Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Gathering intel

So, a big part of my job now that I am moving across Tampa Bay is to get a handle on my new employer - Hillsborough County. I have been reading up on the county's initiatives, how they are addressing concerns and what is being considered critical as they move forward.

It's funny, because this is exactly one of the first steps a good PIO is supposed to do in any situation. Roll up, get a situational briefing and observe what's taking place with his or her own eyes, if possible. Of course, with something like a hurricane, it may be difficult to hitch a ride on a hurricane hunter aircraft, but that may be another discussion for another time.

One of NOAA's Hurricane Hunter P-3 Orion aircraft
The importance of that initial phase of gathering information can't be understated. As a public information officer, it's your job to not only know what's happening at the scene, but to also help your incident commander determine what will be asked by the reporters. Those folks may be so tuned in to fixing the problem that they totally forget to even consider what the public wants - or needs - to know.

So, how can you help? It's easy - you have to think like a reporter.

Woah, pump the brakes there, pal...
"Woah!" you are thinking right now. "Tom, I never worked as a reporter! Aren't they the bad guys?"

No way, Jose. Remember that reporters are looking to get as much information as possible to tell the story to the end user - the public. And, you can be sure they are going to ask multiple questions, but they all are going to start with who, what, when, where, why and how. In fact, Dr. Vincent Covello of the Center for Risk Communications put together a list of the 77 most commonly asked questions by reporters at a scene. You can print out a copy for yourself and keep it tacked over your desk. Look at it every day. Print out a few more copies. Put one in your go-kit. One in your car. One on your night stand. Get to understand what reporters are looking for, and you will be a step ahead of the questions.

Bill Wade
Another subtle yet effective technique I picked up from retired Tampa Fire Rescue Captain Bill Wade was to approach reporters as you arrive on the scene and ask them what they have heard. Many times, you may not even be able to even get that question out - the reporters will be looking for answers. Tell the reporters you are looking to get their answers for them, and then at your meeting with the incident commander, tell him or her, "Hey, here is what I am hearing from the reporters. What do we know?"

Easy peasey, and you will look like a hero to both your incident commander and the media.

Now, I have to go stuff some more things into a few more boxes. That last day is creeping up on me fast!

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, February 23, 2015


I had to learn a lot when I bought my first home with my wife. In fact, our first crisis happened less than one day after we signed the paperwork to our new home. The crank on the Florida style jalousie window broke off as I attempted to open the window.

"Who do we call to fix this?" my wife asked, concerned about our new home issue.

"You are looking at him," I said, as I drove off to the nearest home improvement warehouse to get the parts I needed to fix the window.

What I hope my yard will look like one day...
Another important thing I learned is that when you buy some expensive plants to decorate your front yard, you have to know where to plant them to grow the best. If you don't put them in the right situations with the proper sun, moisture, protection from wind and the like, well, that investment may not blossom like you wanted it to.

No, the PIO Chronicles isn't about to become a gardening blog. It is time, however, for me to make a big announcement about my future as a public information officer. Last week, I accepted a position at the Hillsborough County Communications Department to become one of their public information strategist.

This job represents an opportunity for me to advance. After my 21 years at Pinellas County, I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for all of the opportunities they have provided me, but the time is right to make the move.

In the meantime, I will still be asked to help with the emergency management effort, in addition to working with the county's water and sewer division, something I have a lot of experience with as well.

The Howard Frankland Bridge crossing Tampa Bay
Even though it will be a short hop across Tampa Bay to my new work location, I will continue to write for this blog to share experiences, tips and tricks of the trade to help create a nationwide virtual joint information system.

Thank you for your continued support.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Partnerships pay

My dad was a great guy for giving those bon mots of advice. You know, the kind of stuff that makes a teenager's eyes roll so hard, they are in danger of spraining one of their extraocular muscles. Some of his gems were:

  • You can't run with the wolves at night if you want to soar with the eagles in the morning.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

And, his all time favorite, especially when he wanted cooperation from his three sons:

  • Many hands make light work.

The funniest thing about that last one is that in my professional life, I have had to take it to heart.

"OK, everyone in!"
You see, as someone who wants to take the lead and make things happen, I would routinely try to solve every problem on my own or with the resources we had available to our agency. Others with a similar bent would do this as well. For instance, we had a director for our agency who came from the world of TV journalism. She came on board just as the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season happened, and was on the scene during the 2005 season - two  of the busiest on record.

Since she came from the TV news world, she automatically saw our government access television station as the perfect venue to relay information to the public about evacuations, storm preparedness and emergency briefings. So far, not a bad use.

Our TV news set from back in 2004
Where things got sideways was when she decided that we were going to have a dedicated news anchor for our coverage, and the idea of hiring a retired meteorologist - and paying for his AMS certification - was considered.

Fortunately, we pumped the brakes before we went all in on this venture. Some of the considerations we needed to address included that we didn't have the staff to go wall-to-wall with 24 hour storm coverage, we didn't have our own suite of Doppler radar and we already had our hands full handling media requests in our Emergency Operations Center.

Forecasters at the National Weather Service keeping an eye on the weather
What we did have, however, was a wide network of partners we could call upon. The forecasters at the National Weather Service were in place to offer us professional analysis of upcoming weather conditions. Our media partners had distribution channels that could reach hundreds of thousands of residents in minutes.

Our internal partners also had ways of reaching out. For instance, our Sheriff's office at the time had a reverse 9-1-1 system which could help us get the word out about evacuation orders. Our transit authority had the ability to reach all of their riders every single day with messaging. Before long, we had a fairly decent method of reaching people that didn't require us to reinvent the wheel.

The WEA logo found on equipped cell phones
Today, we've only gotten better at this. For instance, the Federal Communications Commission has required all cell phone carriers to provide Wireless Emergency Alerts about potential dangers to their customers. With a tool like this, reaching out to residents is just a message away.

You know, the older I get, I realize the smarter my dad was.It still doesn't stop my sons from rolling their eyes at me, but hey, they have some time to learn yet.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Friday, February 13, 2015

The weekly read

Big snow in the social media age
The New Yorker Magazine
Feb. 11, 20915

The city of Boston has nearly topped its record snowfall for the month of February, and the shortest month of the year isn't yet half over. More than six feet of the fluffy white stuff has already fallen with more expected over the next few days and sub-freezing temperatures to ensure that it doesn't go anywhere.
Snow melters have been pressed into service to help clear overburdened parking lots
While this has created its share of travel and infrastructure nightmares in one of the country's oldest cities, it has been  an interesting experience on social media. This article, written by columnist Ian Crouch, addresses how Bostonians have turned to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms to share important information, commiserate about the unceasing snowfall and even find some humor in the situation.

Hang in there, residents of Boston, and take comfort in the fact that Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Fort Myers, Florida in one short week.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When things don't go right

There is a bit of old wisdom that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow bestowed upon us:
Into each life some rain must fall. 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Since I started the PIO Chronicles, I have focused on the positive and avoided some of the 'learning lessons' that many of us have experienced. After all, I do want to focus this blog on how to do our jobs better, with more skill and with unimpeachable integrity.

There are those moments, however, when things just don't go as planned. And, when they happen, the story ceases to be about the story and instead becomes about the spokesperson's reaction to the media's presence. I offer these incidents without judgement on the part of those who are pictured. Instead, I would like to offer perhaps a few suggestions about how to prevent incidents like this from happening in your jurisdiction.

This event took place in Miami-Dade County on March 22, 2013, and as you can see was precipitated by a disagreement between the Fire/Paramedic Captain in charge and a free-lance videographer.

This incident happened on February 9  in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where reporter Saul Garza was preparing to do a live shot at a location the deputy on scene determined was too close.

These two incidents - and I am sure that many others of a similar nature have occurred in the past,but perhaps were never recorded and posted to YouTube - show us some very important lessons which need to be taken to heart.

First, and most importantly the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press. While there are some restrictions on that - for instance, there are laws that prevent the release of information in active criminal investigations or that reporters can't interfere with life-saving work being done by first responders - that doesn't change the fact that news crews will be there to report the news.  That is the reality, and in today's 24-hour news cycle, you can count on that more than ever.

Media on the scene
In order to report the news, reporters will need certain things. Namely:
  • Access to the scene
  • Access to decision makers
  • Access to those involved
  • Access to a view of the incident, provided there is one to see 
Agencies which do not account for these types of requests may be caught by surprise when reporters do show up on scene seeking these items. And, when people are caught unaware, they may try to improvise a response. Just as a fire fighter doesn't abandon her training when approaching a fire or a police officer try a new tactic when he approaches an armed suspect, trying to freelance a response to media on the scene can have consequences.

That's why it is critical to plan for these types of situations. Some suggestions on how to prevent incidents from escalating include:
  • Provide - at a minimum - some basic media relations training to supervisory staff who will be in command in the field. In both of these incidents, there was more than one responder on scene, which potentially could have left one person dedicated to media relations.
  • At the scene, designate someone to work with the media who can at a minimum greet the reporters, establish a media area with as clear a view as possible of the scene and an update on when a briefing will be provided
  • Develop a clear protocol of whom to contact should the number of reporters outstrip the resources on hand or the situation escalate
Again, I can't pass judgement on either one of these situations, given that I don't know all of the facts that led to these reactions. I can say with certainty, however, that the top story certainly wasn't the situation that the reporters initially came to cover.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, February 9, 2015

Think visually...

Have you ever heard the old expression, "You have a face for radio?"  I have heard it applied to me for years.

Yup, that's me in the green shirt... on an audio podcast
While there are certain things we don't want to see on your computer or television, when it comes to pitching your story to the media, getting the visuals is critical.

Think for a minute about the plane crash of TransAsia Flight 235 that happened last week in Taiwan. Yes, it was a tragic event, which led to the death of at 40 and injured 17, including two people on the ground. But, there have been plane crashes elsewhere that have garnered less coverage.

What made that event so well covered?

The dramatic photo of the plane crashing
Could it be that a car caught the entire event on a dashboard camera?

The dramatic video which showed the plane as it entered its final dive, clipped the bridge over the Keelung River in Taipei, smashed the front end of a taxi and plunged into the water was played over and over again, and still images adorned the front pages of newspapers across the world.

While part of what drove this might be the morbid curiosity on the part of viewers, it shows that time and again visuals make the story.  Think of how well covered the Chelybinsk meteor event was because there were so many cameras in that central Russian city.

The Chelyabinsk meteor
Heck, one of the things we managed to do was to shoot video on my cell phone during last September's sewer main break and get it uploaded to our YouTube page to show the exact moment when the split pipe was bypassed and the flow of wastewater was stopped.

Does the event have to be dramatic to require visuals to garner coverage? Heck no. Many times, the folks who we report to think the 'grip and grin' type of photos of check or award presentations are going to get coverage, when, in reality, most reporters roll their eyes at those events and seek better ones. So, why not help them? Some suggestions include:
  • Set up an opportunity for employees (firefighters, police officers, public safety experts) to demonstrate new equipment or techniques. 
  • Bring a camera with you when you show up on scene. Most cameras allow you to update your social media feeds from the field, adding an immediacy to the coverage.
  • Arrange for the people who may be helped by your new program to be available for interviews. 
And, to get back to my original point about radio, you have to dispense with the old way of thinking. All news radio stations have an associated website and social media feeds where - you guessed it - they can display video and photos, helping to tell the story.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Friday, February 6, 2015

The weekly read

Anniversary of Smallpox Eradication
World Health Organization's media centre
June 18, 2010

In 1980, nothing short of a medical miracle occurred. Variola major and Variola minor, the two viruses responsible for causing smallpox, were no longer found wild anywhere on the earth.

Congolese residents receiving a smallpox inoculation
This terrible disease, which was highly contagious and frequently lethal, was first observed in humans 10,000 BCE. After an effective vaccine was developed for the disease by Dr. John Clinch by 1800, the incidence of the disease declined dramatically. So effective was the vaccine that in 1959, a call was made for a global eradication program.

This interview, conducted thirty years after the eradication program's successful conclusion, addresses not only the medical history of the eradication effort, but the communications challenges while the program was in full swing. Without social media, the Internet and only spotty telephone coverage in some of the more remote areas, the program workers were able to use rumor, oral story telling and other non-technical methods of communication to track down and eliminate one of the deadliest diseases know to mankind.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


My oldest son is becoming a computer whiz. He helps program his high school's robot for robotics competitions. He works on the school's programming team. He takes advanced computer programming classes.

I think the boy may have a future in this kind of stuff.

Ahhh, the good old days
While he has a grasp of the programming for modern PCs and mobile devices (yes, he wants to make a few apps for that), he sometimes fails to realize just how far we have come in the realm of technology. Why, back in the early 1960s, computers with less power than an average cell phone filled an entire room. How far we have come...

Even with the advances in computing power, programmers understood the results of their labor were only as good as the data entered into the systems. Back in 1963, a new expression was first used - GIGO. Garbage in - garbage out. Basically, if you put bad information in, you got bad information out.

It's funny that this was first used in 1963, the same year that a measles vaccine was available for public use. Before the vaccine, in a bad year, three to four million Americans were infected each year, with 48,000 hospitalized, 4,000 suffering encephalitis and 400  to 500 deaths directly attributable to the disease.

After the vaccine, the incidence of this disease dropped significantly. The vaccine worked so well, in fact, that public health officials held out hope that just like smallpox and polio, measles would be eliminated from the United States for good.

Then a funny thing happened in 1998. Dr. Andrew Wakefield - a British former surgeon and medical researcher - authored a paper linking the combination measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to the rising numbers of autism cases. This obviously was a concern for parents everywhere, as they had to now weigh the possibility of choosing between contracting a potentially deadly disease and a possibility of causing a developmental disorder for their children.

Once this news hit the media, parents whose children had been diagnosed with autism began an outcry, wanting to hold the pharmaceutical companies responsible for the rising number of autism cases. More questioned the wisdom of giving so many vaccines to their children at such an early age, even though other vaccines, such as the ones for diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and other illnesses were never linked in the study. Celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, whose son was diagnosed with autism, picked up the cause.

Actress Jenny McCarthy speaking out about vaccination practices
Something interesting happened during the follow up to Dr. Wakefield's study. By 2004, not one single university or medical organization was able to duplicate his results. In 2010, the Lancet, the medical journal that initially published Wakefield's study, formally retracted the story.

The problem, however, is that in the Internet, where things are written forever, parents researching the safety of vaccines come across the retracted information, seeing it as current and up-to-date. Armed with this information, parents are questioning the wisdom of vaccinating their children. Since many of these parents themselves were born after 1963, they themselves have received the vaccine, and have never experienced a disease such as the measles personally. In fact, some even look to an episode of the late 1960s - early 1970s sitcom the Brady Bunch which shows an outbreak of measles in the home and point to the lack of serious medical complications as a reason to believe that the disease is nothing of concern.

This lax follow up of immunizations has recently led to a spike in the number of cases in recent years in the United States, and a recent outbreak in January tied to non-immunized visitors to Disney Land in California has already spread to 14 states.

These same people who choose to ignore the recommendations to vaccinate also can't remember smallpox in the United States - or even the world. That's because of an impressive, multi-national effort which successfully eradicated it in 1979. They also can't remember the iron lungs and leg braces that followed polio, another terrifying disease which in 1952 affected nearly 58,000 Americans, killing nearly 3,200 and leaving more than 21,000 with some level of paralysis. Indeed, the vaccination programs that have reduced the impact of these illnesses may be victims of their own success.

No one likes a shot, but the alternative is much worse
While it may seem easy to throw our hands up in frustration as public information officers, we still have a duty to communicate the importance of preparation - whether it is for severe weather, hazardous materials spills, earthquakes, fraud or communicable diseases. That's why we have to show the evidence that vaccines are safe, and that they can prevent at a minimum a tremendous amount of suffering or at worst death for family members.  Some resources that may be worth checking out include:

Remember, when misinformation is out in the public realm, bad decisions are made. Good information can save lives.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Force is with the story...

I can remember a long time ago, when I was just a wee lad growing up in north Jersey, going to mini-courses offered on Saturday mornings at a school not too far from where our family did its grocery shopping. They were held at the Pearl R. Miller school, and they happened on Saturday mornings, lasting about an hour and a half for about 12 weeks.

Both of my brothers ended up taking guitar classes. And, while they learned riffs, chords and tuning, I had my first experience working in the media. My parents signed me up for the newspaper course. My first real work as a member of the media.

The instructors were great, banging us over the heads with the basics of reporting, which included the big questions all reporters have to ask:

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

This was going to be a big deal, because our blockbuster edition - due out the last week of class - was going to be something Pulitzer worthy - an in-depth expose on the world of Star Wars.

This should give you an idea of just how old I am, but that movie had just come out, and the entire world was in its grasp. We were going to be visited by a few ambassadors from the universe who were going to give us an update on the battle with the forces of the Empire.

So, when these two schlubs showed up at the school dressed as B-List rejects from the movie, the teachers sicced us on them. I, as many other students did, asked all types of questions about the technology. How cool were your blasters? How fast did the spaceships travel? When were more light sabers going to be built to arm more future Jedi knights?

There was a girl in the class, however, who had a totally different perspective. I'm sure she must be working professionally as a journalist today. If not, she missed her calling. While we were geeking out about the tech, she asked the real questions that journalists ask on a regular basis today.

What were the living conditions like for the rebels trying to fit in to the Empire-controlled worlds? Were the rebels afraid that the Empire would come back looking for them? What were the next steps for the members of Rebel alliance after their victory?

She got the message that we as PIOs often overlook, even though we get paid to do this as grown ups. All stories are about people.

A classic example of how to get it wrong - I can't tell you how many folks have come to me from the fire service. "Hey, Tom," they ask, "my chief wants me to get coverage about a brand new fire engine, but no one will cover it. How do I get the media interested?"

You know, the reporters really don't care about that fire engine. I know it's all red and shiny and it has bells and lights and sirens and a pump and hose and ladders... But, by itself, it's an inanimate object. Just a thing.

What do the reporters want to know about?
  • How will it affect the firefighter who has to use it while doing his or her job? Will it make him or her safer? More capable? The reporters will want to talk with a fire fighter.
  • Will the fire truck make it easier to rescue someone on the fifth floor of a high-rise condominium or office building?  The reporters will want to talk with someone who will be helped by this new piece of apparatus. 
  • Will the fire truck be an obnoxious, loud piece of apparatus that will wake up nearby neighbors at 2 a.m. on its way to a call? Yes, the reporters will want to find and talk with that person as well.

As you can see, the shiny, bright fire engine is just one part of the story. There really isn't a story until the reporter can speak with someone about how it affects them. That's when the reporter can head back to his or her station or office and say, "yes, I got the story."

That's a lesson that this PIO learned a long time ago, when doing a story about a galaxy far, far away...

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida