Friday, January 30, 2015

The weekly read

How to recover from a social media PR disaster
American Express Open Forum
August 17, 2011

Mistakes happen. Maybe the timing of a tweet was ill-advised. Maybe one of your PR people posted on the corporate account when they meant to post to their own. Remember, we're all human.

That's what makes this article posted on the American Express Open Forum for small businesses such a great read. Author Zachary Sniderman explored some famous 'oopsie' moments that went from bad to 'bingo' based on the reactions of the parties involved. For instance, the tweet above, sent erroneously from the American Red Cross' account, was without a doubt a big time mistake.

Understanding that he could capitalize on the error, Dogfish Head brewery savvy PR coordinator Mariah Calagione used the opportunity to get the beer's fans to donate to this worthy cause.

The moral of the story - mistakes will be made. Just don't compound them by blowing them out of proportion.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Powerful allies

Ask many public information officers what they think about members of the media, and you will get a variety of responses. Some may envision this:
Now that's scary!
Others may pause for a few moments, then admit they think of this:

Oh, how sneaky...
It's a real shame that these are the images we have when it comes to members of the media, because they are some of the best allies we could ever ask for. From simple stories that give people a general idea of what our organizations do to conveying critical life-or-death information in the middle of a disaster, the media's broad reach and credibility can be critical to the success of your message.

Build those media relations!
Now, how do you get started building that relationship? That's what Melissa Agnes of Agnes + Day spoke about recently during a podcast about building relationships with your local media. Some of the topics we covered included:

  • Building relationships with reporters and the media
  • The benefits of good media relations during a crisis
  • The three words that mean a lot to a reporter
  • How social media helps - and potentially hinders - opportunities for building these relationships

Simply click here to listen to the podcast, and hopefully, you will find it entertaining and educational.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, January 26, 2015

At altitude

So, this guy from Florida goes to the mountains of Colorado to talk about hurricanes...

The view out of my room
Sounds like the start of a great joke, doesn't it?  I mean, what on earth would a hurricane preparedness guy be doing in Colorado in the dead of winter? Well, skiing for the first time in nearly two decades, but also addressing the 2015 Steamboat Weather Summit.

In addition to being an interesting summit where I learned a lot about space weather (something we are going to have to discuss later on), I also had a chance to talk about warning vulnerable populations about potential weather disasters. Surprisingly, it doesn't matter if the disaster is a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, wildfire or meteorite strike, people who are potentially affected will often choose not to heed warnings because they don't know what to expect, or they believe the impact will be less than advertised.

Me, catching my breath as I spoke 
During the presentation, the meteorologists attending were drawn to the idea of creating partnerships with the local PIOs in the organizations that they cover - something that cannot be stressed enough. After all, without those contacts, who would they speak with when the disaster comes to pass?

While I'd like to think my presentation was one for the ages, it paled in comparison to the slate of other talented and experienced speakers who rounded out the offerings during the summit. I guess that's the sign of a great event such as this - when you leave learning far more than you could have ever taught.

Yes, Tom, there is such a thing as snow! 
Plus, wow, snow for this Florida guy was a real thrill!

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, January 19, 2015


I remember when I had my first traffic accident. It happened on a traffic circle on Route 23 in Wayne, New Jersey. I pulled out when I shouldn't have (I was 16, and didn't have a lot of experience), and I got sideswiped.

I spent days in a deep depression, wondering if I could ever forgive myself when my dad pulled me aside and said, "son, stop being so hard on yourself. They are called accidents for a reason."

Those words still resonate with me, so when I see something that happens accidentally, I don't like to pile on. That's what happened after the new building housing our Sheriff's offices, emergency operations center and 9-1-1 facility opened. The project was wildly successful, but here was something that went askew...

Look for it...
Yes, someone at the company that made the rugs with the Sheriff's office logo on them made a spelling error. You have to look hard to see it, but it's there... In Dog We Trust.  The rugs sat out for about six months before someone realized what had happened.

As you can imagine, the story went viral quickly. It not only made the news in the Tampa Bay area, it also hit the wires, going nationwide and - eventually - internationally. 

Amazing, isn't it? Sometimes, we struggle to get coverage on stories we pitch, but the simplest of stories creates attention that can span the globe. 

The comments on the story from the public were also interesting. Believe me, no deputies were involved in the weaving of the rug, but that didn't stop the harsh criticism that public employees are careless in the execution of their jobs. Which, of course, is nonsense, because the company that made the rug made replacements with the proper spelling.

The team of PIOs at the Sheriff's office, however, are some of the most skilled I have ever worked with. When faced with this issue, they didn't sweep anything under the rug. They saw an opportunity to create a lot of good will with the public, and put the misspelled rug up for auction, with the proceeds to benefit a canine rescue organization. Check out the auction here.

Doggone It, bidding for the rug, offered initially at $100, has crossed the $5000 threshold, with nearly two days left. Talk about a great way to fetch some positive attention....

