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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Wrapped up with a bow

Getting coverage for an event that you hold can often times be a difficult task. I mean, there are so many different competing events, news crews are stretched to their limits and - often times - the PIOs setting up their events fail to think of the most basic elements.

  • What will we see?
  • What will we learn?
  • What can we communicate to our viewers or readers?

We recently faced this conundrum at a holiday public safety event we wanted to hold. The event - a cooperative effort between the Hillsborough County, City of Tampa, City of Temple Terrace and Plant City fire departments, was going to demonstrate a united front, showing how we work together to ensure the safety of our nearly 1.4 million residents during this time of the year.

The first challenge, which proved easy to overcome, was getting everyone in the four departments on board. Given the fact that we are stronger together than separate, it was a no-brainer, and the cooperation couldn't have gone any better. With some hard work and juggling schedules, we were able to line up the City of Tampa's training grounds for the demonstration.

Now, how to get the media's attention?  I mean, lining up a 2 hour long media event had more than a few eyebrows raised. How would we keep the reporters there, and what would we be able to provide them? I mean, if this didn't go off well, we'd look like a bunch of dopes. We had to gift wrap this media availability with everything we could possibly need.



Fortunately, we were able to get a lot of great information out. Bet you didn't know that candles are a huge source of fires this time of the year?  Or that space heaters could lead to blazes if not handled properly?

That was great information, but what the reporters wanted to see was flames. Burning. Combustion. We had PLENTY of that!

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, how bright you burn when ignited
How about not watering a Christmas tree?  You do realize that by not giving the tree enough water, it can burn like the dickens. Putting that tree into a home can lead to an inescapable situation in mere minutes. Watering the tree daily is the best way to prevent things from bursting into flame.


And, there's always the question about cooking the holiday dinner. Here in the south, a tradition of frying turkeys is something everyone can get behind. If the bird isn't completely thawed and rocket-hot oil spills onto the open flame of a propane burner, well, you can imagine the fireworks that you can expect to see.

Turkey flambe, anyone?
By the end of the two-hour event, the reporters left with spectacular images, a sheaf of information about holiday fire safety and the material to put together some serious educational material for their viewers and readers.

A holiday safety event wrapped up in a bow and delivered to the public.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida
https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomiovino

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

"What do you do?"

It's a simple, innocuous question, but for those who run the show at our organizations, it can give them fits.

A fairly innocuous scene
Let's set the stage, first. A reporter shows up on scene at one of your facilities unannounced. They come over to one of the employees raking mulch in the hot sun and ask him or her, "So, what are you doing?"

Oh, please just stop talking already ...
Now, there are three types of responses these workers can have, based on their agency's media contact policies. First, they may have absolutely no guidance from their parent agency. The workers may engage in a lively 20-minute conversation with the reporter about how they love their jobs, how great it is to be out in the field, how it's awesome that the city sprang for such expensive mulch ... oops. Maybe the reporter is looking to find out just how much taxpayer money is being spent on mulch, and now your employee is on camera talking about the price of mulch as the reporter asks more questions.

Silence is golden, duct tape is silver
Another response might be the strict enforcement of a policy where line workers are absolutely under no circumstances allowed to speak with the media. When the reporters arrive, the workers flee the scene or, if the reporter manages to ask a question, the worker fires off a terse "No Comment," or "I'm not allowed to talk with members of the media," and walks away. I mean, come on, it's not like the reporter can't see that that employee is raking mulch.

It's OK to talk about what you are doing
Then there is the third, and probably most optimal way to handle this type of interaction, but it has to start way before the reporters arrive on scene. That is to craft a media contact policy where employees are empowered to speak with reporters about what is is that they are doing, but to refer more difficult or challenging questions to a more appropriate staff member to handle accordingly.

Why adopt this model of media interaction? I think the answer is pretty obvious. It's the Goldilocks effect. Basically,  if you use the first model, you run the risk of having someone who may not know all of the details of the situation to speculate, offer conjecture or just generally run off at the mouth, quite possibly not communicating your organization's message clearly. The second approach is just too hard, and not only shows the reporter that he or she is not welcome, but that the public should be suspicious as well. 

But, that third model, wow. It allows the reporter to get what he or she needs to do the story while putting a welcoming face on the organization, yet still allowing for more qualified staff members to tackle the tough message points. 

Basically, it's just right. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida
https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomiovino

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Their most effective weapon

I have been giving a lot of thought as of late to last week's attacks in Paris, and I have come to a conclusion as a public information officer. The terrorists' most effective weapon isn't the AK-47. Nor is it the homemade suicide vest. Nor is it even its willingness to enlist young children and women to participate in its deadly plans.


No, it's most effective weapon is fear and doubt. That's right. Yes, 129 innocent victims were killed, and more than 350 were injured in indiscriminate gunfire and explosions last Friday in Paris, and we mourn their loss. The terrorists' goal, however, is much more grand that simply that.

Terrorists want us to look warily at each other as we go about our business. Maybe find those who look different than 'we' do - like a Sikh wearing his Turban - and single him or her out for retribution. Maybe change those holiday travel plans out of fear that we may become targets of a group's anger.

Veerender Jubbal, an Indian-born Sikh, PhotoShopped to look like an ISIS terrorist
There is only one true defense against that weapon - and that is fact. Pure and simple.

It's been said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. In these confusing times, it's only natural to seek answers, no matter how off-the wall or discredited they may be. It's a need we have as humans. Our brains need to find patterns. Answers. Fill in the blanks. 

Earlier today, I was reading my Facebook feed where someone posted an urgent warning supposedly from the Department of Homeland Security about someone buying a large number of UPS uniforms. Makes sense, right?  If someone wanted to get access to any number of buildings, that would be an ideal way for this to happen.


The only problem?  This is a recycled bit of netlore which surfaced shortly after the September 11 attacks. It has been totally discredited by UPS, the Department of Homeland Security and other sources, yet it continues to make its rounds any time an event like this happens. As practitioners of this craft, we need to get the official, verified information out to the public as quickly and accurately as possible if we are to refute these bits of erroneous information.

And, the most important fact we need to communicate is that the odds of being killed by a terrorist are staggeringly small. So small, in fact, that they fall into the range of one in 20 million. Your odds of dying from heart disease? One in seven. Does that stop you from ordering the double bacon burger at your local fast food joint? Maybe not. A traffic accident? One in 112. Lightning? One in 170,000. It's the sudden, gruesome and heartless nature that makes a Terrorist attack such a shock to the public's mind.


But, we have seen this type of panic before. The movie Jaws brought about fear of sharks after its 1975 release. People feared getting into planes after the 9/11 attacks. Last year's Ebola outbreak caused mass panic whenever someone presented in medical offices with gastric distress. Without a firm knowledge of what the risks are, people are terrible at assessing the danger these things present to them.

At his first inauguration, Franklin Delano Roosevelt remarked:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is ... fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. 
In these trying times, let's all be the drivers who convert retreat into advance by denying the terrorists the very weapon they need to win.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida
https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomiovino

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It's a gamble

This past weekend, I was in Las Vegas. No, I didn't go for a bachelor party, nor did I go to play any high-stakes gaming. Although, there were plenty of opportunities for that.


No, I was there to do some Public Information instruction for the International Association of Emergency Managers annual conference. Which happened to be held on the Strip in downtown Las Vegas.

In a casino resort named the Paris.


The poignancy of which was not lost on me or any of the other students in the class, given the events which unfolded 5,400 miles to the east in the real Paris last Friday.


When it comes to emergency management, what are we trying to do? Whether it's a hurricane, earthquake, hazardous material spill or a coordinated terror attack, we are trying to prepare ourselves and our residents for the eventuality of low-probability but high-impact events. We want our residents to go about their daily lives, yet understand that they need to be be ready in the event that something should transpire.

Do they know where to go? Are there enough emergency supplies on hand? What would they do in the event a situation began to spiral out of control? Where are the exits to the building, and can they be found quickly.

As I flew home from the training yesterday, I was asked by the flight attendants to review the seat back safety card on both flights from Las Vegas to Tampa in the event that something happened and I had to react quickly should something happen on the flight. Now, the odds of something happening on the flight that would require me to make a hasty evacuation from the plane are pretty slim - almost as slim as me striking it rich at the craps tables in Vegas.

But, would I be ready to take immediate action in the event something did happen?

That's how we need to be thinking when it comes to our roles as Public Information Officers.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida
https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomiovino

Friday, November 13, 2015

Wanna be a great PIO?

Every day I arrive at the office, run through the 200 or so emails I’ve gotten over night, scan the headlines of the local papers and the wires, make a list of everything I need to check on and then I get on the phone and make some calls. 


One of the most valuable (and potentially one of the worst) resources I have for information as a journalist is the Public Information Officer. When they are good at their jobs, they are great, but they are bad they can make an Assignment Editor’s life miserable. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some really amazing professionals in my 22 years as an Assignment Editor. Men and women who understand that we need to have a symbiotic relationship. Then there are those who act as if it’s chore to do what their job title implies - inform the public.

So what does it take to be a great PIO in the eyes of a journalist?  


First and foremost they need to be accessible. To me that means they check emails and voice mails constantly when on duty and respond to messages of an urgent nature quickly.

When they are off duty they have a system set up where they or someone can be reached if information is needed after hours, while in meetings or while on vacation. We know you don’t work 24 hours a day but someone is always in the newsroom (and we have lots of questions) so empower people in organization to give you a helping hand when you’re not around.

Secondly, they need to be truthful and fair. I’ve had PIOs just flat out lie to me about what’s happening at an incident or given information to a competitor they did not share with me even when asked direct questions. Getting information to the public is not their or my time to settle scores or be petty. We don’t have to be friends but we do have to be professionals so let’s get together after work and talk about why you’re mad at me or my newsroom and work it out so we can come together.

Finally, they should have an idea of how newsrooms work. What’s an assignment editor do? What about a producer? Have you ever been in a newsroom? Set up a tour and meet the folks you talk to on the phone, invite them to your office so they can see what it’s like for you. I’ve personally benefited from doing ride alongs, visiting comm centers and also from inviting communicators, police, firefighters and PIOs into the newsroom to take a look around.  

It helps all of us to understand the challenges we all face so we can work together to keep the public up to date and safe.

AnnMarie Breen, Assignment Editor
WTVD ABC 11, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
https://www.linkedin.com/in/annmarie-breen-12ab5680

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Presentation Pointers

There's nothing quite like a PowerPoint presentation to make things exciting. As a public information officer, either you may have to deliver one, or you may have to generate one for another spokesperson in your organization. And, that's cool. Seriously.


I mean, think of the good old fashioned technology PowerPoint replaced. Hauling around slide projectors or reams of overhead transparencies. This program, created in 1990, allows you to port your presentation - videos and all - to and from wherever you need to go. No fuss, no muss. Bring your own laptop, get your hands on an inexpensive projector and you are in business.

This can be a good thing, or it can also be so absolutely horrid, because I have seen people use and abuse PowerPoint, Prezi, Apple Keynote, Google Slides and other various programs. To the point where I - as a member of an audience - would be willing to throw a chair through a window to make good my escape.

While this isn't a post on how to put together a PowerPoint presentation, it can help steer you in the right direction and avoid a few of the most obvious pitfalls.


First, let's talk about the things you want to do. Always remember the KISS principle - keep it simple, sucka. Be sure to make your slides as easy to read as possible, keep them to a few points and use graphics that help tell your story. Oh, and be sure to use spellcheck. There's nothing quite as jarring as misspelling a word on your slides ...

What can go wrong with your slide design? Plenty. Remember, the slides on your presentation are guides to help keep you on track and your audience working with you.


You do NOT want to post a slide that looks like this. Trust me, it happens. I have seen department directors who were paid a considerable salary prepare slides that look like this. They INSIST that this is how people learn and want to see their presentation done. Let's face it, if you end up turning your back on your audience and read from the screen word-for-word, why are they even there? Just give them a handout and be done with it.


Another don't is to jam your slides full of exciting visual effects, Just because you CAN put them in there, should you?  As you can see from the moving graphic above, all of that excitement can wear your eyes out in a hurry, and it can also distract from your message.


Oh, and when speaking about distracting from messages, jamming a ton of photos onto each slide can detract from your message as well. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but picture-paloozas with images stacked on top of each other are going to be a distraction, even if they are all of cute babies and baby animals. Find one good image that tells your story and go with that.

Having the ability to embed video clips into your presentation can really bring your slide to life. Just remember, however, that each of these programs handles these files in a specific way. Just because the video plays with a single click on your desktop computer doesn't mean it will spring to life if you move it to a new computer for the presentation. Be sure to bring all of your files with you just to be sure you have everything handy. This way, you won't be scrambling, clicking the dreaded black box in your slideshow with no result.


Finally, checking your presentation one last time before you leave for your talk is critical. Sometimes the information changes on the slides or updates need to be made, and you may not realize that this critical data has gone missing until you are in the middle of your talk. Believe me, I have done it, and having to correct your information in front of a large group can be one of the most embarrassing things you may ever have to do.

Will these tips make you a PowerPoint guru? No, but they just might help you build better presentations that stand out in your audience's mind for all the right reasons.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida
https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomiovino

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

My go kit

I have a confession to make. I am a PIO who happens to ride mass transit to work. That's right, I take the bus from my home, across Tampa Bay to my office.


Which means I can't keep my go kit in my trunk. So, I have had to make some adjustments on what I bring to work and how I travel with it. I go fully self-contained to work with my go kit on my back!

How is it possible? It's actually easier than you think.


First, I have to start with a really good backpack. This one from Swiss Gear has a lot of padding for my back, plus it has a ton of separated compartments, which make it easy to store things where I can grab them easily. I added the nifty orange handle flag so everyone will know it's mine!


In the easy scan pocket closest to my back, I have stashed my own personal Chromebook. It was cheap, it runs PowerPoint presentations, and it is lightweight. I have added the proper cables to connect it to a projector, a wireless mouse and a presentation clicker. This way, I am always good to go if I want to write a blog, do a talk... the works.


Next up, I have my county issued iPad and my binder. Is it redundant? Perhaps. But, this way, I can have the Chromebook up presenting and I can work on other items if another presenter is speaking. I'm not stuck this way. The binder, well, what if my battery runs out?


Also tucked in the backpack are a good supply of business cards, a few pens and markers and some reporter notebooks. I prefer the reporter style notebooks because they fit easily into a pants pocket and the spiral binding allows them to lay flat.


I also have a paper list of phone numbers available because - again - what if I need to get in touch with someone?  The lists have phone numbers for important county contacts, news desks, allied agencies ... the works.


Since I now wear glasses, I have to keep them clean so I can see. The screen cleaner and microfiber cloth can keep the glasses, computer and phone screens spotless, and the hard glasses case also keeps a spare pair of sunglasses at the ready for me. Believe me, working outdoors in the bright Florida sunshine can really do a number on your eyes without some protection.


And, when the bright sunshine gives way to pouring rain, there's no substitute for a good rain poncho. Now, I think I made a mistake by buying a black one. Had I thought about it, something a little brighter and more reflective would have been a wiser decision. Added bonus - the poncho also covers the backpack, keeping its contents dry if I have to head outdoors.


How reliant have we become on electronics? That's why my kit has a TON of mirco USB and Apple Lightning cables in it. I also have a rechargeable battery, a wall plug, a car charger and a charger that also uses AA batteries, so I have lots of options. A pair of earbuds helps if I have to listen to notes (or music after a long day). My Slingshot phone cradle gets tucked in there as well, along with a power strip that not only accepts standard plugs, but also has a pair of USB ports to plug into as well.


While you think about the gear to do the job, you often forget that you are out there as a person as well. That's why I don't go anywhere without a few essentials in the kit including hand sanitizer, a stomach settler, a painkiller, tissues and a few other essentials. A few sport bars that can hold you for a while until you can get a real meal can mean a lot out in the field.

Sure, it seems like a lot, but when you think about it, keeping these items in a backpack right at hand can make your job just a little easier when you have to grab and go. Plus, whenever you get to where you are setting up, it's easy to sling that bag down and use what you need.

Remember the old disaster preparedness mantra - it's better to have and not need than need and not have.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida
https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomiovino

Friday, October 30, 2015

So coincidental, it's spooky ...

You know, Halloween is right around the corner. And, if you are anything like me, you really dig the holiday.


You get to dress up, pass out candy, enjoy scary movies ... maybe even dance the Time Warp, if you are a Rocky Horror Picture Show fan.


With the daylight hours getting shorter and excited children headed to the streets, no doubt you have seen and heard media coverage about how dangerous a night Halloween is for pedestrians. Forget Dracula, Frankenstein's monster or ghosts, it's pedestrian accidents that are truly the scariest thing about Halloween.


In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Information's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, pedestrians are twice as likely to die in accidents on Halloween than nearly any other day of the year. That astounding number sends a shiver up my spine - and the spines of public information officers for law enforcement, fire rescue and other organizations around the country. If you were going to put out information about pedestrian safety and get the media's attention, now would be a great time.


Halloween is also great this year because it falls the night before daylight saving time ends, meaning we fall back to standard time. Now, if you live in Arizona, Indiana or a number of other places, you won't be fiddling with your clock, but the rest of us poor saps will. Which is good, because it is also a great opportunity to remind folks that they should be checking - or, even better - changing the batteries in their smoke detectors.


Smoke detectors have significantly reduced the number of fatalities in house fires over the decades, but they only work if they have working batteries. While the time change may be a real pain in the rear, it does serve as a great annual reminder to do a small part to ensure the safety of your residents.


Oh, and do them one more favor. With the time change, irrigation systems may not get the message that they will be working out of synch with the summer time. So, maybe a notice to your utility customers for them to check their irrigation timers could help keep them out of hot water if you are under watering restrictions.

By just looking at the calendar, you can find many more of these spooky coincidences throughout the year to slip your message out to the media. They will consider them treats - not tricks - for their papers and newscasts.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida
https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomiovino

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Getting to know you ...

Getting to know all about you ...




Ever since that Rogers and Hammerstein hit was first performed in the play The King and I, it has become a favorite, and it should have been named the anthem for PIOs everywhere. After all, didn't we establish that stories have to be first and foremost about people? And, how else can you tell the story about a group or organization without getting to know the members?

That's what happened while a coworker and I were preparing for the opening of a newly rebuilt fire station just outside of Tampa. We had heard stories about a retired Capitan who the crews respected, but it wasn't until we actually headed down to the fire house that we got to know the story.

It turns out that this retired Captain Billy Riley had been a mentor to the officers in the county's fire service, and on a February day in 2006, he did something which moved him to the level of legend. While responding to a call of a child on a bicycle struck by a car, Captain Riley made a quick assessment of the situation and selflessly crawled under the car to the severely injured child. Mustering all of the strength he could, he did a push up that lifted the car a few inches off the road, allowing two other firefighters to pull the boy to safety.


The scene is memorialized in the Firehouse Subs shop just down the street from the new fire station. There, on the wall, is a mural depicting that moment.


So touched by Captain Riley's efforts and his tireless leadership, the crew had a flag made, calling Station No. 7 the House that Billy Riley Built.

With that understanding, it has been easy to craft talking points for the dignitaries and pitches to the reporters. The new fire house isn't just bricks, mortar and bunks - it's a place where heroes work, waiting for the call to spring into action to maybe just save a life.

There's a lot to be said about that kind of story.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida
https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomiovino

Friday, October 23, 2015

Educating your partners

I can remember it like it happened yesterday. It was 11 years ago this past August. Hurricane Charley was beginning to really look scary, and our emergency manager, Gary Vickers, ordered the largest evacuation in Pinellas County, Florida's history. A level C evacuation, which affected nearly half a million residents. Long time reporters in the media room were visibly shaken, having not seen something this serious since Hurricane Elena's near miss back in 1985.

Gary Vickers in the old Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center
That's when a young reporter raised her hand from the back of the room. "Mr. Vickers! Mr. Vickers!" she yelled, trying to get his attention. He recognized her, and she proceeded to ask one of the strangest questions I had ever heard in an emergency briefing.

"Can you tell our viewers what a hurricane is?"

I froze, stunned by such a basic question coming from a reporter. Didn't she realize her station had five meteorologists who had been going wall-to-wall on hurricane coverage once Hurricane Charley had become a thing? Didn't she understand that hurricanes are a big deal here in Florida? Why was she interrupting our media briefing with such an inane question?

A haboob, or dust storm, closes in on Phoenix, Arizona
Then, the reason hit me in a blinding realization. She was a reporter brand-new to the market from the desert southwest where hurricanes aren't a normal occurrence. To her, wildfires, flash-flooding and haboobs were the big threats where she used to report, not hurricanes. Based on her knowledge base, she wasn't 100 percent sure that her viewers knew what a hurricane was.

That's when I realized that our education plan was missing a major component - were we reaching the reporters in the market and educating them on the issues?

It was that point that we put into place some efforts to bring reporters up to speed on what we were dealing with in the Tampa Bay area. Our emergency managers worked more closely with the local TV meteorologists, often sharing the stage with them at public events to spread the word. We ensured that we had media briefings at the beginning of the season so they knew what the areas of emphasis were for that year.

Media briefings ensure reporters are up to speed
We even rolled that into other areas of concern. How does mosquito control work? Why is stormwater management so important? Why are people so vulnerable to fraud during the holiday shopping season?

And, that education effort has paid dividends by increasing coverage, helping residents get a better idea of why they need to pay attention - and through the thanks we get from our partners in the media.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida
https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomiovino



Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Know your records

Man, I can remember going to the mall back in the 1980s. Sure, there were the young ladies, the book stores, and the record stores. I spent a lot of time there, digging through the huge bins of vinyl records, looking for the awesome music that would be perfect for the soundtrack of my angst-filled teen life.

Oh, my precious vinyl...
Then, there are records of another variety. The highest score in a football game. The lowest temperature ever recorded. Some records, like the long-jump record set by Bob Beamon at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, stand for an incredible amount of time. In fact, his world record stood until 1991, and he still holds the Olympic record by a long distance.

Bob Beamon with his record-breaking jump in 1968
And, then there are other kinds of records. If you work for a government agency, you know they are known as public records. Other agencies may be required to make public financial records or other documents - this varies from state to state and country to country.

If you have anything to do with medical issues here in the United States, you are no doubt aware of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which restricts the type of information that can be released to the public. Thus, as a PIO on the scene of a crash or other incident, you are limited in releasing names of victims and types of injuries.

Here in Florida, we are also very familiar with Chapter 119 of the state statutes, the chapter which deals with public records.  While no one outside of the legal beagles in your attorney's office will be expected to know all of the ins and outs of the law and pertinent legal rulings, it pays to have a general idea of what the statute encompasses.


Believe me, there will be citizens and reporters who will understand how the system works. I have seen government employees fail to turn over simple sign-in sheets to a reporter or interested citizen, only to end up the subject of an in-depth story with questions about their 'evasiveness' when approached for the records.

As a public information officer, it's our duty to not play lawyer, but to help brief staff members on what the laws are for your jurisdiction and to provide clear, concise instructions on what to do should someone ask for records.

I don't want to sound like a broken record, but believe me, this is part of the role of trusted advisor you have signed on for. You might as well do your best!

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida
https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomiovino

Friday, October 16, 2015

Debonair facial hair

I learned a valuable PIO life lesson today…from mustaches.

Every autumn, several fire and police agencies in my community raise funds for charity by holding a mustache contest party, an event billed “Octoberstache.”  My hypothesis is these fall-time follicle fundraisers are only thinly-veiled excuses to  grow mustaches (which men love) while skirting the ire of significant others (who get a little plucky against them), under the guise of philanthropy. I’m helping with outreach.

A debonair 'stache
This year our cause is an organization that helps athletes with disabilities.  Specifically, to buy a sports prosthetic for a local boy whose leg was amputated due to illness. His dad’s a cop. The boy likes to play soccer. Soccer is hard to play on crutches.

As I set about constructing a media outreach plan, my proverbial PIO salivary glands began to water.  Let me get this straight- You want me to pitch a story that has kids in need, triumph over disability, and handsome firefighters in mustaches?  Why, all I need is a baby animal involved somehow and I’m golden!

But then I paused to reflect.  As PIOs, by nature, some of our tasks are easier than others. Sometimes we have to narrate disaster and quell fear, apologize for the knuckleheads in our agencies and the knucklehead things they do, look good on camera while wearing yellow brush coats (no one looks good in yellow), and report on ghastly things we’d soon rather forget.  These are the hard parts of the job.

Touching stories are easy pitches to the media
But on the flip side, sometimes what we do is so, so easy.  We get to carry forth beautiful stories –tales of communities coming together, great acts of sacrifice and courage, events with compelling visual elements.  Some of our pitches are so inherently solid they get snatched right out of our hands. 

How do we react when these latter opportunities occur, however? It’s easy to get sidetracked with that little dance about how many cameras will show and re-tweets we'll rack up and how hard the Chief will pat us on the head.  But ultimately, what we do is not about us, but it's about the people who benefited from our work. Whether that benefit equates to attendees showing up for fundraisers or people getting out with their lives.

For those of you granted the gift of gab and pen who use it in service to others, carry on humbly in this dedicated service of your community.  That’s what I will be reflecting upon solemnly next Friday, as I fit a box of puppies with costume mustaches.

Loralee Olejnik
Southern California PIO