A cruise ship is returning to your local port with more than 100 passengers sick. An EMS crew is dispatched to a motor vehicle collision with multiple injured victims. An EMS unit is involved in a crash while responding to an emergency. Your organization is running low on emergency medications as a result of national shortages.
These are a few examples of events that will most likely be of interest to the media. Is your organization prepared to work with your local media outlets on a daily basis and during large events? As an EMS officer you may need to speak for your department or develop a plan to address requests for information. Therefore, every organization must consider implementing some kind of media relations/public information plan.
A media relations plan is designed to ensure responsiveness and timely dissemination of information requested by media. A public information officer, or PIO, is the individual who coordinates and disseminates the information. Information may be shared by press release, television, radio, face-to-face interviews, and use of the Internet. The PIO is generally the department’s spokesperson and an integral part of the media relations plan.
Media relations/PIO plans may differ per each department’s organizational structure, service delivery area (geography), budget constraints, and resources. Here are a few key points to consider.
The Job of the PIO
Besides distributing organizational information to the media, it’s also the PIO’s job to build strong relationships with local media representatives. Although budget constraints may require the PIO role to be filled by an employee with other duties, it’s preferable to have a full-time PIO for access anytime. One of the first priorities when determining who will serve as the department’s PIO is to ensure what level of training will be required.
PIO training must include someone who has thorough knowledge of the organization’s administrative and operational activities. The PIO (and anyone who may back them up) must also have a minimum understanding of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Some organizations may require a formal degree in communications, journalism, or broadcasting and experience in a media-related field. Requirements may differ among organizations; however, the PIO must be able to verify, coordinate, gather, and disseminate accurate information while representing the organization in a professional manner.
The following are a few duties to consider when developing the PIO’s role and responsibilities:
Maintain positive relations with media representatives (assignment editors and reporters) who cover the local EMS jurisdiction, as well as other agency PIOs in the area.
Coordinate and disseminate information through various mediums of communication.
Be able to gather information and write a cohesive press release.
Maintain a professional demeanor and appearance on camera and during radio and telephone interviews.
Develop and maintain a workflow map as it pertains to how requests for information will be received and conveyed to the PIO.
Be prepared to participate in the activation of a joint information center (JIC) and ensure joint information system (JIS) operations take place during significant events.
Clearly articulate the role and expectations of the PIO during day-to-day activities and during large-scale events.
By not having a PIO readily available to address media inquiries, an organization risks losing the opportunity to promote itself in a positive light and ensure the correct information is disseminated.
Organizations must also be ready to address requests that aren’t emergency-related. Reporters may inquire about areas like budgeting, citizen complaints, and training/preparation. They may also seek interviews for feel-good stories such as patient saves, the purchase of new equipment, the opening of a new station, holiday safety tips, and so on.
When a large-scale incident occurs, the media may be requesting information even before the first unit arrives on scene. Command officers must not be occupied with who will address the media, where to stage it, and when and where press briefings will be conducted. This must already be included in the media relations/PIO plan.
During large-scale events the PIO will be called upon to disseminate information not only to community residents, guests, and local media but also national and international media outlets. There is no doubt they will be under tremendous pressure to gather and release information in a timely manner. Therefore, depending on the size of the incident, a JIC may be activated to assist with the gathering, verification, coordination, and dissemination of information. PIOs must be rotated, just like prehospital providers working an extended event. The following are some PIO activities to consider during large-scale events:
Who will be disseminating the information? This may be the PIO, command staff, emergency management representative, local government official, elected official, or all of the above.
What information will be disseminated? Decide whether you’ll release just incident information, patient information, or both. The PIO must know what he or she is permitted to release to the media and public.
When will the information be released? The incident commander will determine if the information will be released as the incident is unfolding, during set press briefings, or both.
Where will the media stage? Although it may be difficult to predict when and where an event will take place, there should be an understanding of where it is best to stage media representatives during large-scale incidents. The PIO must make every effort to stage the media away from the incident command center and active scene, but close enough for quick access and in a space large enough for their equipment, personnel, and related business. Once the scene is safe (not considered a crime scene or under investigation and approved by the IC), the PIO may consider escorting media representatives to the scene so they can see what transpired and gather information there. Maintaining the Joint Information Center to ensure a consistent message during and after the incident must be a priority.
How will the information be released? Also, it must be clear if the field PIO will disseminate information directly to media outlets or information from the field will be directed to the JIC and then released. If the media doesn’t get the information from the department’s PIO in a timely manner, rest assured it will obtain the information elsewhere.
All EMS organizations ultimately face administrative or operational incidents that will attract media coverage. Therefore, unless leaders commit to crafting and implementing a media relations/PIO plan, they will most likely find themselves scrambling to determine who will disseminate information and what information will be released. Don’t wait to craft a plan if your organization doesn’t have one—it’s not if, but when the media will be requesting information from your organization.
Orlando J. Dominguez, Jr., MBA, RPM, is assistant chief of EMS for Brevard County Fire Rescue in Rockledge, Fla. He has more than 30 years of EMS experience and has served as a firefighter-paramedic, flight paramedic, field training officer, EMS educator, and division chief. He has authored two books, including EMS Supervisor: Principles and Practice, and is a certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt. Follow him at @ems_officer.