Best Face Forward

It's a world of image and perception out there today, and EMS isn't immune. Like any entity, our organizations need to have their best face forward and perspectives projected to a public that will ultimately decide things like who gets its business and how it'll be funded. That's helped raise the role of the EMS public information officer to a level of importance that may exceed even the chief's.

That was the rhetorical hook that drew attendees to Richard Huff's EMS World Expo presentation on the value of the PIO. The media world has gotten awfully complex, with TV and Internet and social media supplementing the daily paper as key outlets, and managing a department's public presence isn't a function to be taken lightly, said Huff, television editor for the New York Daily News and chief of the Atlantic Highlands First Aid Squad in New Jersey.

The traditional role of the PIO is providing information to the public during major events. That's still important. It requires communication skills, knowledge of the news business and an ability to function calmly under pressure. But while it's easy enough to give accurate information or introduce a chief to speak, the modern PIO must master more. Today's public/press liaison has to be articulate with words both written and spoken, conscious of appearance, familiar with all aspects of increasingly complex EMS organizations, technologically deft and able to interact proficiently with a diverse range of people. It's not just a single beat writer paying attention anymore; bloggers and other commenters—including a public armed with social media—abound with often-critical opinions.

That's a nice segue into the other half of the PIO's role: exposing an organization and getting it positive notice, even when it's not answering a major call. EMS organizations do a lot of good things beyond emergency care—installing and inspecting child safety seats, for example; teaching CPR; educating kids to the dangers of drunk driving. Those are valuable contributions, and the public should know you're looking out for them. Sharing such information can lead to a higher profile and improved funding and opportunities, as well as boost provider morale.

In sharing good news, the PIO will likely handle a department's social media presence: sending its Tweets, updating its Facebook page, creating videos for its YouTube channel. Departments without all those things should get them—they're valuable ways to disseminate important information (breaking disaster news, in addition to the positive "soft" news described above) and get feedback and other information in return. Once created, however, such outlets have to be fed; populate them regularly with stories, links and other information. Keep your social media active, not static.

As an industry, EMS hasn't been very good at getting its story out. We're healers, Huff said, and often just expect the public to understand what we do and why, or at least give us the benefit of any doubt. But with unprecedented scrutiny and even public safety now on the budgetary chopping block, that's not wise. Objectively, you're a brand. To thrive, act like it.

Some additional tips for PIOs and their organizations:

  • Major media may not think of you--they have other things going on. If you want to be mentioned alongside police and fire, reach out, particularly in nonemergency times. Become familiar. Help them help you.
  • Know deadlines, beat writers and preferred methods of submission for key media outlets.
  • Giving exclusive stories to preferred outlets can help gain attention, but may alienate others. Spread the love around.
  • Don't always default to the chief for a public face. EMS organizations have lots of interesting people with varying areas of expertise who can speak effectively.
  • Have a clear policy, though. Everyone need not speak to the press.
  • atch what others in public safety and other areas do to promote themselves. Steal good ideas.
  • Never lie. It's OK to say, "I don't know. I'll find out and get back to you."
  • Avoid EMS jargon. Use clear English when communicating with the public.
  • When things go bad, don't lose your head. Stay calm and help educate reporters. If there's a problem, emphasize what you're doing about it.

Other resources:

NIMS Public Information role overview

IS-702.a NIMS Public Information Systems course