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