I have been a news reporter for more than 50 years, covering everything from the Vietnam War to Hawaii politics to the Honolulu Police Department.

If HPD had asked me how to improve its media relations, I would have offered the following three words for free: tell the truth.   

And if the police wanted to know more, I would say this: remember you work for the public, not some secret society. Get back to reporters as soon as you can even when you don’t have the full story yet, and above all, be direct and honest.

But instead, HPD has paid $106,121 in taxpayer money to hire a private public relations company, Bennet Group Strategic Communications, to give police officers training in how to handle reporters. The money was spent even though the department has its own paid, professional communications staff. 

The Honolulu Police Department paid $106,000 for training on how to improve its image. 

Bennet Group CEO Joan Bennet should have given HPD the best media advice she could  at the beginning by saying, “Don’t hire us. This is going to look embarrassing.  It will look like you can’t handle your own affairs. The public will be mad about spending tax revenue to get you out of the turmoil you have created yourselves.”

Instead, she embraced the opportunity. In an emailed statement, Bennet writes, “We are grateful for the opportunity to assist the men and women who keep our community safe and we look forward to the direction that the department is headed.”

How did this waste of money happen?

Word is that Mayor Kirk Caldwell called up then-Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha last year to urge him to get a grip on his lousy media relations and do it fast.

Things were spinning out of control down at the Beretania Street headquarters. Honolulu police leadership, with its long history of paranoia about news reporters, was becoming increasingly paranoid and tight lipped in the wake of the police officer domestic violence scandals and the FBI’s corruption investigation into Kealoha and his wife, deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha.

Longtime TV investigative reporter Keoki Kerr says police higher ups were refusing to help reporters they had deemed hostile even when those reporters asked for help on positive stories such as HPD’s outreach program to help the public avoid scam artists.  

Kerr covered HPD off-and-on for 25 years. After leaving Hawaii News Now, he was hired as a communications specialist for the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the public school teachers’ union. Part of his job includes conducting media training for teachers.

You have to wonder why the Bennet Group was selected to do the police training. The fit seems strange. Bennet Group’s website shows it primarily sells media services to upscale businesses like Whole Foods; powerful land developers in Kakaako, including Howard Hughes Corp. and Ward Village, and in Waikiki , developer Taubman Center, responsible for the International Market Place redevelopment; and Outrigger Resorts not government bureaucrats.

Bennet Group says in the past it also has helped several city and state government agencies. It assisted the the Hawaii Department of Health with media relations during the dengue fever outbreak.

Still, the training might have been more pertinent if it had come from a police communicator from another police department that had handled press relations and crisis situations with great success rather than from a PR firm that’s not police oriented.

If HPD had asked me how to improve its media relations, I would have offered the following three words for free: tell the truth.   

Former reporter Kerr says much of Bennet’s advice that police paid for is boilerplate information, cut-and-pasted from standard media training seminars offered all over town. It’s not specifically tailored in any major way to police professionals.

In the training document “Crafting Your Message,” Bennet Group seems to be unfamiliar with how police officers and news reporters work.

The training document wrongfully assumes reporters are mostly interacting with police at formal news conferences. Instead, most information from HPD comes from sergeants at crime scenes or from emails and phone queries to the HPD communications office.

The document belittles reporters as drama queens out to save the world, more “interested  in conflict” than gathering facts for their stories.

HSTA’s Kerr disagrees. “Reporters want facts,” he said. “They need facts. They are not looking for drama. We have to be ready to get our point across and do it quickly.” 

Kerr urges teacher leaders to speak directly with reporters even when they are reluctant, so they can be sure their point of view is represented.

Joan Bennet herself does not seem interested in interacting with reporters. When I have called her office to speak with her, I have always been transferred to one of her employees who follows up not in person but with emailed responses.

When I asked to speak by phone with Bennet to find out how she came up with her training ideas and especially how she formed her opinion about how reporters think, her account executive Alika Ke-Paloma emailed back this response:

“Joan Bennet who is a former journalist herself — has deep respect for people in the news-gathering business. The Bennet Group has extensive experience working collaboratively with reporters locally, nationally and internationally.”

Some of Bennet’s comments about reporters in the media training documents are downright snarky such as: “Never tell a reporter ‘that’s a good question.’ They think all of their questions are brilliant.”

Despite her snide feelings about news people, Bennet urges police officers to suck up to them: “Let the reporter know how much you loved his/her last story. (Be sure you have actually read it, however).”

Much of Bennet’s boilerplate advice to police seems geared more to helping company executives in the business of selling products, expensive condos or their professional services. It can seem funnily off base when applied to police officers.

For example, there is the instruction to “find powerful stories, statistics and visual images to support each point.”

How dramatic do police officers need make their stories when they are dealing with dead people or the remorse of a mother who has run over her own child with her SUV or one of their own officers who has shot someone in the head in an altercation?

And the section on body language for a media interview seems funky: “Lean slightly forward to appear engaged and prepared … Move your hands, Keep your elbows bent, fingers slightly touching … Keep a warm and trusting expression on your face; remember TV cools you down.”

And Bennet’s company admonishes female officers “… to keep hair out of your face, no touching, swinging or playing with your hair.” Really!

The kindly police officers who patrol our Diamond Head neighborhood know how to hold their bodies and how to engage politely in social conversation without twirling their hair or without pretending they admire what I have written.

To be clear, there are some good ideas in the Bennet Group’s media training.

Capt. Rade Vanic of HPD communications department said during Bennet’s 11 training sessions, police officers got a better understanding of how working with reporters can further HPD’s mission.

“The transmission of timely and truthful information is very important,” Vanic wrote in an email statement. “Therefore, understanding how to most effectively communicate that information has been very helpful. Also, there is a better appreciation of understanding that the media is a resource and avenue to communicate with the community that we serve. Therefore, it is important to foster positive relations with members of the media.”

I have been assisted in my reporting for years by HPD’s communications staff. I am glad that Bennet is suggesting they need more help.

“We believe HPD’s communications team does a good job, but they have a big task and would benefit from more staff and resources,” said the Bennet Group’s Ke-Paloma. “Our company was hired, in part, to help develop capacity and build skills within the communications team, helping them do more with less.”

Bennet is right to lean on HPD to be more proactive in publicizing its positive actions.

I also like Bennet’s emphasis on getting HPD to create a maximum standard response time to get back to reporters when they call seeking information and “to prioritize sharing the most information possible “ with reporters on a story.

But was the media training worth the more than $100,000 taxpayers spent on it? I don’t think so. Much of the training Bennet gave HPD is what reporters and HPD’s own communications staff have been telling police leadership for years — advice given the department’s top brass for free.

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