cameras, microphones and audio recorders will literally be in your face. Try to maintain a calm demeanor and relax. Uneasiness or nervousness gets amplified on television.
“A tidy uniform, some deep breaths and calm approach still win the day on television and on Youtube,” says Durham’s Selby. “About 70-80 percent of what people will absorb will not be the words, but how the officer handles herself or himself under pressure.”
A few pointers are in order here:
<> If you are wearing a suit, make sure your tie is straight and you look your best.
<> Don’t ever wear sunglasses while doing a scrum. People will think you have something to hide. They want to see your eyes.
<> If possible, always stand for a scrum. Don’t get trapped sitting at a table if you can help it. By standing, you maintain control over the scrum.
<> If you are in uniform, wear your hat. It is one of the distinguishing symbols of your authority and easily recognized by the public.
<> If you’re called out in the middle of the night to an incident it’s advisable to prepare yourself as if you’re going in to work. Appearances go a long way in maintaining your professional status in the eyes of the community.
<> Pick your spot and be conscious of the background. If you’re walking up to perimeter tape, pick a spot where the background is acceptable. A marked cruiser is always good, but sometimes it has to be the structure or location of the crime scene. Don’t worry if the media are huddled at one end of the scene and you want to use another background. They will follow you.
When you find the point where you want to stand and the cameras are rolling, here are a few tips to make your situation a little easier.
<> Initially, talk directly to the cameras that are in front of you. Once the questions start, try to reply directly to the person asking the question. Don’t worry about the cameras, they will follow you. Just speak directly to the questioner.
<> Always try to answer the questions clearly and succinctly without rambling on.
<> Don’t speculate and try not to say “no comment.” An example of what you might say – “we are in the early stages of the investigation and that is all I have for now.” “No comment” gives the impression you are hiding facts.
<> Know when to stop. Once you have answered the same question a number of times by different reporters and have delivered all the information you are prepared to release, it’s time to leave.
Some news media may want to talk one-on-one outside of the scrum. If you have given all the information that you have available, don’t do one-on-one interviews because you might just be speculating on the answers.
Also, if you walk away from the scrum and the media follow, don’t get into any conversations with fellow officers or others close to where the scrum took place. News media and the public have been known to keep their recording devices running just in case you let something slip. Get a fair distance away before you have what could be considered a private conversation, no matter how innocent it may sound.
In review, try to control your situation. Be aware of your background. Try to give yourself some breathing room. Take a moment to collect your thoughts before you answer a question. Don’t be afraid to take a deep breath and remember – you control the pace of the questioning.
Don’t let a reporter interrupt you. If one does, just stop and calmly say you want to finish your answer, then move on to the next question.
To be prepared, periodically review your police services’ media relations’ policies and theory.
Remember, you can be scrummed anywhere and at anytime. You could be recorded and videoed at any occurrence or incident.
“Be careful out there”.
John M. Muldoon, APR, FCPRS, LM (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Peel Regional Police Public Affairs Director. He is currently the Manager of Communications and Public Affairs (on temporary leave) for the Toronto District School Board.
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