The Changing Face of PIOs

A fire engulfs an apartment building and causes thousands of dollars of damage to a nearby business. A multi-vehicle pileup halts two lanes of traffic on the main highway out of town. How do your citizens find accurate information about community incidents such as these?

For many agencies, it's the public information officer (PIO) who keeps residents abreast of pertinent information.

By definition, PIOs are communications coordinators or spokespersons for certain governmental organizations that provide information to the public and the media as required by law and according to the standards of their profession. How he or she accomplishes that task has changed in recent years with fallout from the recession, privacy laws associated with HIPAA and advances in modern technology.

However, what remains constant is the basic bottom line mission: outreach and community education.

Recession Fallout

"One of our local newspapers has cut two reporters," relates Larry Tunforss, PIO for the Bullhead City Fire Department in Arizona which serves about 48,000 residents with five fire stations. "The days of showing up to a house fire with three or four members of the media are over. It's now my responsibility to get information to them."

To fill in the gaps, Tunforss routinely responds to calls with two cameras, which serve as duplicated efforts to ensure he always gets the shot. With photos and details in hand, he returns to the firehouse to draft media releases that he distributes to about 95 agencies, including those at both state and national levels. "Occasionally they'll pick up something that might tie in with what's going in their communities," he says.

Nick Schuler, battalion chief, public affairs, CAL FIRE San Diego County Fire Authority, which responds to roughly 350,000 9-1-1 emergency calls each year, reiterates Tunfross' challenges. "We're always looking for ways to enhance outreach and community education in ways that don't cost any money," he says. "One way we're doing that is through social media. We've established several sites that have provided a great means of communication at no cost."

Victim Privacy

HIPPA has changed how much information PIOs can disseminate to the public. "You have to be careful and sensitive to victims," says Tunforss. "I'm careful not to disclose too much information so I refer to victims only as critical, fair, transported with life-threatening injuries, etc."

Victim privacy also extends to any photography used to support agency information.

"Our goal is to never post photos that could offend anyone," says Schuler. "We also avoid including vehicle license plates or anything that could be perceived as disrespectful to a family member or to someone who is injured or who has lost someone in their family."

Tunforss relates that personnel safety is also important as it is relates to photographs. Make sure everyone is wearing appropriate safety gear, such as helmets and gloves, before taking and/or releasing any photos. "We might not be safety officers, but it's important to make sure everyone is safe," he says.

Modern Technology

Tunforss relies heavily on digital media such e-blasts and e-newsletters to disseminate information. His agency's monthly e-newsletter, started about six months ago, is currently sent to approximately 163 people. Interested residents can sign up for the newsletter on the agency's website, www.bullheadfire.org. "People can get information about our department right in their homes," he says. "They can learn more about our department other than what they see on TV or hear on the radio."

Tunforss also predicts other technology, such as iPhones and Skype, will change the way he interacts with the public since both technologies allow videoconferencing. Currently he has access to Skype, although he has yet to fully utilize it. "With Skype, if an incident happens, I can go live," he says.

CAL FIRE, however, does use Skype as well as a host of other social networking technologies to release information. "Communication is now just a click away," Schuler says. "When people are looking for information, we want to make sure they have a quick way to find it."

The agency's Flickr site contains more than 3,300 photos, all of which are organized by incident and are available free of charge to the news media. Descriptions and geotags enhance usability. In its first six months, the site has already had nearly 70,000 views. "If a news station is doing a story on a structural fire safety, they can support it with a photo from our site," he says.

CAL FIRE also has a Twitter site which has served as a useful avenue for disseminating information not picked up by the news media. "We're constantly sending press releases to the media, but not all of them are seen by citizens," he says. "Twitter gives them real-time updates of fires, evacuations, critical phone numbers, etc."

A recent tweet let residents know the "Fire on Camp Pendleton is out. Fire in Riverside County is 80 acres and 20% contained."

A blog, written in conjunction with his captain, serves as the agency's homepage as well as an outlet for articles and important community links. "We've tried to make it a one-stop shop where people can find important information and links to their communities, such as local volunteer programs, safety councils, etc.," he continues. There is also a YouTube channel for CAL FIRE at the state level.

Schuler focuses on three important groups to keep residents informed: elected officials (including congressional districts, boards of supervisors, senate districts, etc.), the media (TV, radio and print for all of San Diego County as well as Los Angeles) and a fire chief list (any other agency that may be impacted by local incidents). In all, he reaches more than 200 agencies with information blasted via smartphone or laptop computer, which is mounted in the vehicle so information can be relayed in real time.

Tips for Success

Being a PIO is a 24/7 job, says Tunforss, who provides media representatives with his home phone number as well as mobile numbers for personal and agency cell phones so he is accessible at all times. "That may mean I need to do an interview early so it can be ready for someone's 6 a.m. news," he says.

Between Schuler and a captain, someone is always available 24/7 at Cal Fire, too. Appointing a dedicated PIO versus adding PIO duties as ancillary responsibilities to someone else's job provides several benefits, says Schuler. His agency has one line dedicated to the media. They know no matter what, someone will be available to give interviews, provide critical information and answer questions.

"It's important for someone to answer the phone and provide critical information," says Schuler. "Always having someone available to provide accurate information also helps prevent speculation about what actually happened during a particular incident."

There is also an added benefit to the agency, adds Tunforss. "With five fire stations, not everyone goes on every call," he says, "but everyone can keep updated about what's happening at other stations through the media."

Accuracy of information is your first responsibility, says Tunforss. "Be sure everything you release is 100% accurate," he says.

Schuler also adds that with the immediacy of social sites such as Facebook, accuracy can be a challenge. "People can send out information that may not be entirely correct," he says. "As an agency, we have to make sure any information we send out has been vetted, approved and is correct."

Schuler offers this additional advice:

 

  • Gain the support of your chief: If he doesn't understand the importance of public information and education, it can be an uphill battle.
  • Establish good communication with neighboring agencies: Include law enforcement agencies, other fire and/or EMS agencies, etc. You may not foresee having to make contact with any one else, but if you do, you will want to have an established relationship.
  • Keep lines of communication open with elected officials: If they don't understand the benefits you bring to the community, it will be difficult, especially in these times, for them to support you if they don't know what you do.
  • Be honest with the media: There will be times when you make mistakes. Own up to them and tell them how you intend to fix them. That can minimize the amount of time an inaccuracy can live on in the news.
  • Establish an open door policy with the media and take time to interact with its representatives: Stop by and interact with assignment editors and managers to ensure they know how to contact you, how you will provide information and how you can support one another.

 

Tunforss adds a few additional tips:

 

  • Determine what is appropriate to release: People want to know who, what, when, where and how an incidence affects them, but sometimes it's not appropriate to release all the details. Run information by your incident commander to determine what is appropriate. If the information involves another agency, run it by them, too. For example, Tunforss relates that releasing all of the details of a recent burglary in the area could have compromised the investigation.
  • Be accountable: Track everything and keep good records. Also, be fair to all media and release information to everyone at the same time. Favoring one particular media or reporter over another can destroy relationships you work so hard to develop and foster.
  • Control released information: Provide information at a pace that is comfortable to both the public and the agency. If you're in a situation that affects a lot of people, such as a wildfire, flood, power outage or evacuation, release information as quickly as possible but in a manner by which the public can understand but not panic.
  • Be aware of educational opportunities: Prevention messages need to be part of a total program. Take the opportunity to educate the public about safety, such as what is related fire prevention, vehicle crashes, etc. For example, Tunforss used a recent house fire to reiterate safety tips about how to safely extinguish kitchen fires. A drowning at the Bullhead City-Laughlin River Regatta held just weeks ago became an opportunity to reiterate water safety.

       

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