Friday, August 29, 2014

The Weekly Read

Emory's Excellent Crisis Communications on Facebook
Agnes + Day
August 25, 2014

A deadly, highly contagious disease spreading across western Africa. Medical aid workers from the United States contract that illness. A decision to bring them back to the United States for medical treatment.

It almost sounds like a great start to a thrilling book, but it was the reality faced by the Centers for Disease Control, Samaritan's Purse and Emory Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.

An ambulance carrying one of the Ebola infected workers arrives at Emory Hospital
While the hospital is well equipped to handle patients infected with diseases such as Ebola, their system to handle public information through their social media outlets - especially Facebook - was untested. How would the public react to the decision to treat these two patients at a hospital in one of the country's largest cities? Would rumor and fear win the day?

This article, written by Melissa Agnes, analyzes how the hospital's brave decision to maintain its social media engagement helped to prevent rumor from taking control, kept the community connected to what was happening and - ultimately - won the respect and approval of the public.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

We are rebels…

Admit it. You liked high school English. While your classmates were going all Hulk Hogan with adverbs and plural possessives and homonyms (“old school” terminology), you were as comfortable as a snuggly blanket on a three-dog night.

Going old school, Brother!
In college, you were the one your dorm-mates came to with their papers, desperate for you to proofread. Your agreement to do so was contingent on being permitted to have free reign.

You went all-giddy with your red pen, didn't you?

Let it bleed!
Well-played, PIO…well-played.

In the public information world, we should be writing on a daily basis. It’s one of the foundations of our profession. It tangibly illustrates our ability to communicate. It suffers when we are out of practice. You should also be the “go-to” person when others in your office need help with spelling, grammar, syntax, and just plain getting across the intended message.

Don’t limit yourself to proper usage only when it’s a formal document such as a press release, technical paper, or interdepartmental memo. You probably spend tons of time polishing those, but ironically, their intended audience is usually fairly limited. Before clicking that mouse, do you proofread what you post on social media? I’ll bet the potential readership of those pieces of prose is exponentially greater than the aforementioned items.

Check BEFORE releasing the hounds
And don’t delude yourself into thinking that no one pays attention or cares. One of my “other duties as assigned” is performing background investigations on firefighter candidates. We are ruthless in our review of every piece of information we can obtain, and that includes the ability of the candidate to express themselves in writing. From their multi-page personal questionnaire to their Facebook posts, we look (within context) for the flavor of how they communicate. It doesn't take a lot of analysis to spot their default style, and we take this ability (or lack thereof) into account when examining the overall “package” that they present.

So write…write every day. It keeps your skills honed to a fine edge.

You know, just in case ...
(And keep plenty of red pens in your PIO go-kit.)

Dan Kochensparger
Public Information Officer
Upper Arlington, Ohio Fire Department

Monday, August 25, 2014

Observations from Ferguson

By now we are all aware of the unrest that began here in Ferguson, Missouri following a strong-armed robbery and officer involved fatal shooting of an 18-year-old. Overnight, this St. Louis suburb of 20,000 became the national flashpoint in the debate over race relations and the appropriate use of force by police.

I came here to interview as many people as I could to learn as best I could, what happened and how we can keep it from happening again. It is too early to draw any conclusion, but a lot has been learned so far here in Ferguson. For one thing, we know the robbery, shooting, demonstrations, looting and confrontations with police have created a public relations nightmare for law enforcement.

The sooner law enforcement can get in front of a controversial news story, the better chance it will have of affecting public reaction and the direction of the coverage it generates. I learned this in my previous life as a television news reporter for NBC, Fox and local affiliates. Today, my goal is to assist law enforcement in communicating effectively with the public and media in times of crisis and during their routine day to day operations.

Click here to take the survey mentioned in this video.

Many of those who came here to protest tell me they felt local officials were not as open to the public as they should have been. That is often the perception when law enforcement is so busy responding to the event itself that it delays its public response. That’s why many public agencies appreciate that good Public Information Officers are worth their weight in gold. Ferguson police waited nearly 24 hours before making a public statement about the incident. While police are always cautious about saying too much too soon, because they don’t want to jeopardize the integrity of an investigation, there are things they can say that will help to reassure the public without hampering the case.

Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Police addresses the media
Anytime an event occurs that affects public safety, police need to make a public statement, usually within a couple of hours. Even if you have very few facts to report, there are things that you must say to the public to assure them that you are on their side, because once you disconnect from the public, it’s going to be hard to regain that trust. Keep in mind that when you are talking to the public, you must identify with the public and address their concerns. What police should have said was, “It’s always tragic when an 18-year-old loses his life, and our hearts and prayers are with all of those families that have been impacted. Be assured that we take this incident very seriously and it will be thoroughly investigated. If you have any information about this case, we encourage you to contact police.”

Citizens protest in Ferguson
I am teaching a media relations class to St. Louis area law enforcement officers next month. Even if the Ferguson event had not occurred, our message to police would be the same: “Always remain open and transparent with the public and the media on a daily basis, and when a major event happens, get out in front of the story as soon as possible.”

Our hearts and prayers remain with the brave men and women of law enforcement and the people they risk their lives to protect every day.

Russell Ruffin
Public Safety Media Training
Denver, Colorado"rusty"-ruffin

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Weekly Read

Emergency Managers Stress the Need for Social Media Volunteers
Emergency Management Magazine
May 16, 2014

At this past spring's Governor's Hurricane Conference held in Orlando, David Merrick and the rest of his virtual operations support team (VOST) from Florida State University conducted an exercise to demonstrate how information could be effectively shared via social media. Creating a fictional event - flooding in the city of Duckville - conference attendees were given specific tasks to accomplish with their smart phones. The data was collected and analyzed to show just how effective these tools could be during an actual emergency.

While the exercise went off without too many glitches, one interesting challenged was posed by the National Hockey League. At the time of the conference, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were in the hockey playoffs, using the same hashtag - #quackattack. While this proved to be a little confusing at times, it showed some of the potential snags using social media.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bad interview, good interview

A little bit more than a decade ago, we had a problem here at our office.

Part of our department's duty is to train employees about the proper way to conduct a news interview. For those of us who do this on a regular basis, it's old hat. We can get up in front of the camera and hit key point after key point with skill, giving the reporter what he or she needs to create a great story - even if it's about a tough topic.
Now is not the time to panic!
For those who don't know how to do it, it can be one of the most terrifying experiences in the world. There's the unblinking camera eye. The reporter who works for 'those people' in the media. The feeling that they have a piece of spinach stuck between their teeth or some other unforgivable gaffe. Or, the fear that they will not know what to say when asked a question, and they will look dumb.
Middle school students treading the boards...
It happens to all of us. I can remember being in plays while in elementary school, sweating the moment that I would be in front of the audience. Even though I knew my lines and cues and had been to more than a month of rehearsals, that fear always crept into the back of my mind as the curtain rose. It's a natural thing.

Even though we spent a lot of time teaching our employees about what went into a good TV interview and what could derail the process, we still got the occasional blank stare.

That's when one of our videographers and I hit on the idea of not only telling our students how to conduct an interview, but showing them a frank comparison between a good interview and a bad one. Within an afternoon, we had scripted the idea of the Media Zone.

In this three-minute video, Assistant Park Manager 'Tony Bagadonuts' is approached by a reporter and news photographer about recent reports of coyotes roaming county parks. There is a distinct difference between the first and second interviews, and, once this video is shown in our classes, it's easy to tell that the light bulbs switched on over the heads of our students. They could plainly see the contrast between the two interviews.

Now, I'm not saying that the second interview was perfect. 'Tony' managed to stumble his way through a few lines. The best thing about the video is that it leads to a lively discussion of what didn't work in the first part, and what worked well in the second.

This video has become a staple of our media training, and I hope you find it interesting enough to use in yours.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist

Monday, August 18, 2014

The world is your classroom

There have been many times when other public information officers ask me what I think about certain situations. The recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. The twin threats of tropical storms in Hawaii. The spread of ebola in west Africa and the moving of two infected patients to Atlanta for treatment.
A World Health Organization press conference about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa
Has the release of public information been effective? What has the public's response to the information told us about how the release was handled?

The best part about not having incidents like these happening in your own backyard is that you get a chance to learn from those who are going through the event. In today's hyper-connected world, you can get minute-by-minute updates on what is happening just about anywhere in the world. And, as the events unfold, you can see what tactics worked and which ones didn't quite cut the muster.

I'm sure that right now, the public information staff members involved in these incidents are up to their proverbial armpits in alligators, and probably are unavailable to share their thoughts and experiences with you. Their work, however - and the work of other public spokespeople who have responded to similar incidents - is out there for all to see and learn from.

Mayor Bloomberg addresses the media after the US Air Crash 
One of the best resources a public information officer can use is YouTube. Simply enter the name of the incident you want to learn more about with the words "press conference," and you are immediately whisked back in time to when that event was the biggest event of the day.  News briefings from the day of the US Airways Flight 1549 crash into the Hudson River. From the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater to the cryptosporidium outbreak that made Toledo, Ohio's water unfit to drink, it's all out there to watch carefully and to learn from.

President Nixon addressing the media shortly after the Watergate incident
You can even go back in time to more historic events that helped shape our nation. From the confusing first moments after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the Watergate press conferences conducted by Richard Nixon, there is a treasure trove of information out there for all to see.

As public information officers, our job is to do our best to ensure our agency's message is presented in the best light possible. Watching press conferences such as these can certainly help provide the guidance that you need to ensure you do your best.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Weekly Read

The Unthinkable: Who survives when disaster strikes – and why?
By Amanda Ripley
ISBN-13: 978-0307352903

When emergency planners think about disaster response, they often take a look at the sociology of how people as a group respond to disaster. However, as Ripley points out in her exceptionally well-written book, there is a tremendous amount of psychology to study in the individual’s personal response to risk and crisis situations.

With personal stories pulled from the accounts of survivors of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, September 11, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, she describes the arc of behavior that all of us go through when faced with imminent danger – disbelief, then deliberation, then action.

By studying how we respond to risk and danger, emergency planners can create new, more effective methods of communicating the need for preparedness and the proper response.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hurricane Charley: Ten years later

While I have been doing emergency PIO work since I was hired at my agency in 1998, Hurricane Charley was a seminal moment for me. Sure, our emergency operations center had opened for storms such as Floyd in 1999 and Harvey in 2000, Charley was something else entirely.

For those of you who may not know much about the storm, it formed in early August, and traversed the Caribbean Sea, just brushing Jamaica. Before the storm made landfall in Cuba, the National Hurricane Center had the storm coming ashore right across Pinellas County where I work. During our long shifts, we kept hoping that the storm would somehow dissipate or turn out to sea. But it didn't. It just kept growing in intensity until it reached Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale.

Hours before the storm was to make landfall on Friday, August 13, it deviated from its forecast track and deviated east, right into Charlotte County as a Category 4 hurricane. The animated GIF above shows the eye's landfall into the Port Charlotte - Punta Gorda area, where wind gusts in excess of 170 mph were reported.

One week after the storm, one of our TV station's videographers and I went to Charlotte County to record the damage, and it was unbelievable. When I got home from that one day in the affected area, I wrote this account of what I saw. We later produced this video of the damage:

Images that still - ten years later - are burned into my mind. Homes and businesses damaged every direction as far as you could see. Complete failures of masonry curtain walls. Massive destruction.

And, people helping. Police departments, sheriff's offices and fire units from across the state were on scene, working the issues. I even got involved in the relief effort, 'throwing ice' with the deputies from Palm Beach and Pinellas Counties. Yup, that's me in the white hat handing out bags.

We learned a lot about public information from that storm. We also learned that while the storm did miss the Tampa Bay area, it was critical that we recorded the events of that storm to show our residents why they need to be prepared for the next time, when the storm doesn't turn.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist

Monday, August 11, 2014

My top three tools

Being an emergency public information officer is a job where you never know where you will end up. One day, you will be in front of a homeowner's association group, helping people make their disaster plans.  The next, you could be attending a drill at your city or county's emergency operations center. Then, there are those times when you are out on the scene, working with the incident commander, members of the media and public, helping everyone stay safe and get the information they need.

To that end, there are countless numbers of tools available to the public information officer. Satellite phones. Mobile joint information centers. Drones.

For me, though, there are three items I wouldn't be caught without while doing my job. Sure, maybe they aren't the high-tech, next generation gadgets, but they serve me very well:

  • Cargo Pants. For my colleagues in the uniformed services (military, police, fire), you probably don't get a chance to choose what you will be wearing on scene. But, if you do have the choice, a pair of cargo pants is indispensable. The type I wear are made of heavy canvas and have 14 pockets in them, plenty of room for a notepad, pencils, extra cell phone battery, media call lists, a flashlight ... the works. Even in the hot Florida sun, I still go with these, because you never know when you will be someplace where sharp objects can be found - debris fields after tornadoes and hurricanes are notorious. 
  • A smart phone. Yes, a good smart phone can allow you to make calls and text. But, newer, more capable smart phones also give you the ability to e-mail, post to social media, video conference, take photos and videos, edit those videos, navigate by GPS and - during your down time - listen to music or watch a movie. In November of 2012, during my deployment to New York City after Hurricane Sandy, I was able to do interviews with the local Tampa Bay media via Skype to give our local residents updates on our efforts. 
  • A paper copy of important contacts. Call me old school, but there's nothing quite like holding on to a paper copy of phone numbers for my organizations key points of contact and media outlets. Yes, I have them electronically on my smart phone, iPad and laptop. I even store a copy in the cloud. But, when the chips are down and I need to get in touch with someone quickly, it's not easy to talk on the phone and look up numbers at the same time. I print out a new copy monthly or whenever there is a significant update to the contact list, just in case.
There, those are my three big ones. Now, I'd like to hear what three critical tools you use. You can post them below. I 'd love to hear what your recommendations are.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist

Thursday, August 7, 2014

"So, what do you do?"

If I had a dime for every time someone asked me that question...

"So, you are the county's public information officer and you 'do' hurricanes. What does that involve?"

In a nutshell, it means that I work with residents and the local media to promote disaster preparedness, and should thing go wrong, I provide information about the nature of the threat and what people can do to stay safe.

But, the job is so much more than that. It's about building relationships with the folks who work in the ever-evolving media industry. It's about knowing the demographics of my home community, and how that shapes my message. It's about reaching out to my colleagues in different organizations locally, statewide and across the country to ensure we are all identifying trends that we should all be aware of.
A PIO working the scene of the Joplin, Missouri tornado, 2011
It's about combing the news every day, seeing what is transpiring across the globe and wondering, "Gosh, what if that happened here - in my home town - today?"

It's about understanding what has happened to those who came before us and understanding why they reacted the way they did. And, it's also about those who will come after us, who will be asking the very same question.

It's about building procedures for how to handle crises, yet understanding that flexibility can mean the difference between success and failure when a situation threatens.

And, it's about knowing that when a disaster threatens, we have to leave our families to report to work to help others. That's not as easy as it sounds.

What I wanted to accomplish by establishing this blog was to share some of what I have learned since I started serving in this role back in 1998, and to provide a place for the many colleagues I have met over the years to share some of their thoughts as well.  Hopefully, we'll be able to build a collection of advice, tips and  hard-learned lessons that can help make our jobs a little easier and improve our chances of success when faced with difficult situations.

I am excited about this prospect, and I look forward to what the future holds!

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida