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CMPD's new communication approach means more tweets, fewer news conferences

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters.
Logan Cyrus
for WFAE
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters.

After Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by a police officer in 2016, then-Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney changed the way the police would communicate with the media. At the time, the police were being questioned about transparency. CMPD’s solution was to schedule weekly news conferences with reporters. Those news conferences were all streamed for the public to view. Sometimes, police would share a new initiative or give updates on an investigation. And it gave journalists a chance to ask questions face-to-face.

Citing staffing shortages, this year those news conferences dropped from once a week to biweekly. Now CMPD says there will no longer be standing news conferences. The department is instead using Twitter to post information and preproduced videos with officers.

On WFAE’s Charlotte Talks Wednesday, host Mike Collins asked CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings about this change.

MIKE COLLINS: It almost sounds like you are eliminating the middleman. That would be media and going right to Twitter with the plan of producing videos and putting them on Twitter to tell your story, which on the one hand it may be effective for you, but on the other hand, it eliminates further probing on what the real reasons behind some of the things that are the story you're telling.

JOHNNY JENNINGS: Yeah, I think that's been a misconception. Now we are going to yeah, absolutely, tell our story. We're going to have our own narrative that we put out there. But we're certainly not shutting the media out. I know other agencies have done that, but we're still going to do our job. I don't think you're going to see a significant change.

COLLINS: But you are eliminating these weekly or biweekly press conferences.

JENNINGS: We're doing them as needed. And, you know, just to say that every week we're going to have a press conference and then we're finding ourselves trying to make up stories or trying to figure out, you know, or not make up stories, but trying to figure out what we're going to talk about. We'll still do those, just not on a scheduled basis.

CMPD invited local media, including WFAE, to explain the changes before they went into place. In the meeting, CMPD shared that retention and recruitment of officers and public safety were its top priorities.

Another big shift is a move to a civilian-led public affairs team. Previously, sworn officers were in that team. Now, they’ll be used more as a resource.

Perhaps the biggest shift is a sentiment from CMPD — that it wants to control its narrative. Again, here’s Charlotte Talks host Mike Collins with CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings.

COLLINS: What do you think will be the difference in terms of what the public hears or understands about the police as the result of you going right to them and going around us?

JENNINGS: Well, so the biggest thing is we want to make sure that the facts of any cases or anything that we're dealing with, that we put out the facts, that doesn't mean we're not going to talk to the media. We still are going to do the same thing when it comes to interviews and stand-ups and in requests for interviews. But I think it's important that we put out our side and the facts of any incidents that we are dealing with. And then let the people choose which version they want to hear. But we still going to do the same thing when it comes to interviews with the media and those discussions.

WFAE reached out to CMPD before the airing of this story for additional comments. We did not hear back before our deadline.

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.