We are currently experiencing network problems with the desktop version of Police Oracle. We hope to have these resolved as soon as possible.

SIO Corner: Importance of timing - media releases

This week we look at the importance of timing with media releases

In this series we look at various aspects of life as an SIO. This includes the necessary skill sets for the successful SIO, the management of serious crime investigation and specific elements of investigative practice from initial response through crime scene examination and investigative strategies to dealing with suspects and the media. The articles are excerpts from the 2nd edition of Blackstone's, the 'Senior Investigating Officers' Handbook', written by two highly experienced SIOs (see 'About the Authors' at the end of the article).

Importance of Timing - Media Releases

The timing of media releases is not only of importance to investigative needs but also to avoid causing offence to any victims, family, and close friends and the wider community.
It is extremely important that any developments or releases of important information are shared with the victim’s family before being released to the media to avoid unnecessary or unpleasant surprises.

The release of information via the media must be made at a time that produces maximum benefit for the investigation. It may, for example, be linked into other (eg covert surveillance) investigative tactics. Any release of material such as pictures or CCTV must not compromise witness interviewing strategies by contaminating or influencing recollections. It is worthwhile seeking the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service if in any doubt about the legal implications on identification procedures, for example of photographs or details of possible suspects (note: sometimes parts of images can be pixellated).

To generate maximum publicity it may be advantageous to make appeals that coincide with any significant event, such as the arrest of offenders, execution of search warrants, court appearances, or anniversaries of incidents. These can be useful links to attach appeals to and generate media and public interest. The wider news agenda must be considered and some form of scanning to see what other newsworthy events or stories are taking place that may compete for media attention. These could be major sporting or political events and anything of a local nature that would occupy the headlines. Print deadlines or publication dates are something else to consider, particularly if it is important to include a popular local media outlet that is not printed daily.

As a general rule:

Case study - Badly timed appeal

A pre-recorded media appeal regarding the case of a hotel arsonist and double murder investigation was scheduled to go out on news bulletins on a particular day. The appeal was regrettably superseded by an unforeseen major terrorist incident that occurred the same day. Consequently the appeal received very little or no publicity at all. The date was 11 September 2001.

Levels of Media Interest

It is an unfortunate fact that some cases will always attract more press interest than others. Unusual or aggravating features will always be more popular with the media than ‘mundane’ or routine cases. Some types of serious crime are just not considered ‘newsworthy’, eg the media tend not to be as interested in what they refer to as ‘bad-on-bad’ crime. The way to overcome this is to offer an extra feature that makes it more interesting and eyecatching.

For example, providing CCTV or artist’s impressions of the offenders may make the case more of an attractive proposition for the media to show some interest. Involving a MLO in the investigation’s management team can often facilitate the identification of newsworthy ‘angles’ to exploit.

Publicity - generating methods

There is generally some criterion by which news producers and gatekeepers (editors and sub-editors) select events to be presented in the news. Matters that are judged newsworthy’ include things such as the specific characteristics of an offence or incident, the location, the victim’s age, status, background, and vulnerability, linked or series crimes, and race/hate motives. Some stories or incidents are major headlines from the very outset, while others are not considered newsworthy at all. Both of these extremes have implications for the investigation either in engaging with the media or getting them interested in sending out any required messages.

Incidents involving major crime such as murder and rape usually attract a substantial amount of press interest, especially in the first few days. Thereafter interest tends to diminish although some particularly newsworthy cases sustain media interest. Not all offences, however, attract the desired level of attention and in these circumstances the challenge is to gain and maximize media interest and publicity.

The media like to incorporate unusual features or anything that adds value or drama to their stories. For example: CCTV footage; pictures of offenders; artists’ impressions; details of missing articles (eg clothing); reconstructions; horrifying injuries; personal appeals from a victim’s family or close friends; dramatic 999 calls; pictures of police raids; or specialist units such as underwater search teams in full action.

All these ‘extras’ make stories more appealing because they are more dramatic and interesting. They can therefore be used to tempt media agencies into running an appeal. Sometimes it pays to be creative. There are many methods of proactively putting messages across without the need to provide media interviews. Useful examples of innovative publicity generating ideas that can be used for witness and information appeals are as follows:

Checklist - Publicity methods

Key point

To gain publicity media messages, posters, and leaflets need to be ‘hard-hitting’. Here are some examples that have proved useful on major investigations:

Partner Agencies

The police normally act as the lead agency for crime matters and a co-ordination point for all statements released by other agencies that may also be involved in the incident and/or investigation. It is good practice to ensure all parties are kept appraised of media statements and are given an opportunity for feedback. Partners should, where appropriate, be involved in formatting joint press releases (eg local authority or Crown Prosecution Service). It must first be discussed and agreed with the partner agency as to who has primacy in providing the information.

Partners could include the following, although not an exhaustive list:

Good liaison will ensure nothing is issued that could compromise the enquiry. In a major enquiry this may involve very close working arrangements and perhaps even co-location. There may be a requirement for seeking external advice and guidance from bodies such as independent advisory groups regarding specific community issues and formulating the wording of media responses. This may be a vital strategic requirement as badly chosen wording can have a dramatic effect on community relations.


A media strategy can include reconstructions in order to remind the public of events and tease out important information. These are always worthy of consideration and serve as a high impact way of getting a message across. They are also useful for internal communication messages such as electronic briefings and presentations about the case.

From experience, the BBC Crimewatch programme and localized crime-appeal programmes have proved to be invaluable means of attracting public support. They attract a large number of viewers/listeners, are very professional in their approach to the appeal, and will do everything they can to get the right message across. This is more of a collaborative type approach to solving the crime rather than just a news story. The team are extremely experienced and will assist in making the appeal very focused in its objectives.

The timing of these tactics is pivotal. Wherever possible they should be planned to coincide with other events of significance. Media publicity should be co-ordinated with other operational activity aimed at identifying or arresting key witnesses or suspects.
Subtle messages can be passed through the wording of the appeals, especially if a particular person(s) is/are being targeted. Behavioural Investigative Advisers (available through the NPIA) can be useful in helping develop and phrase messages aimed at the suspect or witnesses.

There is a need to be aware that vast amounts of information from these appeals can result, all of which has to be evaluated and potentially investigated. Any large a ppeal/reconstruction needs to be as focused as possible - well-intentioned misleading information from the public may take up valuable time and resources. For example, in one case an appeal for the whereabouts of a locally based murder suspect produced sightings all over the United Kingdom, some of which proved difficult to ignore.

About the Authors:

Detective Superintendent Tony Cook was a CID officer with Greater Manchester Police for over 31 years until his retirement in 2009. During his time as an SIO, he led a number of high profile investigations including operations into gangland violence at Moss Side, the Bolton murder of a teenage girl in 2002, and the Denton strangling case. He was a trained assessor for promotion and a qualified Authorising Officer under RIPA. Tony received 14 commendations and a first-class BSc Honours degree in social sciences and a Diploma in Social Policy & Criminology from the Open University.

Andy Tattersall, formerly Detective Superintendent in Greater Manchester Police on the Force Major Incident Team, retired in 2007 after 33 years service and became the first ever Support Staff SIO in charge of a new Homicide Support Unit. With over 29 years in CID at all ranks Andy received the Homicide Working Group National Award for his Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Homicide in November 2006.

To see more details about the Senior Investigating Officers' Handbook, or to purchase a copy, click here

Leave a Comment
In Other News
SIO Corner: Inter-agency case meetings
SIO Corner: Factors which may increase suspicion
SIO Corner: Investigating sudden and unexplained child deaths
SIO Corner: Legal issues and the Press Complaints Commission
SIO Corner: Media reporting and the victim's family
SIO Corner: Role of the SIO and the media
SIO Corner: News media management
SIO Corner: Role of the coroner
More News