In the Spotlight: Preparing for the Media

BY THOMAS DUNNE

It all happened so quickly. One minute he was sipping coffee in the firehouse kitchen. Moments later, he was crawling in a smoke-filled apartment. The fire was roaring as he led his unit down the long, hot hallway; forced a bolted door; and rescued a small child.

The rush of success was still beating through his system as he walked away from the fire-damaged building. Suddenly, his pulse again quickened, and he gulped for air. Just ahead, he could see his next obstacle: a row of bright lights, cameras, and reporters, lined up and anxiously waiting—for him!

For many of you, the nature of your work may provide your first opportunity and challenge of appearing before the media as a public figure. Without previous training or experience, you are likely to be initially uncomfortable in this role. As a chief, I learned some basic lessons simply by doing it. The following suggestions are offered as a guide when you find yourself in the media spotlight.

CONFIRM AUTHORIZATION

First, consider whether you should be talking to the media at all. Procedures vary in different departments, but generally one person is designated to perform this function. In the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), the incident commander (IC) usually speaks with the media, although he may delegate this job to a subordinate. At a larger operation, a public information officer may also be present to assist the chief in charge.

If you are not a chief or company officer, you may still find yourself thrust into the camera lights. There are many occasions when an individual firefighter involved in a rescue or human-interest story may have to provide information to the media in an informative and professional manner. Every rank in your department should therefore have some basic media competency.

PREPARATION

Once it is certain that you are the person who will be meeting with the press, a little preparation is called for. First relax, be yourself, and don’t worry about coming across as the next Anderson Cooper. If cameras are present, pretend that they don’t exist. Look only at the reporter, and act as if you are just having a brief conversation.

You can control the interview’s timing and location. The media will wait until the incident is stabilized and you are available. Pick a location that is far enough from the scene to avoid distracting fire personnel who are still working. If possible, choose a spot that gives the media a sense of the operation and allows TV reporters a relevant visual background.

Remember that your appearance will speak before you say one word. Project confident body language. Wearing your helmet or uniform hat provides an authoritative image (and covers your head if the work totally disheveled your hair). Maintain steady, nonthreatening eye contact with reporters. If asked difficult or uncomfortable questions, avoid looking up or dropping your eyes to the floor, which might project an air of discomfort or even dishonesty. Do not use “no comment” as a response. One survey indicated that more than 60 percent of respondents interpreted this as an admission of guilt. If you don’t have all of the information requested, make that clear, and offer to provide it when it becomes available.

When you answer a question, speak clearly, briefly, and more slowly than you would in a normal conversation. To avoid distraction, turn off your fireground radio during the interview, but make sure someone nearby is monitoring another radio for you.

There is a huge advantage in collecting your thoughts before you speak. Don’t worry about any “dead-air” segments in your responses; they will be edited out. Radio and television stations operate under time constraints. A typical television news story lasts about a minute and a half; a radio report is even shorter. Your recorded interview will be cut into sound bites to fit those parameters. Generally, they use only your most relevant or “quotable” statements, so be sure you are giving accurate information.

Often, the media are interested in a story that includes unusual information, a human-interest angle, or something to which the viewer or listener can relate. They like stories that are short, interesting, and attention grabbing. News stations routinely monitor fire and police radios. The tragedies we deal with in the fire service regularly provide material that can boost their viewer/listener ratings.

You should know the salient facts about your incident prior to being interviewed, but don’t rely on copious written notes, which may be confusing or distracting over the course of the interview.

If you will be speaking about a fire operation, know the address of the building and the approximate time of the initial alarm. Did the building’s age, construction, or occupancy play a significant role in the incident? Did extreme hot or cold weather add to the challenges that the firefighters faced?

At a multiple-alarm or mutual-aid incidents, be prepared to inform the reporter about the number of units and personnel involved.

In addition to providing facts about the incident itself, your interview is also an opportunity to relate any positive news generated. If firefighters had to overcome severe difficulties, be sure to give them their deserved credit. Highlight accomplishments when firefighters perform rescues or save buildings from destruction. Emphasize the role of smoke detectors, sprinklers, and escape plans when they were significant in the operation, along with any other fire prevention lessons that were reinforced.

Try to avoid using technical terms. The fire service has a body of knowledge and a language that the public and the media will not always understand. Part of your job in an interview is to correct any misconceptions a reporter may have about your operation.

I once gave a press conference following a building collapse, and a reporter referred to evidence of a “previous fire” on the roof of the building as a possible contributing factor. In fact, there had not been a fire; the “evidence” she had seen was only roofing tar.

The media will not always see things that are clearly obvious to you as a firefighter. At times you will have to exercise patience and repeat the same information several times or elaborate on what you feel is just basic information.

PROVIDE ACCURATE, APPROPRIATE INFORMATION

In certain situations, you may have to conduct a somewhat guarded conversation with the media. There should be no “off-the-record” comments, and there are some things you should not say. If deaths or serious injuries are involved, be prepared to provide the number of people affected and the names of hospitals that may be involved, but respect privacy issues. You must protect the names of individuals until appropriate family notifications have been made.

When you are speaking about potentially contentious issues such as firefighter staffing or apparatus response times, be certain that you are providing objective facts rather than echoing a political position that unfairly favors either a union or management’s perspective.

Beware of the probing questions you will sometimes get from a reporter. To some extent, there is a show business aspect to the news. The search for viewer/listener ratings can create a competitive environment among media outlets. On occasion, you may be pressured to provide a headline quote based on inappropriate or inaccurate information.

I have experienced this in a number of situations. A few years ago, I responded to an excavation collapse in midtown Manhattan that drew a large and instantaneous response from the media. One well-known local reporter somehow got it in his head that activity in a building adjoining the site had caused the collapse. Structural engineers had already advised us that that was not the case; the collapse was relatively minor and localized. Nonetheless, the reporter continued to pursue this line of questioning, first at the press conference and then later while following me around the site. It took a great deal of patience and persistence on my part to overcome his dogged efforts to portray a story that could produce a much bigger headline than the incident warranted.

On another occasion, on a bitterly cold winter day, I operated at a fire that resulted in a fatality. After the fire was under control, and while the investigation into the cause of the fire was still being conducted, I gave an interview to a network television reporter. Our conversation went something like this:

Reporter: Chief, can you tell us what started the fire?

Me: We don’t have that information right now; the investigation is underway at this time.

Reporter: Chief, is it possible that an electric space heater may have caused the fire?

Me: Our fire marshals will perform a thorough investigation, and I’d rather not speculate until they have sifted through the evidence.

Reporter: Can you tell us if there was a space heater in the apartment?

Me: I don’t have any information regarding that. We’ll have to wait until the investigation is completed and we can present you with the facts.

After a few minutes, it was rather obvious that the reporter was keen on obtaining a space heater story to tie in with the cold weather. When I turned on the 6 o’clock news that evening, his lead story was about, needless to say, the dangers of electric space heaters. A few poorly chosen words or conjecture on my part during the interview could have done some damage to the fire investigation or affected any subsequent legal actions.

There are also times when the media will conduct an inappropriate interview. I observed this at another fire in which a young child had died. While inside the building surveying the fire apartment, I was informed that a television reporter in the street was interviewing the dead child’s teenage brother. That sibling apparently had not yet been informed of the fatality or of the injuries to other family members. It turned out that he had also been responsible for starting the fire.

•••

Although a guarded approach to the media may sometimes be called for, these incidents are generally the exception to the norm. I have had overwhelmingly good experience with reporters and have found them to be personally cordial and respectful of the work that firefighters do. For the most part, they are people who, like us, are trained to perform a job in a high-pressure environment.

Most of the training and expertise we develop in our own work relates to the science of using personnel and equipment to extinguish fires. Over time you can also develop the art of providing accurate information to the media without violating confidentiality or compromising an arson investigation.

This will require a quick transition in the role you play at a fire scene. Collect yourself. You may have been heavily engaged at a major operation in the middle of the night involving fatalities and injuries. Refocusing your thoughts from firefighting to media liaison takes preparation and effort.

You can learn to exercise control over the interview process rather than feeling that you are being thrown at the mercy of the media. Present the facts (not opinions) that you think are important and provide concise, relevant responses, and you will seldom be misquoted. With the right mindset, your experience of being “on air” can prove to be a great public relations opportunity rather than a difficult personal nuisance.

THOMAS DUNNE is a 26-year veteran of and deputy chief in the Fire Department of New York. He has been the incident commander at hundreds of fires in residential, commercial, and high-rise buildings. He has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering and is a regular contributor to its Roundtable. He is a Fordham University graduate, has presented at FDIC, and writes and lectures on a variety of fire service topics.

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