Thursday, August 27, 2015


Today, I was originally planning to do a ten-year retrospective on Hurricane Katrina. The disaster. The missed opportunities to get the right information to the right people at the right time to make the right decisions to save their lives. It's altogether proper that I do that one day. And, I will in the not-too-distant future.

But, I can't do that today. No. What I saw in Virginia yesterday morning moved me to tears. That's when a former disgruntled employee of WDBJ-TV out of Roanoke cold-bloodedly approached reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward as they interviewed Vicki Gardner, executive director of the local chamber of commerce.
The interview as it started
A simple story that any PIO would be happy to have the morning show of a local affiliate cover. A story very much similar to the dozens I have done over the years where the reporter and I would meet way before dawn, chat each other up, conduct the interview and exchange business cards before parting to tackle the rest of the day's work.

Not only did the assailant approach the reporters, waiting until they were engaged in the interview, he took the time to record his actions on either a cell phone or some other small camera as he approached. He even adjusted the shot to ensure that it would capture the mayhem that was about to ensue.

There are those who would say that if the reporter and photojournalist were armed, they may have had a chance to fight back. But, if you look at the video, you will clearly see that these two professionals were doing exactly what they needed to do to ensure the report was conducted well with compelling images, intelligent questions and that the live feed back to the station was uninterrupted. In other words, they were fully immersed in their work. The subject of their interview was fully engaged in the discussion. There was no way that anyone could have seen him coming and reacted in time.

After shooting his victims, the piece of filth got into his car and drove off, making good his escape - if even for just a few hours - until his luck ran out and the Virginia State Police caught up with him. While on the run, he added insult to injury by posting the video of his premeditated murder on his Twitter and Facebook accounts for all to see. Autoplay features on these social media platforms ensured that anyone who was forwarded the video couldn't miss it. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Linkedin were quick to suspend his account.

I was shaken. These were two kids. A young lady of 24 years and a young man of 27. They were both in love with their significant others - Ward engaged to one of the station's producers and Parker was dating one of the station's anchors. Both had strong ties to their families. They worked together nearly every morning for more than a year. 

While I have had my occasional run ins with reporters who have asked aggressive questions or who may have been less than patient with me, I have come to see all of them in my market as professionals. In many cases, colleagues. In more than a few cases, friends. I could barely imagine this fate befalling any of them here in our market, but yesterday's events have called into sharp focus what could potentially be waiting for them as they do their jobs.

I reached out to one of the morning reporters I have worked with on several occasions in my current and former jobs. She is a young reporter from the prestigious journalism school at the University of Missouri, and she is often times assigned to work as a 'one man band' - handling camera, uplink, producer and reporter duties by herself from the field. In other words, she does by herself what used to take three people.

I expressed my concern for her and for her colleagues as they often find themselves in bad parts of town at lonely times of the day. She thanked me for my concern and let me know that for sure, reporter security was the top item on the agenda for the station. I imagine that just about every single newsroom across the country must have had a similar conversation.

As an emergency PIO, we often spend a great deal of time remembering the firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical responders who gave their lives in faithful execution of their duties. It is right that we do this. However, we often forget that many journalists have been killed in ensuring that our First Amendment right to a free press shall not be abridged. Whether as a combat correspondent in a war zone, shot by members of an organized crime syndicate - or simply murdered because someone had problems with a station's hiring and firing practices, we need to take the time to learn about those brave men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion to ensure we are a well-informed public.

And, even if you have issues with the reporters in your market, go out of your way to take the time to thank them for the work they do. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What about photos?

I had no idea how popular the last post about shooting video was going to be. Apparently, the bits of advice I passed along about shooting horizontal videos and stabilizing the camera were what people were looking for.

Say cheese!
So, let's probe a little deeper into the scary world of photography. Now, I'm not going to claim for one second that I am some kind of professional photographer. In fact, I'm pretty abysmal, but I am getting a little better as I have been bitten by the photo bug. It all started about two years ago when I went to a seminar run by Scott Kelby. Before I got there, I didn't know a whit about megapixels, composition or focal length. Once he broke down the basics for me, it really opened my eyes to what can happen with a camera.

And, yes, still pictures can be your best friend when pitching to the media. For print and websites, they are hard to beat. Even for pitching to TV outlets, you can show the assignment editors what they will see when they show up, and give them material to use for their websites.

So, what are the top three tips I have picked up to help me while shooting?

Choose your camera wisely. Yes, most smartphones pack a nice, high-resolution camera on them. And, it's easy to carry those suckers with you wherever you go, and they do a good job for the most part. But, if you really want to get some nice quality shots, you probably want to look for something that functions solely as a camera.

Mirrorless compact? DSLR? Who knows what the best choice is?
Whether you go for a super-premium digital single lens reflex camera, a mirrorless compact body model or even a point and shoot, you are usually going to get a better image. Why? The lens is typically much better than what you will see on the back of your phone. Plus, most lenses on dedicated cameras allow you to zoom optically - by magnifying the image - instead of digitally, which will make your picture look all blocky and pixelated.

And, don't get too hung up over the manufacturer. They all make respectable cameras. However, if you are buying cameras for your office, you probably want to stay brand-loyal so you can interchange lenses and other accessories.

Compose like you mean it. Anyone can take a snapshot, but you can really set your pictures apart from a snapshot by following the very simple rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds
Many cameras will allow you to put a three by three grid on the image you are about to shoot. To make the picture more visually appealing, the idea is to put the item you want to focus on one of the intersections of those lines, and you instantly have a better looking image. A person's eye. The speaker's face. It allows for more background, makes the subject more dynamic. The same goes for the horizon - if the sky is what you are after, put it at the bottom third of the frame. If the sky is boring, then shift the horizon up to the top third. This simple tip can really improve your shooting.

Who is that handsome man?
Another good tip is to think foreground, subject and background, when possible.  As you can see from this photo of my good friend (And PIO Chronicles contributor) Joe Farago, he is in the foreground, and the beautiful desert scenery is in the background, giving the photo a real sense of depth.

Today's cameras are smart. Worried you won't be able to take good pictures because you don't know f-stops, ISOs or shutter speeds? Faggetaboutit. Today's cameras come packed with some really awesome sensors that make it difficult for you to mess up a shot. I'm serious. If you put the camera in it's automatic mode, it will meter the light, figure out what you are trying to focus on, set the sensitivity of the device. All you have to do is hold the camera steady and click away.

Choose your mode
Most cameras also come with the ability to link to your smartphone or tablet so you can upload your photos right from the field to a photo sharing site, your website or to your e-mail account. Piece of cake.

Today's cameras can do all of this and a ton more. They can also serve as a video camera for you in the field, and they all fit on a tripod, so you can take those group shots with ease.

Don't think you can afford all the bells and whistles? The cameras that were released two years ago were packed with these capabilities as well. Check out some online auction sites or the manufacturer's websites for discontinued models. You might be surprised at what you find there.

The best words of advice that Scott Kelby gave us at the seminar I attended was to stop thinking about taking better pictures and go out to get practice. After all, you can delete all of the bad photos you take on a digital camera, and the great ones will make it look like you have been doing this for years.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Do video right

Few things have changed the playing field in working with the media more than the advent of high-resolution digital video easily at hand. Every cell phone, SLR camera or tablet seems to be equipped with the ability to take insanely clear video which can then be shared by social media or sent to reporters if they are unable to get to the event or can't get close enough to get the shot. 

Most cell phones can take good looking videos
So, if you are going to do video, you are going to have to learn some of the basics to make that video look as good as possible. Here are the top three tips I have heard time and again to get the best from your videos.

Avoid vertical videos. You walk up to a scene, break out your smartphone or tablet and, holding it one handed, you start taking video. You really want that shot. Unfortunately, you are holding the phone vertically, as if you are about to talk into the mouthpiece. 

This is bad. It's not how video is broadcast, so TV stations have to play with the video you send them to make it look OK for their screens. Typically, you will have some kind of large black bars on either side of the video, making it look very distracting. 

If you won't take my word for it, how about Mario and Fafa from Glove and Boots?  They have a great explanation in their outstanding Vertical Video Syndrome YouTube classic. 

Get it stable.  Sure, being in the middle of the action can be filled with pulse-pounding excitement. But, if you want someone to use your video, you are going to have to make sure that you do a few things to ensure it's watchable.

A few rubber bands and a camera tripod could work in a pinch
Try to shoot with your camera on a tripod or use some other device or prop (the hood or roof of a car, perhaps?) to stabilize your shot. If none are available, stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and tuck your arms in close to your body to create as stable of a platform as possible. Watching shaky video can make people feel sick. So sick, in fact, that theaters screening the movie Cloverfield had to warn patrons that they might experience motion sickness due to the shaky hand-held filming technique. 