Friday, January 16, 2015

The weekly read

Boston's great molasses flood of 1919
Mental Floss magazine

It was an unusually warm day for Boston on January 15, 1919. The day earlier, temperatures failed to get out of the single digits Fahrenheit, but rose to the mid-40's that day. The giant molasses holding tank at the Purity Distilling Company held 2.5 million gallons of sticky Puerto Rican molasses to be used to distill alcohol (for industrial purposes only, as prohibition went into effect just a few days later).
The aftermath of the molasses spill
What happened next was an industrial accident which today remains one of the most bizarre of all times. The molasses in the tank, its volume expanded by the suddenly warmer temperatures and the initial stages of fermentation, pressed against the steel tank, eventually rupturing. The ensuing 15-foot wave of sticky liquid killed 21, injured more than 150 and caused tremendous damage to the structures in the area.

While this event was certainly unique, and in today's world would probably create a number of humorous headlines, it reminds us that as public information officers, we need to be aware of the potential hazards of any incident, and that we have our information ready in the event something happens.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Three words that show you care

I know that one month from today, I had better have my i's dotted and t's crossed. I had best come correct. Indeed, I had better be minding my p's and q's. Otherwise, this young lady will be one angry person.

That's right, one month from now will be Valentine's Day, and my wife Rhonda is never going to let me live it down if I forget. That's why I have multiple alarms set on my calendar, notes just about everywhere in my office and even one or two in my car. If I can only find them...

You know, there are two things I have to say about my wife. First, I definitely married over my head. She's one heck of a woman, a great mom and one of the smartest people I know. She has also given me tremendous insight into my work as a PIO. After all, she was the first journalist I ever had the privileged of working with.

She and I both met at the University of Maryland in 1989, and as I watched her learn the craft of broadcast journalism (and carried some of that old equipment across a large college campus), I learned about deadlines, and how important they are. And, when she got her first work experience, her knowledge only became more extensive, and I learned more from her.

For instance, I know for a fact that when a reporter calls you, looking for information on a story they are doing, it pays to 'fess up early during the process. This way, precious time can be saved while they prepare their story for the newscast or the next day's paper.

Part of that 'fessing up includes the three words that PIOs never seem to want to use, but can mean that you really care about the reporter:

 I don't know.

Real Renaissance Man Leonardo da Vinci
There is no shame in using those three words. Seriously. No one is expecting you to be a true renaissance man or woman, truly from the days where someone could literally amass all the (known) world's knowledge in their personal library. In fact, many requests from reporters come from journalistic initiative. The reporter thinks of the story based on the information they gather, and they are looking for you to help flesh out the details.

Now, just telling a reporter I don't know is one thing, but it always helps to follow with the words, "But, I can find out who does."  Maybe it's someone down the hallway from you. It could be someone in another division or department. Heck, it could be someone in an entirely different organization. But, if you know who that person is, it's always helpful to lend the reporter a hand and help them track that person down.

A reporter gathering information
What does that gain you? Well, first of all, it passes that hot potato off to someone else, allowing you to breathe a deep sigh of relief if being in front of a camera makes you nervous. But, it accomplishes a few more things:

  • It builds your cred. You look like you have your act together, which is a big deal. Presenting yourself as a knowledgeable professional encourages reporters to seek you out when something is breaking. Sure, you may steer more than a few reporters elsewhere, but when the time comes for you to pitch your story, you'll be a known commodity.
  • It builds trust. Reporters will appreciate that you have saved them precious time, meaning that they know they will hold you in high regard. 
  • It may find you in good favor. No, helping reporters is not your trump card to get your story covered, but if a reporter has to decide between two stories before pitching them at a morning assignment meeting , and they know they can get your honest, eager cooperation, they may lean your way more often than not.

So, in this season of unbridled affection, if appropriate, take some time to tell the reporters in your life those those three little words that show just how much you care about them...

I don't know. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

One step ahead

When it comes to media requests, it's important to stay on top of developments to understand what will be asked of you. Reporters will look to see how the local authorities would handle a situation should it happen in your town. It's called localization, and it's a common reporting technique to develop a good story angle.

That's why no matter what happens in the world, it always pays to pay attention to the incident, and to think to yourself, "what would happen if a reporter calls today or tomorrow?  How could we handle that?"

Buses flooded out by Hurricane Katrina's storm surge
A perfect example happened during Hurricane Katrina ten years ago. One of the stories that was reported was the number of buses that belonged to the New Orleans school district that were flooded out in their yards. Surely, they could have been better used to evacuate people before the storm made its impact, or to move them to better shelter after the storm passed.

Understanding that reporters would ask us about our plans, our county and the local transit agency worked together to explore the issue. At first, a study was going to be conducted about who uses transit service and what routes would be the best ones to run. What we had failed to consider, however, was that the transit folks already had a mountain of ridership studies already in the books. That's how they determine where the buses should run on normal days.

Get on the bus, Gus
Instead of conducting the study, an agreement was struck that allows our transit authority to run regular bus service around the clock during a hurricane evacuation until the winds become unsafe for buses to be on the road - a sustained 40 miles per hour.

By the time the reporters started calling about the potential study, we already had the agreement in place, making for some great coverage, and helping to reassure our citizens that we were indeed thinking about their safety should the worst happen.

We even did a TV interview with the transit authority to talk about the plan. This 15-minute interview sheds some more light on the lessons we learned and just how we're staying ahead of the curve.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Deer in the headlights

We have all had this fear ... and some of us have lived through it. You're driving down a lonely road late at night, listening to a little music on the radio while you think about all of the things you need to do when you get home, and * POW * just like that, you see a large shape dart in front of your car. You apply the brakes quickly, ready to swerve out of the way, when the shape in front of you stops and looks back at you, frozen in terror at the sight of your oncoming car.
I'm sure it looked just like that!
We use the expression 'frozen like a deer in the headlights' a lot. It could be a description of a child on stage during a school play who just forgot his or her lines, a colleague delivering a report to superiors or any one of a hundred other scenarios. Basically, people sometimes lock up under pressure, and they have that signature look that just spells doom.

It's perfectly normal to have that type of reaction. In those times where we haven't experienced a situation similar to the one we are enduring, it can be a difficult, often confusing situation which prevents quick and decisive action.

And, let's face it, emergencies by their very nature can throw curve balls at us all the time. All of the training in the world can sometimes become worthless when something totally unexpected happens. Let's face it, during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, when people were speculating wildly about crude oil washing up on our shores, we weren't 100% sure how to address the specific concerns, how oil boom worked or what our beaches were going to look like after all of this was over.

Establishing contacts in a command post
But, that doesn't mean we should stand in the middle of the highway, looking at the oncoming lights with fear. In fact, as public information officers, part of what we need to do is shuffle, stumble, crawl or even stagger our way to one of two possible directions.  First, we either need to take command of the situation, and even if we don't have any of the details, we can certainly take the necessary steps to work with whomever the incident commander is and get at least some of the most basic ideas fleshed out.

Or, we can seek out a public information officer who may have more experience in the situation, and inform them that they are on point. Which, of course doesn't quite relieve you of your responsibilities. No, until that PIO can get things up and running, it's always a good idea to stick around and offer your assistance until they have matters in hand.

How do you develop the skills to know which way to go?  Well, there's really no substitute for experience, and the more you find yourself involved in situations, the easier this becomes.

Getting the information out
Another important thing to do is to build your circle of colleagues. You should be meeting with your colleagues on a regular basis, so you know exactly who to contact when something goes sideways.

Most importantly, don't be afraid to step in and take some action if you see the public information component isn't being covered. Remember, when incidents happen, people are more concerned about apprehending the bad guy, putting out the fire or rescuing people from rubble, not necessarily the timely and accurate flow of information. It's better to take the initiative at first to ensure that position is staffed until further help arrives.

It's better than being stuck in the middle of the road.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, January 5, 2015


Happy New Year, everyone!  I hope you all had some great time together with family and friends, and are ready to tackle those 2015 resolutions...

Oh, I had to go there.

I'm normally not a resolution kind of guy. Resolutions sort of get a bunch of people to the gym for a month or so, maybe get people to stop smoking for a few days or try to change some bad habit, but then they go right back to their old ways.

I'm not going to dwell on that. In fact, I'm going to suggest that perhaps there are better resolutions to make when it comes to being a PIO that will be easy to follow out. Here are just a few examples:

  • Resolve to contact your local media face-to-face on a more regular basis. Sure, we expect to see reporters at the scene of an incident, but why not take the extra step to go and visit your local newsrooms? Sure, it may be a bit of a drive, but spending some time with an assignment editor for your local TV, radio or newspaper outlet can help both of you get a better feel for what makes news, how to get your story successfully placed and it shows you as a real person... someone they can get in touch with on those proverbial slow news days. 
  • Resolve to meet with nearby PIOs on a regular basis. If you don't have an active PIO network in your area of surrounding towns, neighboring counties, important partners and other groups, now is a great time to get everyone together to exchange business cards and put names with faces. Afraid no one will show up?  Bagels, donuts or pizza are great ways to improve your attendance. 
  • Resolve to be better read. Want to learn how to take better pictures for your website? How to conduct media relations in a crisis? How to better use social media? Gosh, there are tons of sites, books and blogs out there that can offer some valuable insight into how to make these improvements. 
  • Resolve to share your experiences. Last year, this blog was just a simple idea - a forum to share some lessons learned as a public information officer. Since then, I have been approached by lots of other PIOs who have been through some of the worst possible situations and found ways to make things work. Some have found new ways to leverage relationships. Others have found tips and tricks that help them during their crazy busy days. Take the time this year to help make a difference. You might be surprised with just what is possible. 

Remember, a new year is really a great excuse to dedicate yourself to some serious self improvement. I'll see you at the gym.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida