"Speak harshly and carry a big stick" could have been the unofficial policy of the SLOPD during this year's anti-Mardi Gras campaign. "The party is over," read ads printed in this and other newspapers. "Out-of-town visitors are not welcome." If you get rowdy at Mardi Gras, expect to get served, the SLOPD warned students and revelers.
Add to this the descriptive prose on mardigrasslo.com, alerting would-be partiers about Mardi Gras 2006: "Picture hundreds of cops. Consider yourself submitting to a Breathalyzer test. Conceptualize the feel of handcuffs on your wrists. Think about spending your money on bail and fines. Face it â€” SLO Town may not be your best bet for a fun Mardi Gras in 2006."
Intense words indeed, but Rob Bryn, now-former spokesman for the San Luis Obispo Police Department, said this messaging campaign saved lives. Mardi Gras was Rob Bryn's last hurrah as the SLOPD's official spokesperson, and he calls it without question one of the most successful policing efforts he's ever been involved with.
Bryn worked for the San Luis Obispo Police Department in various factions for 15 years. Aside from creating effective ways to inform the community about crime prevention methods, Bryn was responsible for handling the media. This meant carrying a beeper 24 hours a day and being ready for a hundred questions at any moment. Considering his line of work and charismatic nature, fellow officers and reporters will likely remember Bryn as a master at handling the media and information.
- Rob Bryn
- END OF AN ERA: According to George Ramos, Cal Poly Journalism Department chair, credibility can be one of the most useful attributes for a public information officer to have. And Bryn, Ramos said, "had credibility."
#Bryn's job was to act as a buffer; to give the media what they needed using specific details while also protecting the police department's investigations. He points out that incorrect information could lead to a mistrial or change of venue, a concern that's always on the mind of a police department's public information officer, or PIO. No easy feat with persistent reporters trying to break or cover a story.
And there's the two-way mistrust between many reporters and officers that a PIO must bridge, especially in larger cities; said George Ramos, Cal Poly Journalism department chair and former LA Times reporter.
"I think that reporters too often automatically assume the cops have something to hide," said Ramos.
In a way, for a PIO to be effective he has to bridge that mistrust. Ramos said it's for this reason that credibility can be one of the most useful attributes for a PIO. Bryn "had credibility," said Ramos. "And that's one thing PIOs always strive for but never really get."
For Bryn he admits that a lot of his job was explaining to other officers that the media isn't the enemy.
"One of the toughest things for me is to educate internally," said Bryn. "The press is not your enemy, they're not. They have a job to do. And that job in a perfect situation is the truth. What is important is the truth. It behooves us to provide them with as much information under the law that we can possibly do so they get the truth and people know what's happening."
But Bryn is quick to point out that the press doesn't always get the story right.
"Most people unfortunately weren't there and don't have all the facts and you start getting hate mail because of the way the story was represented, or the headline was put out, or the lead-in from the anchor desk, you know, 'Cops shoot dogs â€” film at 11.' Well, the five dogs were attacking the little old lady coming home from the grocery store. It's the way you present that information and you know you just shudder once in a while, because you say, 'Wow, that's not quite it.'"
Aside from credibility, Ramos adds that the ability to disarm reporters is essential for an effective PIO as well.
Always loving to joke with the press, at his recent retirement party Bryn actually had black T-shirts printed with "Press" in giant letters across the chest. On the back was a quote from a Tribune staff writer: "Don't shoot â€” I'm a reporter." Two years ago at Mardi Gras, the reporter had muttered the sentence to a line of armed officers while holding up her business card because she didn't have a media pass. Bryn always gets a good laugh out of that one.
"Credibility, knowledge of the agency, and the ability to anticipate a reporter's needs" rank as the essential attributes of a successful PIO, said Ramos.
Before working in law enforcement, Bryn had worked in radio. He had originally wanted to join the military so he could serve in Vietnam, but a failed medical exam nixed that plan.
"That was my first career choice," he said. "I have flat feet, three kidneys, and I'm colorblind."
Bryn couldn't get into the military so he worked in broadcast until he realized he could fulfill his desire for public service by becoming a cop, even with a third kidney.
"In 1969, police were a big deal," Bryn said. "There was the whole thing with the riots and civil disobedience, and the police service was going through this huge transition. That was the big surge in professionalism because there was much more scrutiny."
So he got the idea to do a story on a local police force, a ride-along with the local P.D. He calls it "probably the original 'Cops,' except there were no pictures."
Bryn rode around with the Mountain View police force and compiled hours of tape into a broadcast.
- Rob Bryn
- DOING HIS TIME: Rob Bryn worked his way up in various police forces around the Bay Area until he got a job working for the city of Morro Bay, which eventually led to the job in San Luis Obispo.
#"I met some tremendous guys," he said. The experience would spark an immediate change in his life. "I walked into Foothill College and changed my major to law enforcement and joined the campus police."
Rob Bryn worked his way up in various police forces around and south of the Bay Area until he got a job working for a software company. But he still missed the force and soon got a lucky break to work for the city of Morro Bay, which eventually led to a job in San Luis Obispo.
Before joining the force in SLO, Bryn was working in the San Luis Obispo community development department, content but quietly missing the force. When Bryn was offered the job with SLOPD, he said it was perfect.
"I immediately started to pack my desk ... I said, 'You've got to be kidding, I would love to do that!'"
What was it about working for the force that was so great?
"I mean, it was what I was used to, not that I didn't enjoy the community development department. They were marvelous people, but ... you never quite get over it," Bryn said with a single wink while pausing to finish. "You know? It's just one of those things, I wanted to finish. I didn't like being out."
Back on the force, Bryn was able to combine his years of investigation experience, community police work, and media background to develop effective ways to reach the public through various media channels.
"We weren't using the media," said Bryn. "Nobody was using radio, television, or print to get crime prevention messages out."
At SLOPD, Bryn helped develop a plan to utilize print media, TV, radio, and the web.
"It took five full-time crime prevention partners to do what I can do with $35,000 of advertising," he said.
This approach of course came to fruition during Mardi Gras.
"The single most effective component (of Mardi Gras), beside the help of CHP and the manpower, was the messaging campaign," said Bryn. "It was a very, very tough messaging campaign. It was in-your-face, but we stuck on the message."
Both the city and the police force got some negative press for the campaign.
"But we stayed the course," said Bryn. "And the important thing in leadership is staying the course when everybody is yelling at you. I mean, it's not that you should never change course, but in this particular case we were given clear direction by the [City] Council to end it. Had we pulled back, we would have lost it, and that's what leadership is about."
- Rob Bryn
- LOS ALTOS P.D.: "[Back then] police were a big deal," Bryn said. "There was the whole thing with the riots and civil disobedience, and the police service was going through this huge transition."
#Throughout Mardi Gras, Bryn was in near-constant contact with the media. There were a lot of behind-the-scenes things that most citizens would have never known about, like secret cell phone numbers and daily briefings. Not only was it a test for Bryn's years of streamlining public information for SLOPD, but it was also the peak of Bryn's PIO career.
"It was probably one of the most successful operations I've seen in my entire career," Bryn said matter-of-factly.
Bryn calls the role of the PIO "hypercritical," but others, like Ramos, say that in a small town like SLO the job of the PIO may not be necessary.
"I'm not sure every law enforcement department needs a PIO," said Ramos. "I don't think at one this small you especially need one."
Ramos' argument is that in a town the size of SLO, reporters are often able to directly contact policy makers and watch commanders and officers that were at the scene of the crime who have more information than a PIO.
But Bryn said a full-time PIO is indeed needed.
"People need to know what's going on so they can make educated choices about whom they elect. We're going into a budget time right now where we're cutting a police officer and potentially cutting my old job in public information."
For now Capt. Dan Blanke has filled Rob Bryn's duties as PIO, although Blanke said he's hesitant to call himself a PIO.
"I'm more just a consistent point of contact who can put people in touch with others in the organization," he said. Once the department hires a Neighborhood Services Manager, Bryn's official title, it will make a determination where PIO responsibilities lie, said Blanke.
Currently Bryn is working at the Alpha Academy and finishing up an M.A. in Christian leadership from the Fuller Theological Seminary. Although he's off the force, he said still hasn't completely moved on.
"I still haven't detoxed from reading the letters to the editor," Bryn said. "I think I will successfully be in recovery once I don't care what those letters to the editor say. But still it's my daily deal, 'Okay, are they saying anything bad about us or my friends?'"
Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at email@example.com.
The public, the press, and the PIO
The primary role of public information officers, or PIOs, is to act as a liaison between the agency they represent and the media.
Some agencies or departments, large or small, find it absolutely necessary and helpful to staff a PIO, certainly enough so to keep the position in the budget. PIOs can be an effective tool in keeping the lines of communication open between an agency and the media, which can help in the investigation process of, say, a missing person or suspect on the loose. The role also allows agencies control over the release of information.
Other departments loathe the idea and would just as soon spend money elsewhere. Dealing with the media is a pain in the ass. Cops and firefighters want to fight crime and fires, not answer questions. Besides, members of the media make mistakes, or they're inexperienced, or they're arrogant.
Be that as it may, any public relations expert will tell you that taking the offensive when it comes to dealing with the media can be a wise idea. It would behoove any business, organization, or public agency to follow such a plan. It usually works. Otherwise, the proverbial suspicion always surfaces: "What are they hiding?"
And it's no longer the proverbial small-town TV, radio, and press posing that question anymore. The media of the world has descended.
In order for the public to be adequately served, which includes their right to know, police and fire realize they must rely on the media to get the word out whether the message is critical or self-serving. It makes it easier and more beneficial for everyone if a PIO like Rob Bryn is on hand to serve us all.