The Changing Face of PIOs

Finding new ways to fulfill the constant goal of outreach and community education in an ever-changing world

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, "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.

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