Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Yes, NORAD, there is a Santa Claus

Picture if you will just how dangerous things were. It was 1955. The Korean War had gone into armistice just two years earlier, but the threat of Communist aggression was seen everywhere. Senator Joseph McCarthy was seeing the Red Menace in places - such as the entertainment world and industry - that struck to the heart of our identity as Americans and the United States stood on high alert, anticipating the real possibility of Soviet bombers showing up on radar, ready to unleash unimaginable destruction on the heartland of the United States.

The infamous ad with the misprinted number
Now, imagine one of the worst-timed misprints ever in the history of advertising. The local Sears and Roebuck department store in Colorado Springs invited children to call a special number to speak with Santa Claus. Instead of ringing at the 'North Pole', the phone rang on the secret action line at CONAD headquarters - the Continental Air Defense Command.

Radar technicians, not sure what to do, turned to duty officer Colonel Harry Shoup for guidance. Realizing he was in a unique position, he initially asked an Airman to play the role of the jolly old elf. Later, he authorized the phone operators to give the children who called a current status report on the location of Santa's famous sleigh.

Canadian air defense technicians monitoring Santa's location on radar
From those humble beginnings, CONAD, later replaced by NORAD - the North American Aerospace Defense Command, continued the tradition. Today, Colonel Shoup's small token of kindness has become an internet sensation at the official NORAD Tracks Santa website.

Just how popular? NORAD reported that on Christmas Eve of 2013, nearly 20 million unique visitors came to the website, and 1,200 volunteers answered just shy of 120,000 calls, with similarly high numbers on Twitter and Facebook.

Volunteers getting into the spirit of the holiday at the NORAD operations center
So, why write about this for the PIO Chronicles? Just imagine if CONAD contacted the local Sears and Roebuck demanding the ad be pulled, changed their secure phone number and pretended this had never happened. Think of the millions of children - and their families - that would have never had the opportunity to enjoy this unique opportunity. Think of the good will and community outreach that has occurred through the years, putting a human face on the service that helps ensure our safety.

And, yes, think of the joy it brings the people who have one of the toughest jobs on a daily basis.

I will be taking some time off from the PIO Chronicles to enjoy the holidays with my family and friends. Until I see you again in 2015, I wish each of you nothing but health, happiness and just a little spark of that holiday magic.

And, for my colleagues who do have to work over the holidays, I wish you comfort, safety and good will.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Friday, December 19, 2014

The weekly read

A blurring of lines
US News and World Report
Dec. 16, 2014

Starting in late November, a new form of warfare was unleashed on Sony Pictures and Entertainment from an unidentified source. This attack didn't involve a single bullet, smart bomb or main battle tank. Instead, it was a cyber attack on a non-governmental entity to preemptively stop the release of the movie the Interview.

The movie at the heart of the cyber attack
The entity behind the cyber attack has been linked to the North Korean regime, and has caused Sony and numerous theater chains to delay the release of the movie due to the threat of violence against moviegoers.

This article, written by Eric Schnurer, postulates that we may have just witnessed the first shots in a new kind of 21st century warfare. As public information officers, it is critical for us to explore the potential repercussions of this new type of attack on both private and public computer servers. As we all know with the proliferation of Internet technology and social media to get our message out, our contingency plans need to consider what would happen if these crucial links to our citizens are lost - or even worse - taken over by some malevolent actor seeking to turn our tools against us.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Getting the good news out

Being a public information officer isn't necessarily all about rushing to get out the latest life-saving information. Sometimes, it's about building the relationship with the community. Showing how our first responders give freely of themselves to help their communities.

When I worked my first job in the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Make-A-Wish foundation, we were called routinely by assignment editors. Yes, the media does want to cover the hard-hitting stories of the day, but they also understand that human interest stories connect with their readers, listeners and viewers. 
Members of the Tallahassee FD shopping with underprivileged kids...
So, when I hear the story about Tallahassee firefighters hosting their annual Shop With A Firefighter event to benefit underprivileged children, I know it was the result of a smart PIO reaching out to his or her contacts in the media to make this happen.

Pinellas County's Ride and Run with the Stars event
Or, when I see news about the Pinellas County Sheriff's office holding their 21st Annual Ride and Run with the Stars event, that raises money for buying gifts and food for deserving families, I know it's the result of some hard work and determination from the public information staff at that office. 

Or, when I heard about the Secret Santa who has been giving money to people in Kansas City, I knew I had to share it here.  For several years now, a wealthy businessman has been giving cash to down on their luck people during the holiday season, hoping to bring some happiness to their lives. This year, he enlisted the help of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department deputies in distributing the funds. 

Knowing that the relationship between law enforcement officers and the community has been strained in the state of Missouri, his thought was to let the officers be the bearers of good news this year. And, as CBS News' Steve Hartman found out, the reaction from the public was overwhelming.

I have seen this story a few times now, and for some reason, I still find my eyes leaking a bit every time I watch the story.

In this case, the story was good enough to draw national attention. And, when you think about it, that's exactly what it deserved.

So, as we find ourselves deeper in the holiday season, it's important to remember to keep our eyes open for stories such as these. The small acts of kindness that seem small or insignificant can help portray your agency in a good light as a community partner, and will build good will with your local media outlets, making for a very happy holiday.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, December 15, 2014

My moment of clarity

If you have a lemon, make lemonade.
                                       - Dale Carnegie

You know, there are lessons everywhere in life. And, when it comes to my work as a public information officer, those lessons are legion.

I have already told you about how the space program gave me some perspective into how public information officers work together in a Joint Information Center.  How a brownie box provides valuable lessons in how to reach an audience.

Mechanics are experts.. it's best to listen to them...
So, when I neglected the obvious signs that my car was having some issues, I got another valuable - and expensive - lesson in just how people who don't do what we do for a living can overlook the basics, leaving us wondering if they are really paying attention,

Melissa Agnes speaking about disaster and crisis communications
I related this story to Melissa Agnes, who posted it over at her blog as a cautionary tale for public information officers everywhere. Namely, it's easy for us to pay attention to the little details that we are immersed in every day, but if we are taken out of our element, would we fare as well as we hoped?

How did I do? Well, let's just say that I missed the obvious, and it ended up costing me more than a few unexpected thousand dollars at an auto dealership on a sunny April afternoon.

Remember the most important lesson about any pursuit...

Good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement. 
                                      - Will Rogers

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Friday, December 12, 2014

The weekly read

Communication in the Fukushima Crisis: How did the officials, scientists and media perform?
Oceanus Magazine
May 9, 2013

On March 11, 2013, a catastrophic earthquake took place just east of Sendai, Japan. Not only did the temblor rock a heavily-populated area of the island nation, it also triggered a massive tsunami, Powerful waves more than 4 meters high battered the coastline of northern Japan, flooding the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, knocking its vital cooling equipment offline.

Tsunami damage at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant
This damage crippled the plant, leading to the largest nuclear accident since the Chernobyl incident of 1986, necessitating the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents from the affected areas.

The article written by David Pacchioli addresses the disconnect between the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the media and the government officials as to the severity of the incident, and how the first ten days after the start of the massive crisis were marked by confusion, distrust and fear. One of the greatest lessons learned was that failure to plan for such a crisis helped foment the confusion and fear, putting lives at risk.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Talking about talking

There's an old expression that goes something like this: be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

I am a graduate of our county's succession management program, and during the last few classes of that two-year-long course, I asked the facilitator if they needed any help in offering a class I had taken nearly 15 years ago called Giving Successful Presentations.

Me and my big mouth...
Well, as an experienced presenter, our human resources department took me up on the offer, and yesterday, I led the pilot offering of the new incarnation of the program. We had a dozen students in the class, and after a morning of instruction, we had each of them give a five-minute presentation on the topic of their choosing.

Now, what does this have to do with emergency communications?

I am glad you asked.

In the event of a large, catastrophic event such as a hurricane, the public information officers in our county are going to be overwhelmed. National media will descend on our area, citizens will be looking for information and it will take us a while to regain our footing and assess just how badly we have been hit.

A Red Cross volunteer speaks with a resident who has lost everything
Post storm, we will be turning to many of our employees who are able to return to work not only to try their best to get the county back on its feet, but to also serve as our ambassadors out with the citizens. Someone is going to have to address the residents' questions about where to find their lost pets, how to report price gougers and when they can re-enter their devastated neighborhoods.

Someone will have to do this speaking, so why not build a cadre of well-trained spokespeople who will be able to confidently get up in front of an audience and deliver a message?

What did we cover? Well, some of the key points included understanding that presentations require a five-step process, which includes:

  • Plan: Getting the details for the presentation, understanding the audience and determining the length of the presentation.
  • Develop: Gathering the information, building a solid introduction, developing key content points and building a killer close.
  • Prepare: Beating the jitters, practicing the right way and learning how much appearances matter.
  • Dazzle: Getting to the venue early, focusing your energy and delivering the best presentation possible.
  • Evaluate: Discovering what worked, what didn't and how could it be improved. 

How'd we do? Well, the evaluations looked good, and it looks as if only minor tweaks will be required to get the presentation into its final version.

All in all, I'd say it was a great opportunity to teach some valuable skills - something that doesn't hurt to have in your back pocket should the worst happen.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, December 8, 2014

New technology, sound principles

This past Thursday, my wife took me and our two sons over to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch of the new Orion crew vehicle. We got on the road at midnight and drove through the night, arriving at the space center at 2:30 a.m.  We boarded buses and headed to the Saturn V center on the Banana River to watch the launch.

And, it got scrubbed. So, we headed home, disappointed and exhausted.

The successful launch of the Orion crew vehicle on a Delta IV Heavy
The next morning, NASA was able to launch the vehicle on the first attempt. Oh, well, that's the way space exploration works.

At the end of the four-hour flight, the Orion oriented itself for re-entry, and after a fiery burn, the capsule parachuted gently into the tropical Pacific Ocean, just west of Baja California.

The splashdown of Apollo 17
While it is 2014, the scene was eerily reminiscent of the splashdowns of the Mercury, Gemini or Apollo programs which took place more than half a century ago. The Space Shuttle did enter the atmosphere and land like an airplane, but the engineers who worked on the design of the craft that will take our next big step in human exploration have decided that the capsule arrangement is safer and more cost-effective. Thus, we are back to the future in our design.

I find this step backwards to be fascinating, especially when it comes to the field of emergency public relations in the day and age of social media, instant messaging and direct community engagement.  What role does the lowly press release play in today's day and age?

An honest to goodness paper press release
Believe me, I have heard from many PIOs who say they have completely abandoned the idea of writing a news release, relying instead to Tweet, Facebook and YouTube their way to communications. They argue that residents turn to social media to find out what's going on, and the faster the news can be delivered, the better. They also point out that most assignment desks in newsrooms carefully monitor social media to get their story ideas, so feeding the internet beast is - in their minds - the best way to get in touch with the public.

I beg to differ. In my experience, I have found that even in the age of social media, the news release is still a valid form to use, and it can help get the exposure your story needs.

First, it gives you the opportunity to write a complete thought. Unlike Twitter's rigid 140 character limit, you can expound on your idea to put a little bit more meat on the bones. You can build your story out in a more complete form, which gives reporters a little bit more to work with.

You can also ensure that the reporters have your contact information when you e-mail the release to the editors. This way, they know exactly who to contact, instead of guessing.

If the release is written in Associated Press Style, and you can include a few photos to illustrate the main points of the release, there's a good chance that some reporters will pick the story up and run it as is.

News releases and your online presence can help push your message out
If you post the news release to your organization's website, you can Tweet or Facebook the link out to the release, again, giving your residents and the media the whole story, instead of having them have to search your organization's website to find the right page.

No, I'm not encouraging you to give up on social media for your organization. In fact, I think that the press release and social media work together closely, hand in hand, to give you the best exposure possible.

You see, those NASA engineers were really on to something after all!

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Friday, December 5, 2014

The weekly read

Did social media make the situation in Ferguson better or worse?
Nov. 25, 2014

Following the statements of St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCullough the night the grand jury's decision was announced to not prosecute Officer Darren Wilson in the actions that led to the death of Michael Brown, protests in Ferguson, Missouri turned violent. While this was certainly not the first time in American history a decision such as this has caused violence, the question has been raised - what role did social media play in the creation of the unrest?

A Ferguson, Missouri firefighter surveys the damage after a night of unrest
This article, written by Mathew Ingram, explores the decisions and actions of several players and how they affected public perception of the facts of the case. This article provides a fascinating study of how differing accounts of the happenings of the events of August 9 have spread through social media platforms, and why it's important for all to read and vet data from multiple sources.

Social media has certainly changed the way information is released, and lessons learned from events such as Ferguson will help responses in the future.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Just because it has been a long time...

In case you were playing along at home, the 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season came to a close this past Monday. It passed with little fanfare, because it was a very inactive year, with only eight named systems, with only Gonzalo causing significant damage to Bermuda.

The 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season summary map...
Thus continues the unbelievable streak of nine consecutive years of no hurricanes making landfall in the state of Florida... an amazing run of luck. Since 1878, the longest the Sunshine State has gone without a hurricane landfall was five years, from 1980 to 1984.

The longer we get from the landfall of Hurricane Wilma back in 2005, the more people who live here will start to believe that it will never happen again. And, as people have moved here since that monumental 2005 hurricane season, they come unprepared for - and for the most part unaware of - the incredible power and danger these storms present.

But, just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it won't again. I'd like to turn your attention to an appropriate, yet opposite analogy - the New York Jets of the NFL. The rabid fans who head to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on autumn Sundays recall the glory days of 1969, when Broadway Joe Namath led his team against the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

Joe Namath leading the underdog Jets to victory
What a game it was. The ever-brash quarterback guaranteed a win against the juggernaut team from Baltimore, and he delivered on his promise. So the faithful still come to the games, believing that one day, a new confident leader will arrive on the team to help them claim their next championship.

The sad Jets fans of today
The running joke, however, is that the Jets were last champions when men landed on the Moon, and may claim their next title when men land on Mars. Those poor fans have suffered through some abysmal years, yet they keep coming back for more, believing that one day it will happen. While not this year, given enough draft picks, free agent acquisitions, improvements in coaching and a little bit of luck, one day it will happen again...

Surprisingly, it's easier to get Jets fans to show to the stadium in anticipation of some elusive wins than to get Floridians to prepare for the potential of a landfalling hurricane.

Somehow, we need to get our residents to understand that one day, the storms will return. Or the earthquake will happen. Or the wildfire will break out. And they have to take the steps to prepare today while we have the calm and time to make it happen. To harden their homes. To buy the necessary supplies.

After all, no Jets fan would want to be caught without their fan gear when the Jets return to claim their championship.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The accidental PIO

Alright everyone, welcome back from the kickoff to the holiday season here in the United States - Thanksgiving. I hope that everyone was able to spend some quality time with their families, enjoy a little turkey and maybe even get a little holiday shopping done.  I think my greatest accomplishment this weekend was serving up this gorgeous smoked turkey from my grill.

A bird of exquisite beauty...
There's nothing quite like cooking a turkey on the grill outdoors in November when everyone else is shoveling snow...

Enough of rubbing it in with the weather. Today, I am pleased to announce that Melissa Agnes of Agnes + Day: The Crisis Intelligence Firm released the podcast we recorded a few weeks ago called The Accidental PIO.  Melissa is an excellent interviewer, and the hour plus of our conversation just flew by. We touched on several topics, including:
  • Strategies to help you excuse-proof disaster planning
  • How to reshape your message to make an impact and reach your audience in new ways
  • Digital communication strategies for your PIO toolbox
  • Tips for feeding the media to inspire them (and make their jobs easier) to help share your important messages and stories.  
Internationally-renowned crisis preparedness speaker Melissa Agnes is a whiz when it comes to media relations.
Give it a listen, and I hope that you find some of the information useful in your crisis preparedness efforts, and I look forward to working with her again in the future.


Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, November 24, 2014

Coming to you live ...

So, this past week, I spent three days teaching other public information officers about the craft. It's a pretty common thing that I do, but the classes were anything but common, because of the developments that were happening in real time.

Early Thursday morning, Florida State University alumnus Myron May walked onto the school's campus, into the library and began shooting. He wounded three before being shot and killed by campus police. On that second day of our training, we would have normally had a few reporters in to be part of our media panel, where the students would have had the opportunity to ask questions of them.

The press briefing by Tallahassee Police Department Chief Michael Deleo
As you might imagine, with these developments made reporters were unavailable to come to the class. This was the first time since I started teaching that this happened, but it proved to be a valuable lesson for the class. At 3 p.m., the university held a press conference, which we tuned in to and watched as events unfolded, providing a valuable lesson in how media relations are conducted during a crisis and in front of a large, international audience.

On Friday, word also came down that the grand jury was nearing a decision in the Ferguson, Missouri case of the officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown. Given the unrest that took place immediately after the incident this past summer, the community is bracing again in anticipation of what could potentially take place after the decision is handed down.

Tensions are high near Ferguson, Missouri
As we watched the coverage of that on Friday - during the class training students about Joint Information Center operations - our major discussion was about what must be taking place in a Joint Information Center inside Ferguson, Missouri.

While it was a totally unorthodox method of instructing the class, these two incidents provided valuable insight into the operations of public information during times of crisis - quite the opportunity for our students to learn from.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Friday, November 21, 2014

The weekly read

Talking Ethics:  Competition vs. Consideration
Bill Mitchell
The Poynter Institute

May 19, 1998 was a dark day for the law enforcement community in west central Florida. Hank Earl Carr, a convicted felon, had shot and killed his girlfriend's four-year-old son, was arrested, managed to escape his handcuffs and killed two Tampa detectives and a state trooper, eventually barricading himself in a gas station with a hostage before succumbing to a possibly self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Hank Earl Carr arrested by Tampa Detectives Randy Bell (left) and Rick Childers (far right)
What made that event so memorable, however, was the way that certain members of the Tampa media inserted themselves into the narrative of the event, with a news radio station conducting a phone interview with the assailant during the stand off.

Mitchell's series on the actions of the reporters that day is an interesting discussion of the ethical decisions made that day and what journalists can learn from those events.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Today, I teach

Today, tomorrow and Friday, I will be away from my office doing something I find very enjoyable - instructing FEMA's G290 Basic Public Information Officer and G291 Joint Information Center/Joint Information System training at our county's emergency operations center. This has to be - by far - one of the best parts of my job.

Wave 'hi' to the camera!
What makes it so much fun? Easy - each class is an opportunity for me to learn from the students who take the class.

I know that may seem counter-intuitive. After all, I'm one of the instructors, supposedly the one with the answers. And, the students are all brand new to the craft, eagerly seeking those answers, right?

That's not always the case. For instance, I can remember the time in 2010 when two of our students had come from Texas. I thought that odd, since we tend to draw only from the Sunshine State. It turns out that these two students were both from the U.S. Army, and had been stationed at Fort Hood during the shooting that killed 13 and wounded 33. The base commander had instructed these two public information officers to take the first class they could attend, and that led them to Clearwater.

The scene at Fort Hood, Texas
Believe me, the stories the two students shared with the class were a lesson that we all learned from.

There are students who come to us as full-time professional public information officers, and those who wear the PIO hat with several others. We have PIOs from large agencies with several colleagues, and those who serve several small agencies.

Some students have just moved to PIO duties after leaving long careers with the media, while others have only the barest experience in media relations. Believe me, there is much to learn from both ends of the spectrum.

I also learn a lot from my co-instructors. Through the years, I have been honored to teach with some of the best public information officers I have ever had the honor of meeting. Carl Fowler. Louis Fernandez. Bob Lasher. Holley Wade. And, her husband - and one of my most important mentors - Bill Wade.

Bill Wade working the scene of the 2000 Ybor City fire
It would not be an exaggeration to say that retired Tampa Fire Rescue Captain Bill Wade was critical in making me the PIO I am today. Bill is a legend when it comes to media relations here in the Tampa Bay area. If there was a big event here in the region, you knew for sure Bill was going to be there. From Super Bowls to the massive 2000 Ybor City Fire, Bill was there, cooly answering questions and working with reporters to get the story out to help residents make the right decisions to protect themselves and their families.

Sure, it will be a few tough days of teaching, but I wouldn't trade a second of it. This is where I learn as much as the students I teach.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, November 17, 2014

Show, don't tell

People really do want to make the proper preparations when it comes to potential disasters. Seriously. No one envisions being left without power, a method of communicating or something as basic as food after a disaster visits. "Boy, I hope my smoke detector batteries don't work when a fire breaks out!" is something I doubt you will ever hear as a disaster preparedness spokesperson.

The problem is that for many people, they mean well, but they may not be aware of how to actually do the task you need them to do. Again, it's not that people are ignorant, they just don't have disaster preparedness in the fore of their minds as many of us do, and they may not have the know-how to take the proper steps. Or, even worse, they may have heard the 'old wisdom' of doing things a certain way, but don't understand how worthless - or even dangerous - these incorrect methods can be.

Taping windows before a hurricane arrives
Let's talk for a moment about something we see here in hurricane country - taping windows.  Study after study has shown that taping windows is a totally worthless step in preparing for a hurricane's impact. There isn't even any consensus of how taping windows even works. I have heard all sorts of reasons why taping is supposed to be effective - it hold the glass together if debris blows into the window. It cushions the impact on the glass. It strengthens the glass, making it less likely to break.

Despite all of the times we have explained to people why taping their windows is just a myth, we still see tape going up when  hurricane threatens.

What we needed was a way to demonstrate once and for all why taping windows was such a bad idea. Fortunately for us, we have a local high school whose mascot name is the Hurricanes - Clearwater High School. In Florida, students can also qualify for scholarship dollars through the Bright Future program if they perform a number of volunteer hours. With a little bit of thinking, a few phone calls and some imagination, we came up with the Tape Strikes Out video, one of our most popular on the YouTube channel.

By using a bit of humor, a few video cameras and an explanation of why taping is ineffective, we were able to show with no question why shuttering windows with plywood is far superior to taping them.

While our efforts were just a small drop in the bucket, the idea was picked up by other organizations, namely the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. Their Go Tapeless campaign of a few years ago built on the momentum we had started in our county, pushing the message nationwide.

FLASH invites you to Go Tapeless
This is just one example of how addressing a myth head-on can hopefully change behaviors to encourage residents to take appropriate, meaningful steps to improve their safety. This template can work with just about any other public safety education campaign, and is a perfect way to invite others to the table to partner together.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Friday, November 14, 2014

The weekly read

Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective
By J. Samuel Walker
ISBN-13: 978-0520239401

In the spring of 1979, a movie opened in theaters across the country. It featured the story of a near disaster at a nuclear power plant which had the potential to kill thousands if the core’s containment system failed. The movie was The China Syndrome, and it proved to be an eerie premonition of a very similar accident just 12 days later outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant began with a simple stuck valve, later escalating due to confusing warning systems and incomplete staff training. While a portion of the core did melt, the worst case scenario – a breaching of the redundant containment system – didn’t happen. The lack of clear lines of command, however, led to near-panic as residents in the Mid-Atlantic wondered what to do. This event - and the confusion caused by the tangled chain of command and communication - was one of the first challenges to face the newly-formed agency known as FEMA. 

Walker’s book drills into great detail about the causes of the accident, the response by local, state and national officials and how Three Mile Island changed the course of nuclear energy.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

When you can't see the threat

In Florida, we are very fortunate when it comes to our disasters. Ever since the first global weather satellite coverage in 1975, it has been virtually impossible for a hurricane to sneak up on our coast, visiting terrible destruction upon our residents.

The first ever GOES satellite image taken in October, 1975
For other parts of the world, the threats come with less warning, but plenty of notice. The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma can forecast when conditions are right for tornado formation. Geologists at the USGS can state with certainty where fault lines lie, alerting residents to the threat posed by earthquakes. And, when it comes to hazardous materials transported by truck or rail car, people who live near those potential hazardous materials spills can see and understand the threat that faces them.

Epidemiologists study the spread of infectious diseases
But, what about threats that are so small, they can't be seen with the naked eye?  Those threats sure are out there, and they have the potential to cause panic when they are introduced to a population. Those threats are the many illnesses which can become epidemic - or even worse - pandemic.

Is there reason to be concerned about diseases even in the 21st century? You bet. Believe it or not, arguably the deadliest pandemic in human history happened just shy of a century ago. At the end of World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic spread like wildfire, infecting nearly half a billion people and killing between 50 and 100 million.

Soldiers near Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with the flu
As we saw during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and recently with Ebola, illnesses still have a unique ability to cause outright panic in residents. After all, if you can see something as damaging as a hurricane, you can do things to get out of its way and reduce its impact on you and your property. If you can't see the microbes causing the illness, people tend to become deeply concerned about their safety and well being.

Many of us are not public health PIOs - we may be working for the local fire or law enforcement agency. Maybe the local county, city or school board. Maybe the transit authority or a hospital. So, we may not be the lead agency when it comes to handling things such as pandemic infections.

But, that doesn't mean we get a free pass. The people we work with are counting on us to give accurate, timely information - and repeat that information as many times as necessary - to ensure they know the right steps to take to keep themselves and their families safe.

Information on steps to prevent the spread of illness - such as obtaining flu shots - can be beneficial
In an event like this, building a joint information system is critical. Basically, a joint information system is taking the time to get to know your colleagues in different organizations who serve the community you do. If you are a city PIO, get to know the PIOs in the surrounding cities, your county, even your state. Get in touch with the power company spokespeople, the school board and the public information team at the local hospitals. Cast your net wide, and understand how effectively each of these team members can reach out to their constituency.

Most importantly, be sure to keep each other in the loop. That should be a given for any type of disaster, but even more so when it comes to something unseen like an illness. By doing this, you can keep up on the latest information and also forward the rumors you are hearing to the people who have the right answers.

Just like a virus, bad information and rumor are contagious. The best inoculation is good, actionable information.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, November 10, 2014

Revising the training

As you may have guessed, this past week, I was up at the Emergency Management Institute at Emmitsburg, Maryland. I was part of a team that was called there to revise FEMA's public information officer training classes, and I have got to tell you it was an honor to be called there. I was among the best of the best - almost a Top Gun school for PIO's with others who teach these courses - and many others - around the country.

Me; Kevin Tunell from Yuma, Arizona; Joe Farago from Florida and Larry Hill from Virginia
While we were working, we learned a little bit about the history of the classes. Back in 1989, a number of FEMA's external affairs officers got together to put together a class to train PIOs how to do their job. It would be one of those fundamental classes that would give some hands-on experience and some solid tips on how to 'deal with' the media.

Back in 1989, that was pretty much all you needed. Other than faxes, phones and mail, how else would a PIO get in touch with a reporter? And, what was media outside of print, radio and TV? Those were indeed simpler times, and while the classes were updated through the years, those updates were scabbed onto the existing framework, making for some awkward transitions in the course material.

 A press conference held in the early 1980s
Today, though, we're looking at a totally reenvisioined world where the public information officer works. In today's social media and Internet driven world, things like deadlines mean a whole lot less than they used to, because even outlets that were heavily deadline driven have the ability to update everything on the fly.

Our job was to blow the entire course of study down to its framework and ask very important questions. Why should we keep doing the course? What are the critical skill sets that are important moving forward? Most importantly, how do we stop approaching social media and the internet as something 'new' and just start seeing it as another tool in the PIO toolbox?

The reporter's tools may change, but the skills are still necessary
We spent the better part of three days last week in deep thought on the materials, and the course designers ate up our input. The next step will be the challenge - taking our thoughts and input we gathered from other instructors around the country and pound it into shape. Talk is that in late spring or early summer, we may be able to see a pilot of the course offered to shake the bugs out of it.

Once that happens, I look forward to sharing with you some of the important changes that were made to the program.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A great training ground

This week, I am working at the Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Maryland. What goes on there, you might be asking? Well, it's one of the best centers for educating public information officers in the United States.

Occupying space formerly owned by a Catholic college, the campus sprawls just south of the Pennsylvania/Maryland border, less than 15 minutes from the historic Gettysburg battlefield. The campus is also home to the National Fire Training Academy, which is considered one of the premiere locations to learn about fire administration and more advanced concepts in the firefighting field.

I am here with a group of public information officers, course designers and education specialists assisting with a rewrite of FEMA's suite of public information courses taught by the states. These include Public Information Awareness, Basic Public Information Officer and the Joint Information System class. All three were last revised in 2009, and they are due for a revision to bring them in line with the advances in social media, news gathering and information dissemination that has taken place over the past five years.

While this may have been able to be accomplished by conference call or online, being at this facility, surrounded by people who share a common passion for creating the best public information systems is an exhilarating feeling. We are actually accomplishing some big things here, and it is our hope that the new version of the class is going to be something that future students can take to give them all the advantages possible to do the best job they can.

In the meantime, I just can't help but be amazed by the beauty of this place. There are numerous memorials around the grounds to the country's fallen firefighters, and those who gave their lives during the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. You can tell that each of the students and instructors here is working hard to ensure that everyone goes safely home after any incident regardless of its size or where it happens around the country.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, November 3, 2014

The brownie box

I know there are universities out there that teach marketing. Professional marketers work their entire careers developing the knowledge of their craft, and can offer a detailed analysis of audience trends and tendencies. And, if you want to bring in a consultant to do this for your organization, boy, can it cost!

But, I will wager that you walk past some of the best marketing lessons at least once a week - at the grocery store.

Choices, choices
Food companies spend a tremendous amount of money and conduct scads of research to gain the slightest edge against similar yet competing products on grocery store shelves. Legendary struggles between major companies - such as the one that rages between Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola - show how protracted and expensive this competition can be.

The eyes have it
That's why these companies hire marketing specialists not only for their advertising, but for their product packaging design. For instance, did you ever wonder why characters on children's cereal boxes often look down? That's because the pint-sized shoppers are at a much lower level than the boxes, and having these characters engage the little ones, they tend to want that cereal that much more.

What does this have to do with risk communication? I'm glad you asked. Let me show you something.

The back of a box of brownies
Do you know what this is? It's the back of a box of brownie mix. Everything you ever wanted to know about brownies you can read on the back of this box. How large of a pan to prepare. What other ingredients you will need to gather. How long to mix. How hot to set your oven. What you have to do differently if making these brownies in Denver vs. making them in Miami.

Is this the side that the manufacturer wants you to see first?  Absolutely not.

Mmmm, brownies!
This is the side that the manufacturer wants you to see first. The image of the hot and chewy, fresh from the oven, baked to perfection brownie that just can't wait for a scoop of vanilla ice cream (try it... you will like it) is always front and center. Why? Because, once the manufacturer catches your attention and draws your interest to that delicious dessert, only then you will pick up the box and read the back to see what you will need to do to bake your very own decadence on a plate.

Now, can I ask why much of our disaster preparedness outreach information looks like this?

Storm surge information on FEMA's website
This is a screen shot from FEMA's website a few years ago about storm surge - the deadliest impact from a landfalling hurricane. Does this attract your attention? Make you want to learn more about this devastating force of nature that laid a city like New Orleans low after Hurricane Katrina? You might just breeze by it, barely giving it a second thought.

Now, what if you saw something like this?

Our storm surge banner
This is a banner we had made at our office a few years ago showing the different expected surge levels for different categories of hurricanes should one make landfall in the Tampa Bay area. I've been places where this banner is on display, and the reaction of the people who walk by it is one of amazement. They had no idea that storm surge could be so high when it comes ashore.

This is, in effect, the front of the box of brownies when it comes to storm surge awareness. And, once we get their attention and they see what kind of impact storm surge has, that's when we can hand them more information about what causes storm surge, how they can find their evacuation levels and a host of other survival tips that can help save their lives.

The lessons are all around us. We just have to stop and ask ourselves, "how can we improve our outreach?" You just might be surprised where you can find the answers.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Friday, October 31, 2014

The weekly read

Zombie Preparedness
Office of Public Health, Centers for Disease Control

Today is Halloween. In addition to carved jack o'lanterns, trick-or-treaters and stomach aches from too much candy, the holiday is also known for scary stories about haunted houses, ghosts, monsters and zombies.

Playing off this theme, someone very creative at the Office of Public Health for the Centers for Disease Control came up with a clever and popular training tool - an exercise to prepare for a fictitious zombie apocalypse.

The site is chock full of resources to use the training materials, including posters, preparedness checklists, a zombie themed blog and even a novella to introduce people to the exercise.

I have seen some local first-responder teachers use this resource while training their students, giving disaster preparedness the appropriate twist for today's ghoulish celebration.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida