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Why everything you think you know about jail-media relations is probably wrong

As jail administrators, the media is only our enemy if we let them be


We must be willing to set aside some of our beliefs and learned behaviors regarding the media and start building relationships.

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As a detention professional, I have often found myself waking up sometimes three to four times a night asking, “how could we have done that differently?”, “what could we have done to change the outcome?” or more importantly, “what can we do to make ourselves more accountable?” I can’t begin to tell you the sleep I have lost over the years seeking those answers. In this ever-changing profession, if you’re not seeking answers to those questions, you’re headed to court.

In a follow-up to my last article, “Why Policing and Detention Must Be Treated as Distinctly Separate Law Enforcement Professions,” I felt it was important to address and clarify some of the points I briefly touched upon. This profession is absolutely going through a pendulum swing as evident by the lack of people looking to enter our profession, the firms that are specializing in jail litigation, and – let’s face it – the fact that anyone with a cellphone or computer can now be an unchecked journalist.

We all know the phrase “if it’s on the internet it’s true.” I certainly do not want to slight or take away from those true journalists or subject matter experts because they are out there and they serve the public well. I know many who are friends I admire. Unfortunately, however, there are countless untrained or unchecked so-called journalists who skew information based on opinion rather than facts.

But that isn’t the only problem facing jail administrators and staff today – we, as a profession, enhance or create problems because we fear the media. The media is a profession as old and honored as ours. They have a job to do and most desire to review every angle of the event and report just the facts to their readers. We all know this is true because we have experienced it firsthand.

Here is where our profession gets in trouble. First, we have not educated our local and state media professionals. How many reporters take detention classes to fill elective credits? Not many. Compare that to your knowledge on how to fire a weapon or apply handcuffs for the first time. What did you know? Probably just what you had read, seen on television, or what old Billy Bob had explained. So, in other words, “point and shoot” – nothing about sight picture, front and back site alignment, or to double lock your cuffs. So why would we expect anything else from our media partners? They learned the exact same way.

And they still must put out a story because, unfortunately, jails are news, and often it’s not great news. But that’s certainly not the only angle worthy of coverage. I bet your jail has a few interesting or even feel-good stories you can train your media to publish, which, let’s remember, serve the same public that we do. News does not always have to be bad news. Once your media learns you are working with them, trust will allow you to submit news releases with permission to print. Media outlets are always searching for stories. And believe me, if they can simply run a story with no investment in time or money that their customers would enjoy, your release often is printed word for word.

The evolution of jail-media relations

In my career, I have come to understand and witness three distinct methods of media relations on display.

The Ostrich Method

The first I will refer to as the Ostrich Method, since the administration and public information officer simply bury their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge that the press exists or that an incident or event even happened. Their motto is, “leave it alone; it will go away as soon as something else in the world happens.”

That style of information sharing is an old learned technique from an era when transparency was controlled and the public had far more trust in our law enforcement agencies – the time when many kids played outside all day by themselves with no adult supervision. Rural communities can still get by with this method simply because crime rates are low and local media has vanished. The public in populated areas, though, has a multitude of media outlets to get their information from and demands a more transparent administration.

The Hollywood Method

The second distinct method is the Hollywood Method of public relations. Those administrations become starstruck. Reality television continues to stretch the realm of interaction for those who either can’t or won’t but have fantasies of being in our profession. You all have either seen an episode of such a show or possibly lived with the production while still trying to do the jobs the public expects you to accomplish. This method seems to excite your customers whether they’re the ones viewing, incarcerated or employed because of the camera. Who doesn’t want to relish in their five minutes of fame?

But you and the public have all seen this fame and celebrity status ride a high wave until it comes crashing down in a hurry. Those involved turn from admired to scapegoats in an instant, usually involving a few normal catalysts that change the environment. The customer base rabidly starts launching allegations of why they aren’t doing their jobs rather than worrying about television fame. Some have even embraced their newfound celebrity status and do some silly things right in full display of the camera. Remember, fame even for A-List Hollywood celebrities is not eternal. When the end comes, the media and fans consume you.

The Empowered Public Information Officer

The third, and what I have witnessed as the single most effective means of media relationships, begins with a qualified and trained PIO that administrations allow to educate their media. Without mentioning her name, I was blessed to work with and learn from one of the best in the business. Her experience as a reporter brought an invaluable service to all she worked with. She knew how to educate the media whether it was visual, paper, radio or internet.

How to build a mutually beneficial relationship

So, how do you implement this method of media education? I am glad you asked. It’s simple: Invite them into your house. I know that sounds foreign and even dangerous, but wouldn’t you rather have the truth told rather than have them get their information from the uninformed?

First of all, their biggest source is your own employees. Like every agency, department and office, you leak like a sieve. Your leaks rarely know the complete story, or they often skew the information to meet a selfish need. If the leaks are not able to get the information out quickly, you often see live interviews with someone who just walked out of your jail caught in the parking lot. I can’t emphasize enough that reporters have a job to do, and they will find someone who will give them a version of the truth as they believe. So, why would we not educate our media partners?

I have a few suggestions, but to consider them we have to set aside some of our beliefs and learned behaviors and be willing to build relationships. Changing one’s culture is extremely difficult. But you know what? The hardest part is to simply get started. If you can’t make that commitment to start, they will continue to report only on the bad stories and do so without your version. If we don’t commit to change, our media can absolutely affect our careers and potentially our livelihoods. Some of our detractors, as you know, take media releases and even stoke the fires. I know COVID-19 has kept many people out of our jails for a long time, but as the CDC relaxes our guidelines, it’s probably time for us to consider a new normal. Whether you require proof of vaccination or mandatory masking I will leave to you. Swallow hard and just hear me out. Here are a few suggested changes you may want to consider.

  1. Send a well-crafted invitation for a press conference inviting all with credentials to a tour of your jail. Hold the Q & A and debriefing after the tour. Treat them to snacks and drinks at the debriefing so they will come and hear everyone’s question. Most have no clue what the inside even looks like. Take the opportunity to showcase how you conserve their tax dollars yet meet all humanitarian needs. Show them that, in reality, you are running a small city. I bet few, if any, have ever grasped that concept. Show them you have everything a city has: laundry services, maintenance crews, sanitation crews, laundry services, a restaurant, court services, legal offices via digital legal materials, and an above-average law enforcement presence per capita. Share that you operate medical wards, dental offices and mental health facilities. Explain the recreational opportunities with a library, television, tablet services with games and programming, all the spiritual health provided. Explain what we do, walk them through the booking, medical screening, mugs, prints, property, telephone call(s), property, trust fund, commissary, housing, bonds and release. Share the exciting news that you want to increase transparency.
  2. Send them a press release daily, weekly, monthly or however often agreed upon. Share not just the negative events, but the positive as well. All administrations have positive stories about life-saving, apprehensions, charities, etc. Become your own salesperson because who knows you any better? The people that will see the broadcast or read the article are your customers. Be proud of your product. By opening up, you remove some of the suspicions and create a better relationship with your tax-paying customers.
  3. Only a portion of what we do is confidential. By training your media and employees in this, you see a greater tolerance rather than accusations of cover-ups. Then FOLLOW-UP with them when possible. Offer them the chance to work a shift or go through some of your training.
  4. Reporters are no different than you or your co-workers; they would like to work smarter rather than harder. If they become confident in your transparency and accuracy of information, the relationship becomes more positive than negative. Negative energy is destructive. You can disagree but if a relationship exists the trust and personalization decreases this. That makes for a better customer rating. You really never know when you might need an ally to hear the true side of a story.

Don’t let change run you over

In closing, I do understand these suggestions may go against everything we have learned over our careers. I too have referred to some print media as fiction writers. Whether true or not, that was my learned perception. But we have never experienced the growth in the availability of information that we have seen over the last 10 years. I am afraid if we are not willing to change, change will run over us. If you don’t concur, I ask one simple thing of you. Have someone search your local media archives and just see how many stories are inaccurate. Then see how you could have helped change the perspective of those articles if you had had the opportunity to have a relationship and educate that writer. If you aren’t willing to change, how can you ever move forward?

NEXT: When correctional leadership is under scrutiny: 5 strategies for offsetting negativity

David B. Parker began his law enforcement career as a deputy with the Woods County Sheriff’s Office in Alva, Oklahoma, while attending college. After graduating from Northwestern Oklahoma State University, he accepted a position with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Entering as a correctional officer, he was promoted through the ranks as an investigator, deputy warden, divisional supervisor of construction and maintenance, warden, deputy director and retiring as director of Division II. After retiring he accepted the position of jail administrator for the Tulsa County Jail located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a 1,900-bed facility.

Throughout his career, he never received an ACA accreditation score less than 100%, either at a prison or jail. He served as a committee chair for Southern States Corrections Association and was a member of the National Institute of Corrections Large Jail Network think tank. He currently provides consultation as a detention expert.