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Criminal Justice Update

Media strategy evolved as Harley Dilly case did


A case of a teenager missing at Christmastime generates intense media interest.

News outlets want to post a story every day to feed their curious readers and reveal case details before competitors do. But investigators try to avoid sharing facts that could color interviews they anticipate having — or tip off a kidnapper about how to avoid detection.

Those clashing goals naturally set media and law enforcement at odds.

Early on in the Harley Dilly case, Port Clinton Police Chief Robert Hickman determined that he was best positioned to deal with the media. His boss, the city manager, had recently left town for a new job, and Port Clinton’s limited number of officers needed to devote their time to investigat­ing and to meeting other daily policing needs.

“It was the right decision,” BCI Special Agent-in-Charge Jimmy Ciotti said. “He was the right person to do it.”

The day after Christmas, during massive public searches for 14-year-old Harley, the chief gave three news conferences. The experience was clearly frustrating — the media pushed for answers that the chief wanted to have but didn’t.

“I remember watching, and there were several times when he was overwhelmed and defensive as a result, which is understandable,” said Steve Irwin, a public information officer with the Attorney General’s Office, who ended up advising Chief Hickman.

After that day, the chief decided on a briefing for­mat consisting of one daily update with the same information going to every media outlet, whether local or national, and no sidebar comments.

“Because of the way the case went,” Ciotti said, “Hickman really couldn’t say a whole lot beyond, ‘Yeah, we’re still working on it and thank you very much’ kind of thing.”

For that reason, Irwin said, the first time he talked to Chief Hickman, he recommended moving the daily update to Facebook, a social media platform with which the chief was comfortable.

“The media wasn’t happy that I wasn’t answering their phone calls,” the chief said. “But I still say you give them just what they need because if you give them too much, how much are you going to jeopardize your case?

“But they don’t like to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Besides taking a frustrating daily experience off the chief’s plate during an already-complicated investigation, Irwin said, the regular online update yielded an additional benefit.

“Assuring the media — especially for the national outlets that were there — that we’re not going to put out any information outside of this one time helps build trust so they know they’re not going to miss anything,” he said. “And Chief Hickman proved to them that he was reliable.”

The chief ’s update would come to include a list of the agencies helping with the case; assurances that Harley’s family was cooperating; and in some instances, warnings, such as when an independent search agency started passing itself off as part of the official investigation.

“Another tactic we adapted from Federal Emer­gency Management Agency recommendations was telling the public how they could help with the case and what they shouldn’t do,” Irwin said. “So the chief would say: ‘We’re going to do searches and you can volunteer, but don’t go search on your own.’ Or: ‘Don’t spread rumors about the case. If you have information, call police.’”

The latter recommendation came after authorities had spent 10 hours chasing down a lead in Wash­ington state, where a man had posted online that Harley was alive but hurt. Officers would learn that the man had no insider knowledge but instead read those details in a national news story that had used that bit of online speculation as fact.

“So you can see how giving people who care about the case a constructive way to help can benefit the investigation,” said Irwin, who compli­mented the chief for maintaining his composure under trying circumstances.

The communications team at the Attorney General’s Office, Irwin said, can help with any case in which BCI takes part – and Chief Hickman said he would recommend that other Ohio law enforcement agencies adopt the same methods.

“Right, wrong or indifferent,” the chief said, “the single daily briefing worked for us.”