Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Zen and the art of the PIO

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."
That's some deep stuff. Very deep. It actually is the philosophy of Shoshin in Zen Buddhism, and if you think about it, it makes total sense.
You might want to mediate on this post for a while.
In my years of training public information officers, I have run into many different levels of experience. At one end of the spectrum, there are  people are quite literally straight out of college in their first professional position taking on their first public information job. In their minds, where do they even begin? Is it more important to get to know the organization they work for or the media who cover their beat? Do they need to build - or even rebuild - a brand new set of protocols and image identity for their organization, or is it better to learn how things have always been done to see what has worked in the past?

OK, keep your cool, kid
On the other side of the spectrum are the extremely seasoned PIOs who are being sent to the class just to get their certificate or maybe the long-time reporter looking to get out of the daily grind and shrinking newsroom while the getting is good. And, I have had my share of students roll their eyes at me mid class, wondering just why they have to endure the torture of dealing with me as one of their instructors. They have seen it all, done it all. Dead bodies. Tornadoes. Hurricanes. Locusts. If it's bad, they have experience with it, and nothing I am going to teach them means anything.
I've just about seen it all, pal
There is a deeper meaning of this Shoshin philosophy points a finger squarely at members on both ends of the spectrum and forces them to challenge their thoughts and perceptions.

For the beginner, the real challenge isn't to look at the myriad of different ways that the job can be done. It's how to prioritize what's most important. It's an invitation to seek out the knowledge of more experienced PIOs and look at their plans. It's a need to sit down with members of the local media and ask the simple question, "What makes a good PIO in your eyes?" By conducting this size up of the situation, the number of possible paths narrows, and the ones that lead to success start to become more evident.

A little research can speed your plan along
 The more experienced PIO often finds him or herself set in his or her ways. This is the way it has always been done, so we will do it exactly as we have done before. Those polices, procedures and methods set down in  - say - 1998 are probably wildly different than they would be in 2015. Social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have drastically changed the way news is shared, smartphones have made regular citizens amateur journalists and the pressures that the news media are under in this 24-hour news cycle force us to reexamine the way things are done. We have to look at recent events such as the Amtrak derailment outside of Philadelphia, the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the failed launch attempt of the SpaceX CRS-7 Mission to get clues on how to best leverage our tools to reach our current audience. 

Sure, it's a profound change in mindset, but it can easily lead us to more quickly bring new PIOs up to speed, and even teach a few more well seasoned PIOs a few new tricks. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A world of hurt

In case you were wondering, this movie about dinosaurs has been all the rage at the theaters for the past few weeks, breaking quite a few box office records.

This movie is on its way to break a ton of records
Of course, Jurassic World has captured the imagination of movie-going audiences across the globe, and inspired more than a few zookeepers to do their imitation of a famous scene involving star Chris Pratt and his scary Velociraptors.

Awww, how cute!  
I don't think I will be giving away any surprises when I tell you that the movie involves the escape of one of the dangerous dinosaurs, which leads to all kinds of mayhem.

As an emergency manager, this is where I munched my popcorn just a little bit harder. You see, the screenwriter, director and actors all wanted you to believe that the park's sorta-kinda plan to deal with the issue really wasn't all that well fleshed out. And, when it failed, things didn't go so well.

An interesting premise, especially given that the movie takes place approximately 20 years after the first Jurassic Park movie took place ... on the same island ... and we're expected to believe that the park's managers didn't learn from the issues from two decades ago. I mean, come on, people. Dinosaurs. They already had a history of being smart enough to break out of their enclosures and attack people. You would have figured someone would have developed a better response plan.

Damage in San Francisco's Marina District after the earthquake
But, as emergency public information officers, how effectively do we deal with educating our public and media about threats that return infrequently?  Let's explore something that happened just a few years before the original Jurassic movie came out in 1992 - the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that took place near San Francisco.

This 6.9 temblor caused nearly $6 billion in damages, killed 63 and injured more than 3,700. Yet, a study conducted by the state of California's Emergency Management office shows that only about 40% of state residents have a family disaster plan, and only about 20% of residents have done anything to improve their structures to better withstand an earthquake.

Tornadoes? Hurricanes? Wildfires? Floods? We all know these are not everyday events, and the longer the time since the last event, the more likely you are going to see new residents who don't have experience with that disaster, or residents who do have experience who can't remember just how bad things were.

Keeping them educated about what to do? That's a T. Rex size problem, complete with teeth...

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Don't waffle

Moving from New Jersey to Florida 24 years ago opened a whole new world to me. Thanksgiving Day visits to the beach instead of bundling up in sweaters. No snow shoveling. And, a whole new world of food to discover.
What could this building be?
That's why I got excited when this building started going up near my my house. I had an idea what it might be, but it took a call to the hiring office to confirm. No, it's not a classic Jersey diner. Instead, it's going to be a new Waffle House.

One of those huge signature breakfasts
Without being near a classic New Jersey diner, a Waffle House is a great alternative. You can get one heck of a huge meal - and I mean HUGE - for not a whole lot of money. Plus, just like the Jersey diners, these places are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In fact, there's a running joke that it's pointless for Waffle Houses to have locks on their doors, since you never see one closed once it's open.

Which makes for an interesting point when it comes to disaster recovery.

After the 2011 Joplin tornado closed down just about every business in the city except the two Waffle House locations, FEMA director Craig Fugate came up with an interesting way to determine how badly an area had been impacted by a hurricane. He referred to it as the Waffle House Index.

How does it work?  Simple.

A disaster happens. You roll into town expecting the worst. To determine how badly the storm affected the area, you drive immediately to the nearest Waffle House and determine its condition.

  • Does the restaurant have full power and a full menu? It's not really a disaster.
  • If the restaurant has limited power and a limited menu, you had better take the situation more seriously.
  • If the restaurant is closed, it's a full-on, according to Hoyle disaster, and you had better rush every single resource to the area as quickly as possible. 

While this did elicit a chuckle from reporters, it did point out an interesting concept for for emergency managers. There are degrees of a disaster. From the inconvenience of losing power for a few days to total leveling of wide swaths of a state, there are many different levels of response required, and each necessitates a proportionate reaction.

Each also requires clear communication to residents when it comes to telling them about how much relief is going to be headed their way. If a resident just has to head two blocks over to buy ice from an open grocery store, there's a good chance that a ton of federal and state aid isn't going to be flowing their way anytime soon. If, on the other hand, large commercial buildings like grocery stores are flattened, you can bet the amount of aid is going to be considerably larger.

Getting residents to understand this and prepare accordingly? Well, we may need to sit down over breakfast one day to talk about the best way to communicate that.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Thursday, June 18, 2015

It's a frenzy

It was 40 years ago this week when millions of people changed their ocean swimming habits. Peter Benchley's best selling novel was just made into a movie by a young hotshot director. Even though it went well over budget and took a whole lot longer to shoot and edit than anyone at the studio expected, and even though one of the stars had to leave the United States when shooting wrapped for the week - lest he get arrested for tax evasion - the movie went on to become the first huge summer blockbuster, and one of the highest earning films in history.

Jaws broke box office records around the country - and the world - and set the stage for other huge summer blockbusters to come in future years.

And, author Peter Benchley later regretted writing the book that inspired the movie. As the years went on, Benchley got a better understanding of how sharks really function in the ecosystem, and with more information on the rarity of shark attacks, he came to realize that they aren't the cold blooded predators he portrayed in his novel.

In 2013, auto accidents claimed 35,000 lives in the United States
Fast forward to today, when a pair of shark attacks cost two swimmers an arm each on the beaches of North Carolina, it becomes national news. Never mind that on average 90 deaths occur each day on the roadways of the United States, those two attacks draw the media like moths to a flame.

This recently started an interesting discussion among graduates of FEMA's Advanced Public Information Officer class about fear and its place in today's society. Think for a minute about the recently graduated class of 2015. There were commencement speeches given across the country about the accomplishments of the many students who earned their diplomas. About their academic accolades.

But, there were many speeches given about the dangerous world we live in today. ISIS in Iraq. Ebola. School shootings.

Many of the recent graduates were three or four years old when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11. They can barely remember a time when the United States wasn't at war. Many of them know - or are related to - those who have already done one, two or three tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

They will never know what it was like to walk to an airport gate and greet family and friends as they step off a plane, or understand that people used to get onto a plane without having to remove their shoes.

Some people speculate about a medical conspiracy
It's also not bad enough to read what's going on in the headlines. The Internet is rife with sites that drive fear in things that leave me scratching my head. That vaccines are somehow killing us to benefit Big Pharma's bottom line, even though life expectancy is the highest it has ever been. That somehow our all-volunteer military is preparing to invade states that disagree with the policies of the current administration - the same administration these states turn to for federal assistance after disasters befall them.

What are we to do about this? Well, there's really no easy answer. As public information officers, it's our job to give maximum disclosure with a minimum delay. Transparency will help keep speculation to a minimum, but it can only play one part in this.

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on how this can be addressed.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Flipping the mindset

The early days of the Cold War were terrifying for most Americans. World War II had just ended, and while the Soviet Union was our ally during the war, their actions afterward bordered on the reckless. At least we had the atomic bomb and they didn't. Certainly that would level the playing field if the Soviets were going to try something, right?

The first Soviet nuclear bomb test, August 29, 1949
That was until August 29, 1949 when the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb. The news shook American confidence to the core, especially given that expectations were that it would take at least a decade for the USSR to catch up with American technology.

With this new, exceptionally lethal weapon at their disposal, a single Soviet bomber could lay waste to an American city if it was able to slip through air defenses. What could be done to prepare residents for this potential threat?  Enter our friend Bert the Turtle.

Bert the Turtle
Yes, Bert was the brainchild of the Federal Civil Defense Administration. He was a jumpy little fella who, one day out for a walk has to use a special technique to hide from a firecracker - which we are led to believe is an atomic attack.

Of course, Bert does the right thing. He ducks and covers when he sees the flash of the firecracker, and his fast thinking saves the day. Across the country in school rooms, students were shown the film with the catch jingle and told to do exactly what Bert did - duck and cover.

A duck and cover drill
Sure, it seems a bit naive to believe that this drill would save many lives, but back in the day before the advent of the hydrogen bomb, whose power dwarfed that of the fission bombs in use, the drill could have possibly saved many lives from the prompt effects of the blast - burns, debris and other dangers.

What Bert also did was help to flip the mindset of the American public. Before these movies were released, people thought it was pointless to protect themselves from the dangers an atomic bomb could bring to bear. Instead, it gave them some concrete steps to take in the event of an attack that they could use to save their lives.

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy
For those of us who educate residents who live in areas where there are other threats unrelated to surprise nuclear attack, do we give our residents concrete steps they can follow to protect themselves?

I can't tell you how many times I have gone to a preparedness presentation and have been told by one of the audience members that once I spoke they were terrified by the prospect of living through a hurricane. Why would I tell them to build a survival kit, get boards for their windows and find their evacuation level if everything was going to just be destroyed? Why even bother? After all, we're all going to be victims.

FEMA Director Craig Fugate
Current FEMA Director Craig Fugate addressed this very concern a few years ago when he mentioned that we have to have a change in mindset:

Unless you are in the morgue, you are a survivor of a disaster.

Think about how profound that statement is. Once we couch our preparation efforts ... our education efforts ... around that statement, what can't we do? It paints for them a scary reality, but also an attainable goal. It tells them that while emergency responders will work hard to restore essential services, it is their responsibility to take care of their families for a minimum of 72 hours.

It gives them an action they can take to make their survival a priority.

Isn't that our goal?

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Thursday, June 11, 2015

It's OK to be Ringo

So, back in 1960, these four young guys from Liverpool got together and created arguably one of the greatest bands in music history. The Beatles either outright own or are close to holding nearly every single record in the music industry.

Paul, George, John...
There was Paul McCartney, the charismatic left-handed bassist who had the smooth voice. John Lennon was the rebel who played a mean guitar and wrote some of the band's edgier lyrics. There was George Harrison, the youngest and quietest of the group who wrote some of the band's more memorable songs...

Ringo Starr
Oh, and then there was Ringo Starr. The last member to join the band, he replaced the original drummer Pete Best in 1962, completing the quartet.

Poor Ringo. He ended up playing the butt of the jokes in the band's movie A Hard Day's Night. People dismissed his drumming as more technical drummers came onto the scene with larger drum kits. He was the last Beatle to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an individual performer for his post-Beatles work.

And yet...

Given a modest drum kit by today's standards, he made some of the most amazing rhythmic hooks that define the sound of the Beatles. Impressive stuff that even the most famous drummers of today still turn to for inspiration.

What does this have to do with being a PIO? How many times do we find ourselves in that support role while other folks get out to the front to take the credit? We find ourselves sometimes in the driving rain, drifting snow, blistering heat or biting cold working with the reporters on the scene. We spend the hours, days, weeks, months and years leading up to that incident working the phones, building trust with the reporters. Becoming knowledgeable on how severe weather, traffic accidents, epidemiology or any one of a hundred other potential disasters or incidents can affect a community, and we learn how others have responded to those incidents, ensuring we adopt the best practices.

A media briefing is where music is made
Sure, someone else gets to stand in front. But, just as with any famous band selling millions of records, if one thing is out of place or not there, the chemistry just won't be right.

And, that's not something that bandmates can put up with.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Who’s Following This Story, Anyway?

At mid-day, a crazy thing happened: another food-related health crisis hit the news.
This one involved an incredibly popular dessert company headquartered in Ohio. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a cult favorite featuring some of the most unusual flavors you’ve ever heard of (how does “Queen City Cayenne” grab you?), was about to go into a company-wide shut-down after traces of listeria were found during an inspection.
Say it ain't so, Jeni!
We weren’t sure how to take this news. On one hand, it could potentially drive the botulism story further down the priority list of the media outlets. There are, after all, only so many reporters to go around. Conversely, the fact that this story involved similar subject matter could actually add more fuel to the fire.
You probably guessed what happened (sigh). Local media moved the botulism story higher in their news queue again, linking the common topic of foodborne illness.
While the Lead PIO was otherwise engaged, I shifted my attention to media monitoring. In addition to television, newspaper, and radio, the story was being published via web-only, wire, and e-mag. Outside of Ohio, it had traction in the New York Times, Boston Globe, CNN, NBC and ABC national news, Reuters, and Tom’s own Tampa Tribune. We also learned of the existence of publications called “Food Poisoning Bulletin” and “Outbreak News Today”, both which picked the story off the wire. All told, we Google-searched ten pages deep and found coverage by 66 outlets. That’s a lot of busy assignment desks.

Who knew this even existed?
I put together a Word doc table listing all the outlets following the incident, and emailed it to the lead PIO. She forwarded it to key hospital staff to show them the reach (and to subliminally stress the importance of a professional public information staff during these types of crises).
We also wanted to see what “spin” was being placed on the local coverage of the story, since the media was a couple of days in and was looking for creative ideas. In addition to the CDC antitoxin bureaucracy angle mentioned in Part 2, they continued their fascination with the numbers game by including the number of patients who had received the antitoxin and those who were under “watch”; published quotes from a myriad of infectious disease docs; did church member interviews; ran botulism signs, symptoms, and stats; and interviewed an area man who contracted botulism three years ago and was still recovering.

That's a long way to go for news about the botulism outbreak
By early evening, some of the stress had abated, as the botulism story was usurped by stories on state background check flaws, a shooting, an Ohio State basketball player leaving school early for the NBA, the Jeni’s story, Nick Faldo’s pre-Memorial Tournament visit to central Ohio, and coverage involving Pete Rose.
The day ended for us after most people’s dinnertime. In addition to the main topic of this blog-post, we had dealt with the news of additional potluck attendees who began feeling ill and were transported to the hospital, a woman who came to the emergency department claiming to have symptoms of botulism but who eventually was arrested for faking the illness (who does that?), and the pastor asking for help in keeping the media away from his church and the private homes of his congregation.

Not THOSE quiet professionals...
And so ended another routine day in the life of the “quiet professionals”. (Whoops! I think that one’s already been taken.)
Dan Kochensparger
Public Information Officer
Upper Arlington, Ohio Fire Department

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over

Shortly after I arrived to assist with the botulism incident, the hospital incident commander held a morning briefing and began discussing gradual EOC de-escalation measures. Decisions were needed about which positions should continue to be maintained around the clock. (Is it shooting yourself in the foot to admit your specialty area isn’t “essential”?)

It was decided to begin the logistics of transferring the EOC-manned hotline to a hospital 24/7 answering point. A staff member was assigned to provide FAQ sheets for the operators.

A debriefing meeting was scheduled for Friday. The EOC staff had been posting flip-chart pages on all the walls of the room; I suggested someone be assigned to photograph each page, for historical archiving purposes and to become the basis for the after-action report. It seemed this would be easier for the typist than having to wade through a mountain of oversized sheets of paper.

Things seemed to be resolving nicely
With thoughts of the incident wrapping up sooner rather than later, this was looking to be an easy crisis communications day.

Following the briefing, the lead PIO decided our main goals for the day would be to get the coroner to proactively release the name of the deceased individual (as discussed last Thursday); to arrange for the hospital chaplain to do an interview; and to monitor and forward to the media the patient status numbers.

The chaplain angle got a bite from one of the local TV affiliates, so arrangements were made for him to be interviewed at the hospital for a later broadcast.

The media wanted to know how many patients had been transferred to larger hospitals in the metropolitan area. It was decided to have the state health department be the consistent clearinghouse for demographics. Journalists seem to have an infatuation with numbers, and it is very easy to end up with inconsistency between what is released and what is reported.

Things were looking good; all the planned items were either underway or complete. Easy peasy, right?

D'oh! A Changeup!
Nope. Expecting the fast ball down the middle, and the pitcher threw a change-up.

Word got out to the media that two representatives from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would be arriving. The big boys. The varsity. Reporters began calling with questions about when they would arrive, where they would go, and what would their tasks would be.

The guys from the big leagues
We did not have a handle on the specifics regarding their arrival. I had an ace up my sleeve in that I had a colleague working in Atlanta (CDC-HQ) who had been a member of our regional PIO network. I got him on the line and he said he would do some digging.

Sometime later he emailed me that two “EIS” officers (epidemic intelligence service) were on their way to assist with the investigation and would link-up with the state CDC EIS officer. (Who knew we even had such a thing?) Once again, maintaining professional contacts paid off. 

Half of this game is 90 percent mental
Thinking we were once again ahead in the count (apologies for the baseball analogies, but Yogi Berra did coin the title phrase), that guy on the mound pulled a knuckler from his bag of tricks. The media latched onto the fact that there was (is) a built-in delay when a local health entity requests support from the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). For those unaware, this is a system of pre-stocking medicines and medical supplies in case of regional or national emergency. Sensing a conflict, impact, or consequence (hey, didn’t Iovino just write about this stuff?), the media focused on the timeline for delivery of the botulism-specific meds from the SNS to the hospital. Because botulinum toxin is a potential terrorism weapon, the antitoxins are maintained nationally instead of locally. The common reporting angle was that the system is too bureaucratic and patients may have suffered from the delay.

The media kept trying to maneuver spokespersons from different organizations involved in the incident to speak publicly (“give an opinion”) about this system. We had to remind ourselves that this was neither the time nor place for any public infighting, and could be addressed at a later forum. It was felt that making an issue of it at this time would simply drive a wedge between all the entities trying to deal with the crisis.

So much for a short, simple day. And there was more to come.

Dan Kochensparger
Public Information Officer
Upper Arlington, Ohio Fire Department