By Michael Capoziello
The “real bad stuff” will sooner or later happen to your department. It’s part of the business, don’t take it personally … but be prepared.
Whether we are talking about a severe motor vehicle accident, multi-alarm fire, mass casualty event or some other adverse controversy off the fireground concerning your department, it’s only a matter of time before something comes your way.
Make no mistake, when the “real bad stuff” happens you can be sure the media will be right there as well, looking for information and a comment from the “man in charge.”
How you deal with the media in these situations will reflect on the incident itself, you as a leader and your department overall. Unfortunately I have had my share of “bad stuff” to deal with and can speak from experience about some do’s and don’ts. Here are a few points to think about when dealing with the media:
• Do not try and hide from the story. The quicker it gets out there, the quicker you can get it behind you.
• Avoid being hostile toward the media.
• With legal matters, have your district/department attorney draft an official statement for release as soon as possible.
• Take your time beforehand and think about what you want to say. We have all seen dozens of interviews, so you should have an idea of what will be asked of you.
• Don’t let the key points of your message be lost in a long, drawn-out statement. Keep your answers short. Your
interview statements will be edited to about 30 seconds, if that. The important things you wanted to say may end up on the cutting room floor.
• When on camera, never look directly into the camera. Look at the interviewer.
• Control your hand movement. Keep them at your sides or on your hips.
• During television interviews, always wear your helmet. Never wear sunglasses; they won’t make you look any cooler.
• Never give personal opinions. They will be interpreted as your department’s opinions.
• Avoid talking in technical terms or fire talk. “When I went ‘22,’ the ‘4 side’ of ‘exposure 2’ was involved.” How about: “When I got here, the side of the neighbor’s house was on fire.”
• Never say “No comment.” This statement implies, “It may be true, but I can’t say so.”
• When you’re on camera and you have finished what you have to say, do not allow the reporter to make you continue talking by sticking the microphone in your face and looking at you expectantly for more.
• Finally, remember that if don’t want it in print or on the air, don’t say it!
It may be hard for some of us to deal with and understand at times, but the media does have a job to do and a responsibility to report the news, good or bad.
You need to take a proactive approach with the media, don’t try to hide information or avoid the media. They will report on the story one way or another and it’s much better to have a say in what will be said then no say at all.
All departments should set up some sort of media policy and assign a public information officer (PIO) within your ranks. Remember, a PIO is a part of the NIMS “command staff,” and should be assigned at any large-scale incident.
Knowing how to deal with the bad stuff is part of taking on the responsibility of being a chief or a commissioner. I’ll close with the quote from Sean Connery in the film The Untouchables: “Wait for it to happen. Don’t even want it to happen, just watch what does happen.”
Michael P. Capoziello is a 30-year member and former chief of the Elmont Fire Department. He is a training officer, public information officer and department historian. A supervising dispatcher at Nassau County Fire Communications FIRECOM and a training officer on the fieldcom unit, Capoziello is also a 14-year member of the Nassau County fire service critical incident stress management team.