Monday, September 29, 2014

When your day turns upside down

The duties a public information officer conducts run the gamut. For some PIOs, it's just a 9 to 5 gig, handling everything inside the office during normal business hours. For others, standing next to a raging fire a 3 a.m. is par for the course.

For many of us, however, that emergency call out is something that can turn your day upside down. That on-call phone is there, your ready companion, and you obviously hope that nothing does happen, but it's always best to be prepared.

Handling on scene interviews
This past weekend, an event took place locally that involved a large wastewater main, Since a considerable amount of untreated wastewater was coming from the line, it became a large event that caught the media's attention. 

While we were able to handle the media's requests while the utility crews worked the situation, I was taking notes of how we could improve our response to such an event. For instance, when I went on call, I didn't bring the office's portable wireless hotspot with me. While I could have used my phone for data access, having that would have been a big help to allow me to use my tablet computer, the office's laptop or other items on scene.

I was sure to wear my boots and heavy cargo pants around the area, which even in the Florida early autumn heat were uncomfortable, they did keep me protected being near the heavy equipment, Even having my reflective, high-visibility PIO vest kept me in good standing with our risk management folks while making it easy for the reporters and camera operators to find me easily on scene.

Hi Vis vests are important on scene
Did we execute our plans perfectly?  Does anyone?  

Real life activations of emergency plans are the best way to ensure that your plans actually work. Always take the time to review what went well and what can be improved. Even though your day may be turned upside down, what you learn will help your plans be right side up when you need them again. 

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Weekly Read
San Francisco's disaster readiness page

It's the largest city in the nation's 11th largest metropolitan statistical area, and it was the site of the second deadliest natural disaster in American history - the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires that killed nearly 6,000 people.

The City by the Bay has its act together when preparing its residents for a potential disaster.
That's why the city of San Francisco has one of the most advanced public education websites for disaster preparedness. The depth and breadth of the information provided in this website is impressive, encouraging residents to be ready for the 'big one' when it does happen. 

This site's organization, integration with social media and interactivity make it one which could serve as a model for other jurisdictions facing potential disasters of their own. 

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Strange days

Being a public information officer has its moments. Sure, the vast number of days out there, you are busy pushing the preparedness message, passing along valuable life-saving information.

But, then, that time comes when you have to shift from preparation to action. We could be preparing residents for the approach of a hurricane, or a huge water main break with mandatory boil water orders and  massive traffic rerouting. When that threat is in your wheelhouse, you know exactly what to do, how to respond and what to say.

We have plans for events like these...
But then, there are those events that are kind of out there, that you never prepared anything for. A pandemic flu outbreak that comes out of nowhere. An oil well ruptures, spreading crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Then there was the day in February of 2013, when a large chunk of meteorite crashed into Russia, setting off a massive shock wave which injured nearly 1,500 people and caused considerable damage.

The 2013 Russian meteorite impact
No, there's absolutely no planning for a humdinger like that event. And, even though the last time a major meteorite strike like that one took place in 1908, local media scrambled to localize the story.

As you are no doubt aware, localization is a great technique by reporters to ponder what would happen if that far-off event took place right in our own backyard. Believe it or not, two of our local stations called our office and sent over reporters, looking to do a story. You can still see both here:

The question is, of course, why on earth would we agree to do an interview?  After all, I doubt that anyone in any hamlet in any corner of the world really has a meteorite annex tacked into their comprehensive emergency plans.

Speaking with reporters opens communications channels to your constituents
We went ahead with the interviews for two reasons. First, we wanted to remind the viewing audience that emergencies take many different sizes and shapes. They can give us a week's worth of notice - like a hurricane - or just a few second's notice - like an earthquake or meteorite. That's why it's important for everyone to have their survival plans in place well in advance of an event - a point we can't stress enough.

Secondly, it helped us improve our rapport with the local media. By being available to them for such a strange story, we let our media partners know that the door is always open. Sure, we would have been well within our rights to tell them to check with the folks at NASA to talk about meteorite protection, but by speaking about the topic as a disaster plan, the reporters and assignment editors now know where to come for stories dealing with disaster preparation and recovery.

You know, just in case we get a disaster we are used to seeing.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, September 22, 2014

Modern day video

When I first started working in the public information officer field, there were very few ways to get your message on video. If your department was rich enough, you would have a video team which could shoot on the field or in a studio and you put it out over your organization's cable channel. Or, you got the television media out to cover what you were doing. That was pretty much it.

A typical studio shot back in the 1990s. 
Today, however, the options are a lot more wide open. Smart phones with HD video. GoPro cameras you can strap to your hat. Online video services like YouTube and Vimeo.

I can't even begin to tell you how having something to video a briefing on scene and posting it online in minutes can do for getting the word out to the public. In our office, we responded to a water main break late one evening in December of 2011, and could have used that ability like nobody's business. But, we were just getting into the world of social media and online video, so we missed the opportunity.

A setup similar to the one we use in our office
But, no longer. Our office has invested in a video rig that is so easy to use, the PIOs can bring it with them out into the field to capture what is happening and post it quickly.  What's in the kit?

  • An iPad mini. The iPad mini comes with an HD camera mounted built in, and provides a great platform to record video files, edit them and upload them to an online video server of your choice. With the mini running about $150 less than the full size iPad, it can save you some bucks while providing the same level of service.
  • An iOgrapher mounting case. The folks at iOgrapher made a pretty handy case for shooting video. Two large handles on each side allow a great, rock solid grip, and a 1/4" mount allows it to be mounted to any tripod you want. Three cold shoe mounts at top also give you the ability to add on a set of lights, a wireless mic receiver, the works. You can also buy a set of screw on lenses that allow you to get better shots.
  • An iRig Pre microphone amplifier. While there are set ups that allow you to plug a cordless or corded mic right into the iPad's earphone adaptor, the iRig allows us to use our existing studio quality XLR microphones and gives us the ability to boost the volume of the incoming volume for recording.
  • Filmic Pro. This inexpensive software takes the standard camera app a step forward, allowing to set the focus to one point, but the exposure to another. More advanced controls give you theability to change frame rates, preset zooms... it's a real multi-tasker.
  • Pinnacle Studio. This app goes above and beyond the offerings of iMovie, allowing the ability to insert graphics, do multi-channel audio, zoom within the video frames and do a ton of other things right on the iPad, without having to upload the video to another computer to edit on. And, once the edited piece is done, it can be uploaded to your iPad right to your video server.

Of course, the real question is, "How does it look?" The video I posted above was shot and edited on the office's iPad mini. From a technical aspect, it came out looking pretty decent.

Sure, as with any system, there is always room to learn and improve upon. Don't think getting a set up like the one we have in our office will make you the next Martin Scorcese. Learning the basics of the program, video composition, editing techniques are all going to be part of your improvement plan if you want to shoot and produce uber-high-quality video.

But, the way I see it, this set up is kind of like Orville and Wilbur Wright flying on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It can be done, now it's just a matter of improving upon the concept.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Weekly Read

Winning with the News Media
By Clarence Jones
ISBN:  978-0961960360

This is one of those books I got, read, re-read, dog eared pages and highlighted so much, I had to buy a second copy. 

The title of Jones' book tells the story - it's Winning WITH the News Media. His emphasis on cooperation with reporters was a revelation for me truly helped shape my attitudes and perception of members of the media and made me a much better public information officer.

Just about every page has a valuable nugget of information. From how to create soundbites that can effectively get your message across to dealing with nerves in front of a camera, it's a guide I reach for frequently.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Helping in the long run

My first job out of college was as a public relations guy for the Make-A-Wish Foundation - the Greater Washington (now the Mid Atlantic) chapter. What a great group of people, granting wishes for kids with life-threatening illnesses.

While it was awesome work, it also took a ton of hard work to raise the funds to make that happen. When I was there back in 1991 and 1992, one of the big fund raising events they held was a benefit triathlon. This event was huge, with hundreds of racers and thousands of volunteers to make everything go off without a hitch.

Racers remaining refreshed
While the race was going on, I spent some time working a rehydration station. As the racers stormed past, they grabbed cups of sports drink and water and downed them before moving on to continue the race. By providing them what they needed, they could be more effective, cutting a few seconds off their time and improving their finish.

Assignment editors chasing down stories
In newsrooms across the country, there are people working marathon hours, running from story to story trying to beat their deadlines. Yes, our friends working for the media can often feel as if they are running at full speed all day, chasing down stories. My wife graduated college with a broadcast journalism degree, and I used to watch her run the race every day, coming home exhausted.

Many times, we wonder why they won't cover our events and stories.

Could it be that we're not helping them along the way, serving as that 'refreshment station' where they can stock up on story ideas?

As this year's hurricane season started, we struck on an idea in our office. Each week during the six month season, reporters are asked to do hurricane stories by their assignment editors. They also have to do the regular news that happens every day, so, it becomes a challenge for them to come up with good ideas for hurricane stories.

Enlisting the help of our media partners during a hurricane presentation
We did a little back of the envelope math and figured out that there are 24 weeks in hurricane season. To help our reporters out, we took 48 of the most commonly heard questions, misconceptions and myths we hear at our office and built a document of story starters to share with the media outlets in our market. You can check it out by clicking here.

It's all in there. From what to do with exotic pets to how to prepare a car for a potential evacuation. From which openings on your home to harden to how to soften the blow of a disaster to children.

At our annual media day event, we passed out copies of this information sheet to the reporters in the room and told them where to find it on our website. Now, with two hurricane articles per week for the entire season, there should be no reason for the reporters to be caught without a story idea.

While we use this information for hurricanes, it could easily be applied to other events.

And, when you help the media help to get your information out, and the reporters don't have to chase you down for the ideas, everybody wins!

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, September 15, 2014

Be the lead dog

When my sons were both in elementary school, they had a great first grade teacher who used some interesting learning techniques and events to reinforce what she was teaching. One of the events she tied into was the famous Iditarod dog sled race held every winter across Alaska.

She taught the kids about distances, temperatures, how to calculate miles per hour... the works.. They learned about Balto, the brave sled dog that helped bring medicine to Nome to save the inhabitants from illness. Since the lessons were tied to an actual event, the kids became totally immersed in the happenings. They would pick their favorite contestant and follow along as the race unfolded. The highlight of the lesson was when she brought her Siberian Husky to school so the kids could see what a real sled dog looked like. 

A sled team pulling together, following the lead dog
While the kids learned a lot in the class, one important lesson I learned  is an expression I use a lot in my everyday work - unless you are the lead sled dog, the view never changes. Why is this so important? 

Well, every year, the National Hurricane Conference hosts a number of classes, seminars and round table discussions on all topics dealing with disasters and preparedness. One of the most popular is the media/public information round table discussion, featuring members of the media, former Hurricane Center directors and other luminaries. 

The media panel at the 2014 National Hurricane Conference
One thing I have noticed about attending these round table discussions for a number of years is that the attendees seem to have no problem identifying the issues that plague their preparedness activities. Every year, many of the same participants bring the same concerns to the floor. 

While it's a great start to identify what shortcomings exist, the problem is that the following year when the next iteration of the round table event happens, the exact same problems are brought to the fore. Many times, they are voiced by the people who spoke about them the previous year.

Earlier this year was the first time I was asked to sit on the prestigious panel, and when it was my turn to weigh in on the topic, I called the attendees attention to the concerns they voiced and asked them, "If you had a magic wand, how would you solve the problems?" 

Too many times in public information work, we can recognize the problem, but we are too bashful, unsure of ourselves or beholden to existing work regimens to suggest improvements. Those instincts tend to hold us back from taking the lead on issues and fixing the problems we have no problems recognizing. 

Why not get certified to instruct a class, or take one yourself?
So, I will lay down the same challenge I made to the folks in the room at that round table discussion - now that you know what the issues in your community are, how will you address them? 
  • Are there not enough trained public information officers in your region? Why not volunteer to become a certified instructor to teach an accredited PIO class to spread the knowledge? 
  • Does the media not come to your events? Why not dedicate the time to feeding the reporters stories on a regular basis and making contact with them by phone or in person? 
  • Don't have the budget to conduct a public education initiative? How about seeking out grant funds or finding co-sponsors to bring your event to fruition?
Remember, it's not easy being a lead sled dog, but your view will always be better than it is in the back of the pack. 

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Weekly Read

The Post 9/11 PIO
September 11, 2013

While this article was written last year, author Billy Hayes gives an interesting analysis on how the role of the public information officer has changed dramatically since September 11, 2001.

A well-trained PIO can quickly get the word out to the media
With the rapid advance in technology, communications and social media, it's more important than ever for a public information officer to be accessible, engaged and connected. While it may seem in today's rapidly evolving world that what you post to Facebook or Twitter could easily be overlooked, the eyes of the world really are watching, and they appreciate the official word you are putting out.

This article can serve as an excellent springboard for discussion on updating your communications plan.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

We're in this together

Tomorrow marks the 13th anniversary of the deadliest act of terrorism in United States history.  As the planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, people worldwide sat, transfixed, watching these events unfold on live television.

Then Mayor Rudy Guiliani and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a news conference following the attacks
For the responders in New York City, Arlington, Virginia and Shanksville, Pennsylvania that day, the challenges were manifold. First, there was the act of responding to protect life and safety during a chaotic and confusing time. Added to that were the challenges of doing this response in front of the unblinking eye of the media and communicating the important public safety messages in order to keep people out of harm's way.

The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia shortly after the attack
That unforgettable day will forever be burned into our memories. And, when we think about that day, it's difficult to forget that other towns and cities went through similar traumas. Whether it was Hurricane Katrina bringing New Orleans to its knees, the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City or the Virginia Tech massacre in Blacksburg, Virginia, whenever the call has gone out to respond to the unthinkable, brave responders have waded in to help bring their communities back from the brink of chaos.

New Yorkers react emotionally watching the events unfold in Manhattan
One day, during a joint public information officer meeting we have in our county, a PIO from one of our cities asked what would happen if an Aurora, Colorado movie theater type shooting took place in his jurisdiction - where would the help come from?

That's when we as a group had an epiphany ... when something bad happens in our communities, it is the local officials who will step to the fore to take control of the situation. While our law enforcement and fire rescue communities have mutual assistance compacts in place, what about our public information teams?  As event as small as an accident on an arterial road may require the assistance from your colleagues, and a large impact event may leave you scrambling for help in a very difficult situation.

Now is the time to make those connections. Call a meeting of your local PIO colleagues. Get to know them and how to reach them. We can't do it by ourselves. Together, we are stronger. The time you invest now in making these connections will pay dividends when you need them most.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, September 8, 2014

Make it personal

Over the past ten years, I'm pretty sure I have delivered about 500 talks to elected officials, homeowner's associations, non-profit agencies, professional organizations and other groups. And, at those talks I figure I may have spoken directly to 30,000 people.

That's a lot of talking.

There are a few things I have learned from doing all of those presentations. First, if someone says they have a projector for your PowerPoint presentation, be sure to bring a spare. You never know when a bulb will choose that exact minute to blow on you.

Second, always bring a bottle of water with you. Public talking can leave you parched, so it's important to ensure you have a good supply to wet your whistle.

And, most importantly, come to realize there will always be a skeptic in the audience. Here in Pinellas County, the last time we took a direct landfall from a hurricane was in October of 1921. This means that there are 93 years worth of 'reasons' why we are immune from hurricanes here in the Tampa Bay area. Believe me, I have heard them all.
  • The Native Americans lived here, and put a blessing on the area to protect us.
  • Our geography makes us immune from impacts.
  • The shape of the Sunshine Skyway bridge creates an atmospheric harmonic that turns storms away from us.
  • There is a deposit of iron ore in the bottom of Tampa Bay, and when the wind blows over this deposit, it creates a negative ionic flux, which repels tropical storms.
But, the worst of these skeptics are the ones who claim that hurricanes aren't all that bad, and that we are just trying to scare people.

When people tell me that, I always tell them that storms can be terrible, life-changing events. But, the best presentations are the ones where someone else in the audience has actually lived through a hurricane somewhere else, and starts to tell their story.

I have heard people tell tales of hiding under mattresses during Hurricane Andrew, climbing onto tables to escape flooding from Hurricane Hugo and riding out severe winds during Hurricane Charley. Hearing their stories gave me an idea a few years back, and it launched a program that has been one of our most popular on YouTube, Project StormStory.

We put the call out through the media looking for people who had survived a hurricane to tell their tale, letting viewers hear first-hand how bad things could be. And, did we ever get some great submissions. We sorted through the best of them, and we put together the following video:

We have the expanded versions of the stories from each of the survivors here:

These videos have proven to be valuable in our hurricane education program, and the number of hits on each of them increased dramatically as hurricanes threaten the United States - something we are happy to see.

The lesson here? If you can get people who have actually been through an event to promote preparedness, it will improve the impact of your message.

Seek them out. Believe me, they are there,  they are willing to talk and what they have to say is very important.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Weekly Read

By Roy Underhill 
ISBN-13: 978-0738206721

Public speaking is a critical part of communicating the preparedness message, delivering important safety information or assisting with the recovery after a disaster. And, whether that audience is the public, elected officials, stakeholders or the media, understanding how to capture the attention of your audience, maintain their interest and motivate them to act are skills that must be developed.

This book, written by Public Television's Woodwright Shop's host Roy Underhill, is an excellent place to begin your training. Underhill strikes to the heart of the matter, offering practical advice on how to read an audience, engage them throughout a presentation and call them to action afterward.

The title of the book is taken from a famous 1960 incident where Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev allegedly banged his shoe on a podium at the United Nations while denouncing an anti-Communist speech. While the incident may not have occurred, the gesture lives on as an example of how to draw attention to your message.

An easily approachable book, this is one that I keep handy and refer to frequently as I continue to polish my public presentation and speaking skills.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Multiple exposures

Shaving. Ugh. That morning ritual (many) of us tend to in the early, pre-coffee hours of the day. Whether it's razor to face or to legs, there's a not a lot to it. That's why when a company wants to capture your attention for this mundane task, they have to do something really interesting.

For instance, back in the 1920s through the early 1960s, the company Burma Shave went all out to capture shaver's attention with a series of clever, well-placed road signs along America's Highways and Byways. They appeared as a series of six or seven signs that were read in order, giving motorists the opportunity to take the message in while they drove.

A series of Burma-Shave signs taken from the highways
While many of their signs were advertisements for their shaving cream, others boosted the war effort during World War II, and many even advocated driving safety.  For instance:

  • Past / schoolhouses / take it slow / Let the little / shavers grow / Burma-Shave

What Clinton Odell knew is that getting your message out in front of as many people as possible is the key to calling attention to your message, and pushing that message out in a familiar form gives reader a point of reference so they knew what they were getting. Red and white signs on the side of the road meant that there was going to be a witty saying and an ad for Burma-Shave.

The E-Lert newsletter
When it comes to disseminating preparedness information, we need to take a page from the Burma-Shave playbook. Here in Pinellas County, we have been doing something like this since 2006 - the E-Lert newsletter.

Every month during hurricane season, we write an electronic newsletter featuring articles on disaster preparedness and weather knowledge. With articles from how to prepare your home for a hurricane's winds to navigating the often confusing world of insurance to how to determine your evacuation zone, each month's newsletter focuses on different aspects of the preparedness message.

There are also recurring articles that appear in the newsletter. Readers are directed to a website link of the month to a weather or disaster related resource, a review of a book dealing with hurricanes, tornadoes or other weather phenomena, and a checklist of monthly actions readers should take to prepare for what hurricane season may bring.

The newsletter is produced in an e-mail management program called Constant Contact, which also handles sign ups for the newsletter and maintains the mailing list, culling out bad addresses. Since no paper copies are produced, the only cost is staff time and the monthly charges for the service.

In 2007, the E-Lert won for best public information tool at the Florida Governor's Hurricane Conference.

One funny thing we have noticed about this newsletter is how far it has traveled. I was at a speaking engagement hosted by a local non-profit organization and was looking at their training materials. There, in one pocket of a two-pocket training folder given to prospective volunteers, were the previous six editions of the E-Lert Newsletter.

  • While we aim / to be funny and clever / we're pretty pleased / with this info endeavor 

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Herculean task

Yes, it's Labor Day here in the United States, so most of us are kicking back, taking some well deserved time off and enjoying summer's last hurrah. Or, you might be on call, standing by just in case something happens. Such is the life of a public information officer.

Hercules slaying the Hydra
Since many of you are enjoying a well deserved day off, kick up your feet for a while and let me tell you the story of a guy who had to do a whole lot of work - Hercules. Also known as Heracles in ancient Greek mythology, he was the son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. In high school, many of us learned about his 12 labors, where he went to work for King Eruystheus in order to achieve immortality.

This Eruystheus fellow, well, he didn't particularly like Hercules, so, he assigned him nearly impossible tasks to accomplish in order to trip him up. Slay the Hydra? Check. Capture the Cretan Bull? Check. Go on a mythic panty raid and steal the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons? Check.

Clean that stable!
The one task that always made me laugh was the one where he had to clean out the Augean Stables in a single day. Since these cattle were immortal, they created quite a healthy layer of cow pies. Faced with nearly 30 years of accumulation, Hercules had to divert a river to flush the accumulated nastiness away, restoring the facilities to their shining state of cleanliness.

In the world of public information, sometimes it may feel as if it will take a Herculean effort to educate our public about the many dangers they face. How much time and energy is put into hand washing education as we enter the flu season? How many times do firefighters remind people to change their smoke detector batteries when the clocks fall back in October?  And, here in Florida, we have to constantly remind our residents that yes, every single year, there is the threat that a hurricane may affect where we live, and they should have a survival kit packed with the essentials.

Public education starts early
In many ways, this kind of work is more reminiscent of another famous figure in Greek mythology - Sisyphus, who had to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down over him time after time as he achieved the summit. There are days when it feels like this, and it's easy to become disheartened.

The truth is, however, that this kind of public education isn't an impossible task, and with repetition, it can save lives. The number of deaths due to home fires has dropped steadily since smoke detectors have become more common.  Driving deaths have dropped significantly with seatbelt use and strict DUI enforcement.  Extreme weather events are claiming fewer lives every year. 

Staying up to date as Hurricane Sandy approaches the New York metro area
Much of this is due to improvements in technology, planning and laws, but the vital link to the citizens is the public information officer. Without an effective campaign to push the information to the public through media relations, education campaigns and public speaking, how else would the citizens know what changes were being made?

So, this weekend, if you are not on duty, sit back, kick your feet up and relax, knowing that the hard work you are doing is making a difference, and that's important for all of us.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida