Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
REGION 8: Special Agents Media Help Spread the Word About Wildlife Protection Laws
California-Nevada Offices , April 10, 2011
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By Scott Flaherty, Region 8 External Affairs
Used to be that news about Service law enforcement investigations was hard to come by.  Legitimate concerns about confidentiality, legal restrictions or instructions from a judge or prosecutor often keep details of a case from the public eye.  But, too often, suspicion, fear or even loathing of the press can prevent special agents from talking to the media. As a result, too many good stories with important conservation messages go untold.

“I try to tell agents that we are special agents, not secret agents,” says Special Agent Ed Newcomer of the Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) in Torrance, California. “While policy and some restrictions on public communications are important, concerns over implied secrecy can be carried to a point where it may be doing a larger disservice to our law enforcement efforts. We need to engage the media to tell our story.”

Newcomer joined the Fish and Wildlife Service OLE in 2002 after serving 10 years as an Assistant Attorney General in Colorado and Washington.  This experience, in part, has taught him the value of telling the OLE’s story and its conservation messages to media.

“There are a number of good reasons for engaging the media to tell our story,” Newcomer explained. “As a public servant, we have a duty to inform the public about what we do. As a special agent, I want to tell people about what we do to conserve wildlife and why they should care. If people don’t know what we’re doing, they have few reasons to support us.”

The OLE office in Torrance is one of the largest in the country. Five special agents are responsible for investigations across southern California. The office’s 10 Wildlife Inspectors screen commercial cargo shipments and international passengers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The OLE office in San Diego has similar responsibilities in the area along the US.- Mexico border. The region is also the nation’s second largest media market and reporters’ interests in smuggling and other wildlife crime is high.

“You can’t always pick and choose which reporter to talk to, but you can choose what you can say to the reporter when he shows up, which can happen at any time,” said Special Agent Lisa Nichols of the OLE office in San Diego. A special agent for 16 years, Nichols routinely serves as the media spokesperson for the San Diego and Torrance offices.  Her outreach experience as a former park ranger means she’s well suited for the job, which she sees is as “educating” the media.

“Special agents and inspectors shouldn’t be afraid to talk with reporters,” Nichols said. “We need to use them to educate the public about what is going on with wildlife. Media exposure creates visibility for our efforts and awareness of wildlife protection laws. Some stories even generate tips about possible wildlife crime from the public.”

Two years ago, Nichols attended an industry media training course designed specifically for law police and firefighters.  The course taught techniques for working with media through practical, real-world exercises and role playing. She still remembers one of its’ first lessons.  “Never say ‘no-comment’ to a reporter, it makes the reporter mad and communicates the wrong message (secrecy) to the public,” she said. “Develop talking points and messages ahead of time you’ll know what to say when they turn the cameras on.”  Newcomer agrees that preparation is important. “I put a lot of thought into the messages I want the reporter and the public to walk away with after an interview,” he added.

Newcomer estimates he’s done about 20 to 30 media interviews since 2002, many resulting from two high- profile cases in 2007.  Operation High Roller investigated the killing of hundreds of raptors by members of roller pigeon clubs in Los Angeles, and Portland, Ore. Another involved the lengthy investigation and prosecution Hisayoshi Kojima, a Japanese man who claimed to be "the world's most wanted butterfly smuggler."  Both cases resulted in stories that “had legs,” and Newcomer was deluged by media requests for interviews for months afterward.  Resulting stories brought national media exposure to the Service’s law enforcement efforts.

“The first interview about the Kojima butterfly smuggling case was with Helen O’Neil of the Associated Press (AP) and it was my first experience with major media,” Newcomer recalled. “I knew she wanted inside dirty details about the case, but I wanted her to know how dedicated we are, how much we do with our relatively small law enforcement staff. We were able to get into habitat loss and how butterflies are an indicator of species and ecosystem health. I thought these are important things for the public to understand.”

The AP story appeared in newspapers nationwide on August 18, 2007, including a featured story in USA Today. In the following months, Newcomer was recounting the smuggling case and delivering the OLE story to national audiences on National Public Radio, and Backpacker magazine. The publicity led to a meeting and interview with journalist and author Dr. Peter Laufer who’s simple curiosity about butterflies morphed into a book, The Dangerous World of Butterflies: A startling subculture of criminals, collectors and conservationists, published in 2009.  During his own national media interviews about the book, Laufer recounted his conversations with Newcomer and cast more light on the criminal global trade of the world’s endangered butterflies. 

Since then, the Kojima case has gone viral.  The top result of an April 1, 2010 Google search of “butterfly smuggling” is the original August 18, 2007 AP story from “USA Today,” followed by a YouTube video of smuggler Kojima’s arrest.  Newcomer's story and its accompanying conservation messages, lives on in dozens of other websites. Millions of people are better informed about the OLE mission and the Service’s efforts to conserve endangered butterflies because a special agent decided to talk with the media.

Agents are free to talk to media but they need to notify their chain of command to discuss the issues and messages ahead of time, Newcomer added. Both Newcomer and Nichols also encourage agents to talk with other agents who have experience with reporters, and explore opportunities for media training to get helpful communications skills and tools.  Agents can also get help from their local External Affairs Office. “They can help with press releases and develop messages to use when talking to the media,” Newcomer said. 

“Dealing with media is not something that a lot of us want to do, but my advice to other agents is to bite the bullet and talk to the media” Newcomer explained. “There is no guarantee that everything will turn out exactly the way you want it to, but the benefits are far greater than the risks.”

You can listen to SA Nichols and SA Newcomer discuss their respective smuggling cases with National Public Radio. Links to the interviews and news releases are at: http://www.fws.gov/cno/press/ 

(This story was recently published in the Spring 2011 issue of Fish and Wildlife News, a publication of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. )

Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, , Scott_Flaherty@fws.gov
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