Follow Us!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Who died?"

Well, that was fun.

A local hospital caught in the middle of a serious botulism incident requested assistance from our regional PIO network. I offered to help.

It was day two of the situation, and the hospital PIO and marketing staff realized they could use some mutual-aid, so they asked that a notification be sent via our messaging software.I threw my hat in the ring for a shift on day three.

First, some of you may have seen coverage of this, as CNN and various affiliates across the country chose to run it. The scenario in a nutshell is that people attended a church potluck, and shortly thereafter some of them developed signs and symptoms that were diagnosed as probable botulism.

A traditional luncheon could harbor foodborne illness
When I arrived in the morning to begin my shift, representatives from various hospital departments were present, and we engaged in a planning meeting and situation status report. I learned that there had been dozens of patients who had been processed through the emergency department who could trace their commonality to the potluck. That conclusion didn’t come together immediately, but was the result of some “CSI-type” investigatory work that is part of the lifestyle of infectious disease docs and epidemiologists. That morning, there remained four in ICU and one under observation. The rest had been either discharged or transferred to other hospitals.

Some investigation confirmed botulism was involved
One patient had died, and the media had discovered an obituary notice they suspected was her. That became the first public information crisis of the day, with reporters calling and pressuring the hospital to confirm these were one and the same.

This was the first interaction I had with the command and general staff, and the lead PIO asked what my fire department EMS experience had been with this kind of situation. My suggestion was to defer this duty to the county coroner. They were running the death investigation, and not being a health care provider, were not required to follow the regulations of the Health Information and Patient Privacy Act.


As with all things HIPAA, this didn’t sit well with the media. My experience has been that they HATE this legislation, because it puts a legal stranglehold on what was formerly a much easier task for them. (I was at a PIO symposium one year where members of the media panel begged those of us present to help them get this law rescinded.)

What is most bothersome in my view is the way journalists couch their phrasing to imply that health care providers have a choice in the matter. They will often state that “hospital/EMS officials would not release the patient’s name or condition”, implying we have a choice and are thumbing our noses at them. Sour grapes, I say.

The media calls continued. I suggested to the lead PIO that she contact the coroner and request they expedite confirmation that the person in the obit and the patient who had died at the hospital were one and the same. When the coroner’s staff expressed initial reluctance, I asked the lead PIO if she thought it would help to have the physician acting as incident commander make a personal call to the coroner. (Note: The hospital could also have asked the family if it was okay to release the name.) The coroner’s office further stated that there was no autopsy planned, but that the death remained “under investigation” pending lab results.

This first crisis resolved, the lead PIO then left the room to work on prep for a story by the local newspaper about the support being given to the affected families by the hospital chaplain.

Dan Kochensparger
Public Information Officer
Upper Arlington, Ohio Fire Department
www.linkedin.com/pub/dan-kochensparger/76/a93/883

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What makes news? Prominence

Today, we wrap up our seven-part exploration into just what makes reporters look at a story idea and decide to cover it. This last one really stands out:
  • Timeliness
  • Proximity
  • Impact or Consequence
  • Novelty or Rarity
  • Conflict
  • Human interest
  • Prominence
Prominence can take a seemingly insignificant event and turn it into a media circus for sure, Don't believe me? Earlier this month, Prince William and his wife Kate welcomed their second child into the world. A daughter. 

The royal family with their newest daughter
Her name is Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, and, as was said in the 1970's ballad the Cat's in the Cradle, she came to the world in the usual way. In fact, she was one of but approximately 353,000 births that took place on May 2. 

What made her birth so special? Could it be that she was the second child of the future King of the United Kingdom? Yeah, that might have something to do with it.

Prominence can take a routine story and make it something much bigger. Driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence checkpoints are frequently seen set up by law enforcement agencies across the country, especially during busy holiday weekend, and thousands of citations are issued during these wolf pack events. 

Police running a DUI checkpoint
Again, if your average Joe gets picked up in the sweep, there will be little if any reporting of the activity, other than to maybe link his one case as part of the statistics. Get your Mayor involved, and the news will be all over the place.

This is also why charities and other civic-minded groups reach out to sports figures, actors and other celebrities to get their endorsement for their activities. While the work of many non-profit agencies is certainly beneficial to the community, you can bet that donations to and coverage of the effort will be considerably higher with a headlining celebrity to make the pitch.

Hall of Fame football player Jerry Rice is active in charitable activities
While each of these seven traits taken individually can make or break a story, as you prepare to make your media pitch, check to see how many of them you can line up for your piece. The more boxes you tick, the more you will find that your stories are complete, interesting and capture the attention of more reporters. 

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


Thursday, May 21, 2015

What makes news? Human Interest

There are many reasons why some stories catch the attention of a reporter, and lots of reasons why others won't. Today, we're going to explore one aspect that can really push your story into the fore.
  • Timeliness
  • Proximity
  • Impact or Consequence
  • Novelty or Rarity
  • Conflict
  • Human interest
  • Prominence
The human element can make or break a story.

The human element
In fact, one of the first things I tell each and every class that I instruct that all stories are about people. It doesn't matter what the story is about - if you can get someone's story into the mix, reporters will come running. 

A few years ago, our county was pushing a host home plan for people who had to evacuate before a hurricane. We thought we had everything - a great pitch line, materials, statistics ... the whole shebang. What we didn't have? A family who would be taking advantage of the plan.

A family taking advantage of the host home program
Once we identified a church that was working to pair members of the congregation who had to evacuate with those who didn't, well, the reporters came running. 

What else are reporters looking for when it comes to the human element in hard news stories? How about the firefighter who rescues a beloved family pet, a police officer who comforts a child after a stressful situation such as an auto accident or a paramedic holding the hand of a trauma victim while being rescued from a wreck? Believe me, if a reporter can get an image of something like that, you can be sure you will see that story in the news. 

 An image like this will make the news
People also need to know that you care before they care what you have to say. After last week's Amtrak crash just outside of Philadelphia, President Obama went on the air to offer his condolences to the families of the victims of the accident. No, the president of the United States didn't have a role in the accident investigation, nor was he rescuing anyone contained in the train. He was filling the role of the concerned elected leader who wanted to ensure that those who were killed and injured in the accident and their families were on his mind.

President Obama offering his thoughts and prayers to the Amtrak crash victims
This is exactly what ever other elected official has done after any natural or man made accident. Think President Bush standing with the firefighter on the rubble of the World Trade Center after the September 11 attacks. Waco, Texas Mayor Tommy Muska expressing his concern for a number of missing volunteer firefighters after the West Fertilizer plant exploded. 

It shows the reporters that the leader is there to support the effort and to reach out to the families involved. Indeed, it's the human touch that helps to ensure that the plight of the people involved in the incident hasn't been forgotten. 

That may make the difference in how your story is covered. 

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What makes news? Conflict

We're over the hump and gaining speed now when it comes to our list of items that make something newsworthy. And, wow, is this next one ever a doozy.
  • Timeliness
  • Proximity
  • Impact or Consequence
  • Novelty or Rarity
  • Conflict
  • Human interest
  • Prominence
Again, I have to come back to something that was told to my wife - the family's journalist - while she was back in college. The media's job, she was told, is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. 

This one should be an absolute no brainer...
Wow, that's deep stuff, but think of how many stories you see that just scream conflict. Where else does this story idea come to the fore better than the occasional story about a city clerk who insists that a child get a permit to open a lemonade stand on a hot day? You would think this would be media relations training 101 for every single code officer across the country, and yet stories still crop up.

Why does the media give them the time of day? I mean, it's not like a child has 500 employees and is an engine of the local economy. It's the David vs. Goliath story that tugs at the heart strings and makes the viewers want more.

This conflict is also what pushes the accelerator of investigative journalists to the floor. Conflict gets the juices flowing. It makes for tantalizing stories. It draws viewers. It makes you cheer for the little guys and jeer the jerks. And, when someone decides that he or she wants to attack the camera to stop the interview, well, it's video gold.

This conflict is why you will also see almost every story feature your organization, followed by someone who is baffled by what you are doing. I can remember once when all of the counties in west central Florida had to change their evacuation maps, which required an expansion of those who had to evacuate in the event of a hurricane warning.

Check those evacuation maps
The maps were redrawn with new ground imaging technology, discoveries after major storms such as hurricanes Katrina and Ike, and a better understanding of surge peculiarities. As you may have imagined, though, the reporters sought out interviews with residents who were previously in non-evacuation zones, but were now going to have to leave in the worst-case scenario.

But, hey, conflict makes a story good. Now, break out the popcorn and check out the conflict while you watch your next news story...

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

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What makes news? Novelty or rarity

We are at the halfway point in our list of what make something newsworthy, and we come to one of the classic bits of journalism advice that has been floating around for decades:
  • Timeliness
  • Proximity
  • Impact or Consequence
  • Novelty or Rarity
  • Conflict
  • Human interest
  • Prominence
The novelty of a story idea can make or break whether it gets covered. While there are three potential sources of where the original quote came from - British newspaper pioneer Alfred Harmsworth, New York Sun editor John Bogart or Charles Anderson Dana - the message is quite clear:
When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.
No cartoon dogs were hurt in the writing of this post
This becomes critical when your bosses start asking you questions about why you can't get coverage about firefighters maintaining their equipment, police officers doing routine patrols or employees doing their jobs efficiently and effectively. That's what's supposed to happen. You pay them to do that, so there's nothing particularly newsworthy about that. 

It would be like doing a report that says, "Sun rises in the east," or "Water is found to be wet." It would only be a story if those things didn't happen.

So, when you are looking to pitch a story to reporters, you have to consider what makes it so novel. People donating food to soup kitchens during the holiday season wouldn't necessarily be a big draw for a news story, but someone who runs a year-long effort to collect food would be something that just might. 

This type of generosity in July might be something a reporter would be interested in
Rarity is also a huge factor in garnering coverage. Every so often, you may hear a story at a botanical garden about a plant known as a Corpse Flower. These plants bloom once every seven to ten years, and when they do bloom, they have the pungent smell of rotting flesh. Not something you want to snip and bring to a loved one.

Ewww... stinky but rare...
What makes stories such as those get so much coverage is that the botanists have to wait nearly a decade for the silly thing to bloom. So, when you do see coverage of one of these events, you now know why news stations use the time. 

I can tell you for a fact that since 2015 marks a decade since a hurricane of any intensity has struck the state of Florida, you can be sure that all hurricane coverage this year will point out just how rare this has been during the Atlantic Hurricane record. 

That's a novel idea...

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What makes news? Impact

Continuing down our list of what makes something newsworthy, we have to see just how big an event can be to attract the attention of a reporter:

  • Timeliness
  • Proximity
  • Impact or Consequence
  • Novelty or Rarity
  • Conflict
  • Human interest
  • Prominence
A story with a large impact or consequence grab the attention of a reporter faster than just about anything. This is where PIOs - especially those who deal with weather-related phenomena - can be deeply involved.

Think about something as ubiquitous as the rain. I mean, everyone knows what rain is. Even kids in the deserts know about rain, And places such as Phoenix that don't get a lot - still understand what it is. So, when a light shower falls in even the driest places, it's no big deal.

A driver not heeding the warnings to stay away from flood waters in Phoenix
Now, amp up the amount of rain that falls to an amount that can exceed the ability of normal storm drainage to manage, and you have a major impact. Now, flash floods can sweep cars off of roads, making for extremely dangerous conditions. 

What's funny is that while two inches of rain in Phoenix might cause tremendous flash flooding, two inches of rain in Florida would barely make the news due to its more tropical nature. So, as you can see, what has the impact to make news in one place may not have the ability to do that in another. 

How about earthquakes? Some rule applies. Areas that are earthquake prone may make mention of a small temblor, while other areas that rarely see them will see a lot of coverage.

You can bet this type of event will get media coverage
Someone trying to clean their kitchen sink with a mix of bleach and ammonia might need to call 9-1-1 for medical treatment, but you can be sure that a derailed tanker truck full of anhydrous ammonia would be the top story.

This impact or consequence judgement leaks into even more aspects of the news than you think. Is your favorite baseball team trading away their third string catcher? Who cares. Your starting pitching ace... it's a big deal.

Depending on the size of the business, this may be a huge deal
A small mom-and-pop business closes down and three people lose their jobs, meh. A major company closes down operations in your neck of the woods, and everyone will be out to report on it. 

So, when you think about your event, always consider just how many people are going to be impacted. It will definitely have an impact on the type of coverage the story may garner. 

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

Thursday, May 7, 2015

What makes news? Proximity

Continuing our investigation into what makes a news story worthy of garnering coverage, we turn our eyes a little closer to home.

  • Timeliness
  • Proximity
  • Impact or Consequence
  • Novelty or Rarity
  • Conflict
  • Human interest
  • Prominence

That's right - proximity, or how close a story is to your home town - is a major factor that determines whether or not a story will get covered. Believe me, if it affects the people who pay taxes in your jurisdiction, drive on your roads, get water service from you, you can bet that they are interested in what happens in your community.

A water main break is a very local story
This, as they say in the business, is a no-brainer. After all, it's a rare news organization these days that can support multiple national reporters or news bureaus in different cities. That's not to say that you won't have at least one reporter who will be stationed at the state capitol or in Washington D.C., but it's getting harder and harder to find those in times of decreasing newspaper circulations and TV news viewership.

This doesn't mean that far away stories won't have a local angle. In fact, there is a journalism practice called localization which is practiced on a routine basis, and it might bring a story from nearly anywhere around the world right into your backyard. 

The protests on the streets of Baltimore
Let's take the example of the unrest which took place in Baltimore last week. While the vast majority of activity during the event took place in Maryland, and a number of other protests took place in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Ferguson, Missouri, the majority of other cities saw little if any activity related to the incident.

That didn't stop a number of other news organizations across the country from running stories asking if what happened in Baltimore could happen in your backyard.

Expect someone like this to be interviewed after a plane crash anywhere in the world
What if a plane crashes? You can bet that reporters will be in touch with your local airport authorities to ask about disaster plans. Large hazmat spill? Uh huh. Meteorite strike in Russia?  For sure.

So, just remember that no matter where the story takes place, you should expect that someone in the media will be looking to put their local spin on a story.

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

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What makes news? Timeliness

One of the most frequently asked questions I get as an instructor is, "Why do some stories get covered while others don't?" It seems like such a simple question, but as with any other simple question, there are many nuances that you have to understand in order to fully grasp the concept.

Imparting some wisdom
Ask just about any reporter, and they will tell you what some of the most important traits that make a story pitchable in an editorial meeting, they will respond:
  • Timeliness
  • Proximity
  • Impact or Consequence
  • Novelty or Rarity
  • Conflict
  • Human interest
  • Prominence
For this and the next six posts, I am going to delve into each of these traits so we can all better understand what the reporters are looking for, and why some stories just never make the news.

Those word definitions...
The first topic is timeliness, and etymologically, that's exactly what makes news news - the fact that the information being provided is new to begin with. And, as we know, there is a very fine line between what qualifies as news and what qualifies as history.

Let me start off with a simple example. If I were to tell you that President Abraham Lincoln had been shot, where would you look for information? A history book, probably. Or maybe an online encyclopedia. If I was to tell you that President Obama had been shot, where would you go for more information? Your nearest TV or online news source for sure.


That's why I routinely tell my students that information is as perishable as a head of lettuce on a produce stand. Just as the farmer has to get that lettuce to market as quickly as possible, we do have to get our information out to the public and reporters quickly, which means that our approval process has to be as efficient as possible.

If the information we provide isn't necessary for life safety, and it is for a planned event (the start of Hurricane Season, safe holiday shopping tips, a news release about seasonal watering restrictions, etc.), then it's up to us to ensure we allow enough time for the release to navigate the twists and turns of the process. We also have to have that information out when it can do the most good for the reporters. Here in Florida, our dry season is during the spring, so pushing water conservation in July and August, when we average nearly 10 inches of rain a month, doesn't make as much sense as pushing it in February and March. 

Seasonal watering restrictions can be handled with planning
If the information we provide is life safety critical, then we need to get buy-in well in advance of the event to determine the shortest and most efficient way of getting the information approved. That's why it's critical for public information officers to be at the table with emergency planners and responders to build that trust. When the event does take place, we have the confidence of those involved and we know exactly who we should seek out for approval.

A crisis briefing can be made easier with clear lines of approval
Remember also that information provided to the media in advance of an event is always more appreciated than that which is only sent as a follow-up. This way, it provides reporters an opportunity to decide if they would like to cover it, and it also primes them to be more receptive of photos and video of the event you may send after the fact.

Oh, if you are going to follow up with photos or video, be sure to do that the same day, if possible. Believe me, there will be little - if any - interest in mentioning an event that took place three or four weeks ago. That's history.

You will notice many times during this and the next six posts that I advocate for pre planning and building relationships. Believe me, these words of wisdom come through years of making many mistakes. Some by me, some by others. Again, it's my hope that through those experiences, we can improve how we function and help advance our craft.

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