Tuesday, March 31, 2015

It's just like magic!

I don't know about you, but I am fascinated by magicians. I don't know how they do what they do, but when you see one who does his or her craft well, you are left scratching your head wondering just how the heck they pulled that trick off.

Every year, our good friends Bob and Pam host a big Italian feast for a large group of friends. The centerpiece is something known as a Timpano, which, if you have never seen one, wow... it's impressive.

Il Timpano
It's a concoction of all sorts of Italian goodies - pasta, meatballs, sausage, cheeses... the works - baked in a pastry shell. Since you don't want to eat Timpano soup, you have to let the entire device cool for a considerable amount of time after it comes out of the oven to give it time to set up.

That's where the magician comes in. Ken Spanola, also known as Kentastic, has some serious time to fill with many guests seated around the table. That's where he shines. Watching his up-close magic act alternates between mind-bending and side splitting. He gets everyone into the act, and even the most incredulous guests leave with a big grin on their faces after he wows the crowd.

That's Kentastic!
Why bring up magicians? I'm glad you asked! Have you ever watched a talented public information officer do his or her stuff? They seem to have the right words during an interview, know when to put out the right bit of information on social media and how to grab the attention of reporters and the public when things are on the line.

How do they make it seem so easy?

Well, whatever it is, I can tell you that it's not just dumb luck. It's practice. It's learning the techniques. It's stepping up to volunteer to fill the role while others hang to the rear and just let things happen. It's committing to learning from the experiences of others to find out what worked and what just fell flat on its face.

A PIO working his magic
After Ken did one of his magic acts at Timpano night a few years back, he told me a few of his secrets (no, he didn't tell me how he got the coins to disappear or anything good like that). He said that it takes a tremendous amount of time and practice to learn to do any new trick. It basically works into three stages:

  • First, he has to walk through the steps of how the trick works. 
  • Then, he has to make each of those steps look seamless as he does them.
  • Finally, he has to work on his banter to keep the audience engaged during the trick so it works like a charm every time.

Pull a surprise out of your hat at your next press conference
I think if you want to pull a few outstanding media interviews out of your hat or conjure up some publicity magic at your next press conference, perhaps you should take some advice from Kentastic himself.  After all, he knows magic!

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Thursday, March 26, 2015

I'm not the Shell Answer Man

Getting gasoline for your car years ago was a real adventure.  I mean, remember when you could get free glasses or other give aways when you got a fill up?  Or when someone would offer to check your oil when you pulled up to the pump? Or give you a road map? And, just what the heck was Fire Chief gasoline?
You see!  It was a real deal! 
Well while those were awesome memories, another great promotion was the Shell Answer Man. Shell gasoline stations would offer quick informational pamphlets on different driving hazards and automotive maintenance issues. Heck, they even put these spots on TV from the mid 1960s through 1990.

These crazy things were so prevalent, when someone would ask me a question there was no way I could possibly know the answer to, I would frequently respond, "What the heck do I look like? The Shell Answer Man?"

As a PIO, there are many time when we believe that we have to be as smart as the Shell Answer Man and know everything about every topic. Unfortunately, that gut reaction can be totally wrong. There are many things that we don't know about personally. Some questions I have heard throughout the years include:
  • How long is the incubation period for Eastern Equine Encephalitis? 
  • When was the last time this area flooded?
  • How many cubic yards of concrete will be needed to finish this project?
  • What were the findings of the last engineering study done on this bridge?
Now, I may know a lot. And, I often times can make my two sons believe I know everything, but the reality is I often don't know the answer. Since I don't want to leave the reporter hanging, I can take one of two paths.

First, I can try to become an instant expert on the topic. And, yeah, in about an hour with some frantic research, I can get together a quick fact sheet that can give the basics. But, once the reporter wants to go into more detail, I am sunk.

Or, probably a much more intelligent response would be to find a subject matter expert and have him or her answer the questions. This works so much better in many instances because the subject matter expert typically has years of study and experience with the topic, and can draw upon that knowledge to round out the topic.

News conference at Emory University after Ebola patient Kent Brantly was released after he was disease free
More importantly, the subject matter expert usually has a title or wears a uniform that adds credibility to the message. Having a person in a business suit talking about a raging fire in the background doesn't quite have the visual impact of a Fire Rescue Captain in bunker gear on scene in much the same way that you would be less likely to take financial advice from a person in shorts and a T-Shirt by a skate park than one in business attire in an office

It's a mind trick that our brain plays with us called the appeal to authority. If someone looks the part, the viewer's brain tends to more readily accept the information as factual. While this can lead to logical fallacies, it does help guide the messaging you are providing to help reinforce the message.

As you might guess, it's important to coach the subject matter expert on how to craft soundbites, handle tough questions and stick to approved, verified information.

If you can do that, you will have thousands of miles of happy media relations!

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Slowing the game down

This past weekend, I spent the better part of my time nursing a terrible sinus headache. It's oak pollen season here in Florida. While many of you were shoveling snow, we have been shoveling tree pollen.
You don't want to do this with oak pollen. Yuck.
I have also been watching the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments. My beloved Maryland Terrapins men's team was knocked out of the big dance by the West Virginia Mountaineers, but the women's team is trucking on, hopefully headed for the championship game in Tampa.

There's something about this time of the year that brings out the basketball junkie in me. It's the single-elimination format of the games. It's the fact that many of these kids are not going pro in the NBA or the WNBA, and they are playing their hearts out for the pride of their teams. It's the insane buzzer beaters and upsets that make this time of the year one where your pulse races and your pupils dilate as the clock winds down.

I can't get enough of March Madness!
The players who stand out are the ones who have the ability to slow the game down. Not physically - they can't control the clock - but mentally, through their composure. They know what their next step is going to be, they know where their teammates are going to be and they know exactly what they have to do to make the next big play. Those players are in short supply, but can make a huge difference to teams that have them on their rosters.

In much the same way, public information officers working in times of crisis are under incredible time pressures. Maybe they are issuing warnings for impending haz-mat incidents or rapidly-developing weather situations. Perhaps they are pulling disparate members of a response team together to deploy to an area that has been hit.

A good PIO taking control of a situation
It's times like these when a PIO who knows how to slow down the game while others are hyped up on too little sleep, too much coffee or too little experience are worth their weight in gold. They have an uncanny ability to take control of the situation, pull everyone together and orchestrate the action, in much the same way that a point guard runs the offense on the hardwood. 

How do you get this ability? Are people just born with it? I think not.

It comes from a few different character traits. 

  • Experience, which is earned through training real world events and valuable lessons learned by others.
  • A level head. If you can keep your head while others are losing theirs...  it holds true especially when it comes to times of crisis. Simply by not feeding into the cycle of escalating tension and frantic activity can help short circuit the madness.
  • Courage. The guts to step up and take charge of the situation, especially when you can see things going off the tracks, is the best way to keep the team in the game. And, you can't just exercise that courage during the time of crisis - you have to exercise that during the strategic planning phases of preparation as well. Step up. Volunteer to take the leadership role.
Legendary UCLA Men's basketball coach John Wooden
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden - the Wizard of Westwood - led his UCLA Bruins to 10 NCAA Men's basketball titles in a 12-year span not through luck, but thorough the use of these important character traits. There's no reason why you can't build a winning team where you work if you take the same steps. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Binoculars and a compass

Growing up in northern New Jersey, our family lived near a few state forests and - not too terribly far away - the Appalachian Trail cut through the state as it traveled from Pennsylvania to New York. And, during the summer, our 8th grade history teacher used to lead hikes through these state forests - sometimes as long as one week at a time.

Now, these weren't the kind of hikes where you went from a cabin to a cabin. No siree Bob. These were full contact, carry all your stuff on your back, eat canned tuna and sleep on the ground kind of hikes. And, we did this in the days before GPS, so our hike leader had to not only reassure a group of young teenage boys that bears normally don't carry campers off to eat them at night, but he had to keep us on the trail so we would eventually get home.

Some of the signs were pretty easy to follow. In fact, the trails were carefully marked with colored blazes - paint marks - on trees and rocks ensuring that if you stayed on the trail, you would eventually arrive somewhere. Another way he kept us on the path was by carrying a map, a compass and a pair of binoculars.

The map is a no-brainer. But, it was only as good as your ability to know which way you were headed. That's where the compass comes in. It allows you to orient the map properly, get your bearings and be able to move in the right direction.

The binoculars? Well, if the map told you that a certain rock formation or other landmark could be seen at a particular bearing, you want every advantage when it comes to spotting it.

What does this have to do with being a PIO? Everything.

How much of our job is simply finding out what our agency is up to? How many times have you 'discovered' that an agency you work with is having a big event only to slap their foreheads at the last minute to say, "Oh, yeah, we need to involve the media and get the public invited!"  D'oh!  You end up running around at the last minute trying to - as a good friend of mine once said - make chicken salad out of chicken excrement.

What we need to do on at least a weekly basis is remind the people who we work with that their leaders need to be holding the virtual 'compass' - helping to steer the organization toward the goal of community involvement and media participation at all times. This may mean bringing everyone together on the staff to talk on a regular basis about how these matters can be addressed, and maybe weekly reminders that we are looking for those stories that have a good hook to them.

And, the staff needs to be armed with virtual binoculars to be able to see beyond the next week or two to look off into the distance at big events coming up. Even people who deal with emergencies have major events throughout the year to plan for. Fire Prevention Week every October. The start of Hurricane Season on June 1. Tornado season. Wildfire season. Drought season. Safe holiday shopping season. Consumer Protection Week.

Get the idea?

By keeping you informed about these events months off, you can do the preparation well in advance. meaning that you will hit the ground running when the time presents itself instead of playing catch up.

Sure, it's hard work. But, once you climb to the top of that summit, there's an awful lot to see, and think of the accomplishment.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Monday, March 16, 2015

Have a Coke and a discussion

I learned a lot about life from my dad. He is a hard-working guy with a great outlook on life and one of the most personable people you could ever want to meet. (Most people, if they have met my dad, often remark that I am a chip off the old block)

Not my dad, but he slung a lot of cases
He worked for more than 40 years as a Coca Cola delivery driver in Teaneck, New Jersey. That was a tough job. I went with him on his delivery route, and believe me, it was backbreaking. And, he did this whether it was raining, snowing, hot or cold.

When I did go out with my dad on the route, I noticed a few things that never seemed to change.

  • He always had a smile on his face. Not sure how he was doing it, but he greeted everyone with a smile. Regardless of race, creed or color. From the lowliest stock clerk to the biggest store manager, everyone got the same treatment.
  • Everyone greeted him by name. Now, delivering soda on a route for nearly 40 years will surely put your name and your face out there for everyone to see, but it was a true genuine greeting. With humor. With caring. 
  • And, he always took time to listen to his clients. He knew when someone's daughter was about to graduate high school. He knew when someone was getting close to retirement. He just knew.

How does this apply to us as public information officers? Simple. Our clients are everywhere. Our management. Our media partners. Our public. Our other partners outside of our agencies.

The biggest lesson I learned from my dad in doing my job as a public information officer is to take the time to greet members of the media - even if it will be a difficult interview - with a smile and a handshake. And by thanking them for coming out for the interview.

And to listen to what the members of the public are telling us. And the department representatives who we have to work with to get a better understanding of what their goals are and how we can work together to communicate to our public.

Holding your public in high esteem can make your job easier. 
It has been said that courtesy is the lubricant of society. It allows us the opportunity to work together without too many points of friction. That can help make our jobs a whole lot easier.

A great lesson I learned from the Coke Man I call dad...

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Specialist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Belt and Suspenders

It's hard to believe, but it has already been just about two months since my trip out to Steamboat Springs, Colorado for the Steamboat Weather Summit. I'm still boring the heck out of my wife and kids, relaying all the awesome stories of skiing, the great food and the outstanding presentations.

I am also missing - for just a few moments - all the cold-weather gear I got to wear for even just a few days out there, battling the high altitude and cold, dry air. The nattiest I looked was the night we went to a local brewery and great restaurant as part of the bonding experience.

Belt and suspenders...
What I loved wearing was my Perry hook-on suspenders. Unlike normal suspenders that either button directly to the pants or clip the waistband, these babies hooked under my belt, giving me the belt-and-suspenders double check, ensuring my pants wouldn't fall down.

I had absolutely no idea how many times I have used that expression - belt and suspenders. I got it from watching This Old House, when Master Carpenter Norm Abram would not only fix something in the house, he would do it so well that there was no chance of a failure. Indeed, it was as if he was putting on both a belt and a set of suspenders to whatever he was fixing. 

Now, how many times do we find ourselves in trouble because we don't use the belt-and-suspenders approach to our work? Think about it. With as important as they have become in our communications world, have you thought about how you would power up your smart phone if the battery was on its last legs while you were at a scene? A car charger and wall plug would be great, but how about a portable, rechargeable power pack you could plug in to if you needed to bost your charge. I have one that not only allows me to fully recharge my phone at least once, it also has a built-in flashlight.

I have yet to use it, but I am pretty sure it may come in handy one day.

Do you have a paper copy of the local news outlets handy, just in case you can't find it online, or may not have internet access? How about a paper copy of your emergency plans, so you don't have to run down that precious battery life trying to read the document on your smart phone?

Heck, how about buying a cheap digital watch so you can simply keep the time? 

When you start to think about what steps you can take to be better prepared for working in times of crisis, you get a much deeper understanding of how you can keep functioning as the event unfolds - without being caught with your pants down. 

Monday, March 9, 2015


So, today it's on. I have officially changed my Linkedin profile, my Facebook profile and even took the bus in to the office early for my first day at the new job. I got in so early (well, I am taking public tranisit) that I had time to stop in to a local bagel place and grab a bite to eat, refill my coffee mug and bang out a post for the blog this morning. All before the sun even begins to peek over the horizon (thank you Daylight Saving Time)

What will the day hold for me? I'm guessing an endless parade of forms to be completed, a few stern words of warning reminding me that I am a public official and that everything I say or do is available for public scruitiny and maybe some information on where I can go work out (I hear the county has one great workout facility. Maybe that instead of a few slices of pizza for lunch).

Nearly two decades ago, Robert Fulghum wrote a small book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It was a book that stripped all of our advanced knowledge down to its basics - that we needed to share more, fight less, be open to the magic of the world around us and take naps. I like that idea.

In much the same way, as a public information officer on his first day at a new employer, I believe all I am really going to need to know will be heard at orientation. Namely:
  • We are all the face of the organization out in the field, and we need to act accordingly. 
  • Turn to your supervisors to seek their wisdom and counsel. They have been promoted because of their expertise.
  • Don't say or do anything you don't want to read about in the newspaper.
  • Don't be afraid to ask why we are doing things the way we do. A fresh set of eyes may fix a nagging problem that has plagued us for years, or we may be doing something a certain way because that's how its always been done.
  • Get along with others, because we are all part of the same team.
Yeah, I have the feeling that today's going to be a great day.  But, just like my first day at Kindergarten, I am sure I will be looking forward to heading home on the bus tonight. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The citizen journalist

My wife has one of the best jobs out there. She gets to teach high school students about journalism, which means that she gets to teach them about some of the most fundamental rights they have as American citizens: Those enshrined in the First Amendment. Those words are as important today as they day they were adopted on December 15, 1791:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right to the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 
The original engrossed Bill of Rights
Heady stuff. Four of those rights - religion, speech, assembly and petition - are exceptionally personal in nature. But, the press? Well, how else will you get information about what's happening in your community? Will you drive everywhere to see what's really happening?  Probably not.

Thus, the freedom of the press. Now, for nearly two centuries, the press was defined as credentialed members of the media who were knowledgeable in journalism law, practices and ethics. And, this system that public information officers and reporters worked under and established the ground rules of how we conduct ourselves.

Credentialed members of the media covering the 1972 National Conventions
Something funny happened back in the early 1990s that turned this paradigm on its head. The Internet, once solely for the use of academia, the government and other select users was made available to the public. Before you could say 'Online Shopping', the world wide web became something that everyone had to have. News agencies turned immediately to the technology and made web-based news a place where people could go first to get exactly what they needed.

If you now add the rise of cell phones sporting high-resolution cameras and internet connectivity, now you have just deputized millions of new eyes and ears out on the streets. Soon, news outlets came to understand and appreciate the immediate availability of this access to the sights and sounds of what was occurring as it unfolded. For instance, the first video images that came from Blacksburg during the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 came from a cell phone.

The first images of the Miracle on the Hudson hit the airwaves from a ferry passenger's Twitter account.

The first images of US Airways Flight 1549 from a Twitter account
Today, news agencies are actively soliciting videos and photos from citizens when they see something happening, and even offering tutorials on how to file reports from their tablets and smart phones.
CNN's iReport page with an invitation to become part of the news team
And, reporters racing to scenes are seeking out the photos, videos and other information from bystanders to help tell their stories.

A tweet from a reporter seeking information
So, what does this mean for us? Now that we are aware that anyone who shows up on a scene can serve as an impromptu reporter, we have to adjust our operations accordingly. We have to establish our perimeters to ensure that no one - credentialed media or otherwise - gets too close to dangerous scenes. We have to allow the same access to the general public as we do reporters, within reason.

And, we have to continue the discussion. After all, this is our new reality, and the rules are being written as we go.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Respect the deadlines

One of the fun things about living in Florida is that you get to make short drives to places that other folks have to save up and fly to. You know, the Kennedy Space Center, the Disney Parks, Busch Gardens, Legoland and the Universal Studios properties.

They really know how to handle folks at these theme parks, especially given the fact that for the majority of the year, they have to figure out how to get park visitors out of the sweltering heat to ensure just a little bit of relief. At a ride like the Spiderman ride at Universal, that takes the form of herding folks into a replica of the Daily Bugle newsroom.

You know the story of the Amazing Spiderman, right? If you don't check it out here. We'll be waiting for you until you get back.

Got it? OK. So, since Peter Parker is a photojournalist, the ride designers created a replica of the newsroom. Everything is there, including fake sack lunches, computers, phones and other important items.
Plus, there is one very important sign that's easy for most people to overlook. It's in red in the photo just above these words. It reads:
The deadline for the Daily Bugle is midnight. At that point, either turn in your complete, edited story or your letter of resignation.
Serious business, the news. If you believe for just one minute that the sign is a creation of a wild-minded cartoonist, think again. Reporters work under incredibly tight deadlines which they have to meet - or else. For instance, my wife worked as a news producer for a local TV station The universal rule was that if they 'teased' the story (Tonight at 11...), something monumental had better have happened if the story wasn't going to appear. A major air accident. Political assassination. Fiery meteorite crashing to earth. Something like that.

Now, think about your deadlines. Say you have a report to give your boss, but you know the day it was originally expected to go to her, more crucial information was coming out to make that report more complete. Do you think your boss would consider giving you another day to incorporate the information? Probably.

But, not in the news. So, when a reporter does get pushy, calling several times asking similar questions, keep your calm. Understand what time pressures they are working under, and do your best to meet their deadlines. Always start off a request from a reporter by asking what their deadline is, and make note of it. If you can't get the information they need, be sure to call them BEFORE the deadline time arrives.

It might even buy you a little extra time to find the answers you need, and make you look like a superhero.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida