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