Submitted by: Nancy Sherman, Director of Marketing and Communications, Caroline Center
In the days leading up to the PRSA Maryland Conference on June 14 at Loyola University Maryland, I caught up with Baltimore City Police Department Director of Media Relations T.J. Smith, who will speak at the conference’s closing session.
Right at the beginning of our conversation, T.J. said it was the time he spent in community policing that really helped him hone the professional communications skills demanded by his current position. Being able to talk to people in their neighborhoods about their everyday concerns and issues helped him develop a style of “straight talk” that was person-to-person and untainted by political correctness.
“I’m a native of Baltimore,” he said. “I grew up here and my family is from here. I love Baltimore. That’s why I feel the opportunity to serve at this time is so monumental. The big issues that bother all of us in Baltimore also bother me as an individual – and, those same issues bother my colleagues at the agency. No matter the issue, however, the most valuable lesson I learned in community policing was how to be myself when communicating with people. Some days, I might have the opportunity to speak with you on the street; other days, I’ll be speaking to you through the lens of the media. But, whether I’m talking to you on or off camera, I am the same person. The recent shooting that happened inside the New Song Worship & Arts Center, for example, I believe I described in the media as ‘ridiculous’ – on or off-camera, what else could you want me to say?”
Being real is important and T.J. freely admits that he has learned some important communications lessons about that along the way.
“When I would visit schools and talk to the children,” he said, “the conversation used to be about the police ‘arresting bad people.’ When I saw the sad and worried looks I was getting from the children, many of whom might have known someone who had been arrested, I began talking instead about the police ‘arresting people who had made bad decisions.’” Real can still be sensitive and true.
I wasn’t surprised that T.J. added, “The most important qualities, beyond excellent communications skills, that a person in my position can bring to the role of media relations director are empathy and the ability to anticipate frustration. Empathy is hugely important.”
Transparency is also important. Live-streaming through Periscope, where “we are able to give the entire story, is making a big difference in how we earn and keep the public’s trust,” T.J. says.
In closing, T.J. said that the longest break he gets from the demands of the media is something that’s called “sleep.” In addition to the few hours of rest he gets between midnight and 5 a.m., T.J. also tries to set aside time each day to play with his son – precious hours when he can unplug from the persistent presence of technology and the heavy demands of the media. And, what drives that heavy demand?
“Social media is the new hindsight,” he added. We now know the ‘if-only-I-had-known’s’ sooner and often well before stories are reported in the traditional media.
We hope you will be able to join us for an illuminating and informative conference on Tuesday, June 14, at Loyola University Maryland. T.J. Smith’s highly relevant Closing Session will include time for your questions as well as for hearing the perspectives of two officers who served in the BCPD before, during, and after the civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries he sustained while in police custody.