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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Law Enforcement Notebook: Where Are You, PIO?

By Ernie Stephens

A couple of years ago, I was asked by one of Rotor & Wing’s sister publications to write an article on how aircraft are painted. So, I called a relatively small outfit with a fine reputation for such work to see if they wanted to be featured in it. To make a long story short, I left two messages with a live employee, plus one on their answering machine, before finally talking to the owner. After explaining that I wanted to build the entire article around his business, which amounts to four pages of free, global advertising, his reply was one of pure disinterest. “Well, uh, I’ll call you back,” he mumbled. But he didn’t. The next call was to the people at a much larger company. They immediately jumped at the chance to show off their aircraft painting facility.

It perplexed me why such a little outfit with very little (if any) money for advertising in a major aviation magazine would ignore such an opportunity, while a large company with enough cash to buy all of the ad space it wants couldn’t get me to their plant fast enough.

Now, enter police departments that have aviation units.

Make no mistake about it, when I call the hangars of law enforcement agencies asking them if I can write something up about them, I always get an enthusiastic response from the men and women who take helicopters into the sky, as well as the people who turn wrenches on them. But, like most everything in a public service organization, people higher than line personnel have to give their approval before a cop-turned-writer can talk to anyone. And while I’m perfectly fine with that, it’s during those requests for approval that the wheels tend to fall off. Law enforcement agencies, both big and small, seem very ho-hum when it comes to free, positive press about the fine work their helicopter unit does.

Case in point: As I was looking for a police department to feature in the July 2012 issue, it occurred to me that a certain agency, which shall remain nameless, would make a great subject for a cover story. And as far as law enforcement readership goes, that issue is seen by more winged officers than any other, because it’s the one we also hand out at the Airborne Law Enforcement Association convention each year.

So, I phoned that department’s hangar, got the usual enthusiastic response from the rank-in-file, and followed their instructions for requesting approval from their press information officer (PIO). For the next several weeks, I got nothing—not even a “We have your request and will get back to you.”

With time running out, I called another operation. Once again, the folks at the hangar were quite eager to be spotlighted, but I also got weeks of dead silence from their PIO. (Truth be told, this happens more times than not, regardless of the size of the agency.)

With time pretty much gone, I phoned the office of Chief Teresa Chambers of the United States Park Police. She was in a meeting, but I was asked to shoot her an e-mail with my request, which I did. Less than 45 minutes later, I found a reply from Chambers herself. The first lines read, “Ernie: Yes, of course, PLEASE pursue this story. Our guys have SO many compelling stories to tell...” It was followed by her own list of some of the things they have done, as well as a “cc” line showing she had simultaneously repeated her blessing all the way down the chain of command to the hangar level. Five days later the story was done, complete with archival video footage of a recent rescue, which you can see on our web page at www.rotorandwing.com.

Now, in all fairness, the PIOs of the first two agencies finally ended up giving me approval to write about their aviation sections. But unfortunately for those two outfits, copies with the USPP on the cover were already being printed. And as Chambers had said, their adventures were excellent!

So, my question is a simple one: In a world where public service budgets are being cut, and people are questioning the bang for the buck they get from police aviation, why does it take so long for those people who sit between the crews and the chief to see the value in a feel-good article about an element of their own department? It amounts to free advertising, as well as a public “atta boy” for jobs well done!

Chambers apparently gets the worth of positive press, and how it might someday serve as documentation that her aviation assets truly earn their keep, even at a time when public funding can be a bit thin. But I’m also betting she knows how morale went through the ceiling at the hangar when they saw how eager she was to have Rotor & Wing shine a light on their fine work.

By the way, there are some other agencies out there that respond to article requests quickly, even without starting at the top. And to them I say thanks! To the people I spoke with at those two agencies back in April and May, I know it wasn’t you who let the clock run out. And to them and everyone else, I won’t give up on trying to tell your stories.

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