A warning for the 'queasycam' feeling moviegoers might expect
Also, be sure to spend enough time on your subject to give viewers a good idea of what they are looking at. A rule of thumb is to focus on your subject and count - silently - to ten to ensure you have the shot. 

Get it out as fast as possible. Remember the importance of timeliness when it comes to news? The same rule applies when it comes to video you will release. The beauty of shooting video on a wi-fi enabled device or cell phone is that it can be shot, edited and uploaded all from the field. And, with a free Dropbox, Google Drive or YouTube account, that video can be up and out to the media or on your agency's webpage in mere minutes. 

How easy is it to do? Using my iPad last spring, I conducted an experiment at one of our county parks. In less than an hour, I shot, edited and uploaded this video - from my car. 

Again, this was just messing around to see if it was possible. With some practice, this would become considerably easier. 

Of course, there are many other important rules and recommendations to follow that will make your video that much better. Who approves what you shoot? Can you attach a supplemental microphone to your device to improve audio quality? These are obviously the considerations you will want to keep in mind as you move ahead into the wonderful world of shooting video to help get your message out to the public. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Define 'Emergency'

The rains that we experienced last week here in the Tampa Bay area have sparked an interesting discussion among emergency managers, our residents and the local media - what exactly constitutes an emergency?

This kind of effort is definitely required during an emergency
I don't for one minute doubt that something like the impact of - say - Hurricane Katrina could be misunderstood for anything other than a full-blown, according to Hoyle disaster.  Hundreds of lives lost, thousands of people displaced, billions of dollars of damage. You bet, that's the time when everyone comes out to help with the recovery effort.

Definitely an emergency for this family
And, for a family, to see their home go up in flames is an emergency to them, but the scope is so small that it really can't be considered an emergency for the entire community.

Where we sometimes fall down is explaining to our residents, members of the media and even sometimes to members of our own organizations what truly constitutes an emergency. I can distinctly remember the aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 here in the Tampa Bay area. While the season was scary for Pinellas County, the amount of damage we experienced was so little when compared to other parts of the state.

And, when FEMA employees were sent into the field with fliers containing information on where people could get assistance, storm-weary residents who were without power for a week or so were quick to vent their anger at them. Where is the federal money? Who is coming to restore my power? Where can I get ice? Can't you tell this is an emergency?

The amazing thing was that one block away, the local grocery store was open, fully powered and it had bags of ice they were selling at a steep discount to help residents keep their food - and themselves - cool.

A water heater prepared for earthquakes using steel straps
The reality is that the definition of what constitutes an emergency can vary based on conditions, locale and people's level of preparedness. People who live in earthquake-prone zones who have used quake resistant construction materials and practices will barely batt an eyelash when a 5.0 quake shakes the house, where those who live places where quakes aren't that common may believe that a state of emergency needs to exist after one happens where they live.

The best way for us to define an emergency is to set our own terms. A population is much more ready to weather any situation when they have the know-how, supplies and plans in place before the disaster happens. Once the event outstrips that, then you know you have an emergency on your hands.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A happy anniversary

Five years ago, the world was about to witness an unbelievable journey of courage, determination and - ultimately - deliverance on a scale really never before seen. It was August 5, 2010, and 33 miners working in the San Jose Mine near Copiapo, Chile were digging for copper and gold in the Aticama Desert. This 112-year-old mine had a troubled past, and the miners knew every shift they went underground, something could happen. It was a risk the miners accepted because the pay was decent and the bond of friendship was strong.

While working 700 meters below the surface, a rumbling was felt, and on instinct the miners retreated to a refuge set aside for their protection. After the sounds ended, the initial efforts of the crew to assess their situation were grim. The passage to the surface was blocked, and there was no way to communicate to the world where they were or even that they were alive.

The initial efforts to find the miners
Above ground, mine workers feared the worst, yet held out hope that the miners could indeed be found alive. After all, the refuge was stocked with food and other important medical supplies. With these supplies, some level-headed thinking and perhaps a small miracle, the miners might be rescued.

Mine collapses by their very nature rarely have good outcomes. The Sago Mine disaster killed 12 in 2006. The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster killed 29 in 2010. The Farmington Mine disaster killed 78 in 1968.  Needless to say, people around the world said prayers, but kept their outlook realistic.

"All 33 of us are fine in the shelter."

Then, on day 17, the miracle the rescuers had hoped for happened. A drill pulled from a borehole had a note attached. The miners were alive.

Once the news hit the airwaves, the world's media descended on this tiny desert outpost to report on this amazing story. Not only was the mining company and the nation setting up one of the greatest rescue operations in the history of mining accidents, they had to set up a base camp for an army of reporters who were now arriving by the busload.

Reporters on the scene at the mining accident
Coverage went around the clock as a video camera was lowered to the miners at the end of a long cable. Reporters were able to get live video feeds of the miners. They got stories about how NASA was helping the miners by developing prescribed diets and proving engineering expertise. They had coverage of the non-stop prayer vigil held by the miners' families at the scene. And, they had the Chilean President at the site helping to tell the personal stories.

Rescue workers being lowered into the mine
The rescue plan took nearly two months to execute, and on October 12, the effort reached its climax. Paramedic Manuel Gonzalez was lowered down to the miners in the Phoenix rescue capsules to assess the condition of the men, and then the rescue effort began in earnest.

One by one, the miners were hauled to the surface. Slowly and cautiously at first, but as the bore hole proved to be solid, the pace increased. Each miner took his time to celebrate his first taste of freedom in his own way. Some kissed the ground, others hugged the first person they could find. Each was escorted off for a medical assessment until Luis Uruza, the miner's captain, shook the hand of President Sebastian Pinera and sang the national anthem.

They made it!
While the operational aspect of the rescue was something impressive, the Chilean government did a masterful job of managing what had to have been the most chaotic media operation every conducted. Nonstop worldwide media attention in the middle of a desert with minimal infrastructure, and they came out looking like heroes. Mission accomplished, Chile!

Oh, and this also marks another anniversary that maybe isn't so notable. However, it's important to me and I hope you as a reader. Yes, one year ago, I started writing the PIO Chronicles. I hope that the material I and others have written has helped make your jobs at least a little easier, or encouraged you to learn more about the craft. Let's hope year two is just as productive!

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Liquid Sunshine State

I got back from my tour of the Southwest on Saturday, July 18. In the intervening 17 days, Florida's west coast has seen more rain than many cities get in a year.
Yes, that's a lot of rain
While the image is a little small to make out, the magenta area that encompasses the Tampa Bay area northward has received more than 10 inches of rain in the past 14 days. Embedded in there are areas of purple, which have received more than 15 inches of rain, and, yes, a small area of white in northern Pinellas and southern Pasco counties which has seen more than 20 inches.

So, what does an area that gets that kind of rain look like?

I'm glad you asked.

Roads were turned into canals by the heavy rain
Even in an area that is used to tropical downpours, this kind of heavy rain is just too much for the sandy soil to bear, and flash flooding was just about everywhere.

As I commuted into work yesterday morning, the skies opened with the heaviest rain of the two-week deluge, and the Emergency Operations Centers across the Tampa Bay area opened to tackle the challenges posed by these powerful storms. What messaging do you think we went with?

Needless to say, the primary message was turn around, don't drown - the National Weather Service's effort to educate drivers to not drive through water of unknown depth. With that being said, fire and law enforcement officials still had to help stranded motorists push their cars out of the floods.

Firefighters wade in to give stranded drivers a push
Another message we pushed was to avoid contact with the floodwaters. After all, things like - I dunno - sewage may be spilling into the waters, making them a less than pleasant place to recreate in.

No, this isn't Venice...
And, yet, we found lots of people boating, swimming, jet skiing and canoeing in the flood waters. Hmm....

Finally, we wanted residents to know where to turn for more information, and we found that on our social media platforms and the comments sections of the news outlets, many expressed their frustration about not being able to get information when they needed it.

If there is anything I have learned from my 24 years as a public information professional, it's that every time you do something, you need to learn a little bit and apply it so you don't make the same mistakes over and over again.  Unlike a hurricane, this flooding hasn't caused catastrophic, widespread damage across the entire area or a significant loss of life.

To achieve what we set our minds to, we are building a list of how we can improve our response to better communicate with our residents. We plan on using this experience as a wake-up call to our residents as well, reminding them that they have a responsibility to prepare themselves for when the heavy rains return or a hurricane comes calling.

Only by examining how we do our job can we find our points to improve.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida