Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The collapse caught in memory

This past weekend, I paid a quick visit to Kansas City, Missouri for a woodworking conference. It's an annual tradition, and I get to catch up with old friends, meet new ones, discover new woodworking techniques and salivate over the really sweet new tools for sale. And, are there ever sweet new tools for sale!
De planes!  De planes!  
There was something else, though, about the hotel we were staying at. For some strange reason, I felt as if I had seen the lobby before, even though I had never been to Missouri.

The lobby in question
It was beautiful and spacious, but it wasn't one of those large atrium hotels with all of the rooms arranged around a tall open court. It had some interesting architecture with some distinctive cantilevered stairs and a large circular opening at the top of the escalators to the mezzanine level. But, that's not what caught my attention.

No, it wasn't until I had the opportunity to break out my smartphone and search for what I was looking for did everything click.

I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel that saw a major disaster.

Picture if you will a hot midwestern afternoon in Kansas City. The brand new Hyatt Regency - a brand new 40-story structure overlooking downtown - was hosting a tea dance. Open for less than one year, the new building drew a crowd of nearly 1,600, and spectators were gathered on the floor to dance, while many others were on the three skywalks which crossed the lobby floor.

What no one had noticed is that a few changes from the design radically affected the ability of these stunning skywalks to handle the weight of people, and at 7:05 p.m., the fourth floor skywalk gave way, collapsing onto the second floor skywalk and onto the dancers below on the lobby floor.

For a few moments, the scene was utter chaos as victims and survivors struggled to make sense of what happened. Since the debris of the fallen skywalks was acting as a dam, rising water from the fire suppression system began to flood the lobby floor, threatening to drown those pinned under the wreckage. All told, 114 people were killed, with another 216 injured. It remained the deadliest structure collapse in American history until the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

And, it left an indelible mark in the history of Kansas City. That's why the city's largest newspaper - the Kansas City Star - created a page called City in Shock to capture the memories of those who survived that terrible event. From people enjoying the surroundings to the first responders to the first reporters on the scene to see what unfolded, memories of the event have been recorded for posterity.

As with any disaster, the skywalk collapse in Kansas City has taught us many valuable lessons. It has been said that the collapse was the impetus for creating urban heavy rescue fire units in cities around the country and the world. As public information officers, we may not know what the next day's duties will challenge us with, but we can be sure that by learning from incidents such as this, we can help get better at our craft.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Capture those memories

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school ...               - Paul Simon, Kodachrome
In addition to being a journalism teacher, my wife also has the honor of serving as her high school's advisor for the yearbook, which usually means she spends her time keeping her eyes out for big events that her students should probably be covering. Football games. Clubs and organizations. Academic achievement.

Ahh, the good old days of laying out yearbooks before computers...
Why? Well, until someone develops time travel, it's going to be difficult for the young yearbookers to recreate shots of events which happened eight or nine months earlier. So, she has to encourage her charges to get out and do their work now before that incredible game, play or achievement is a footnote that few will remember nine months from now during graduation.

As public information officers, we should take a page out of the playbooks from my wife and all of the other yearbook advisors out there - it is critical to capture the memories of important moments we experienced while we are doing our jobs. Think about it for a moment - your job is a busy one. You move from event to event quickly, barely giving a second thought to what we are doing, especially in the heat of a real-life event.

The reporters are there. The situation is evolving. You are needed to get the right information to the right people at the right time so they can make the right decision to save lives and property.

At the end of a busy day doing that, you are beat, and there's a high likelihood that you will just want to go home, grab a bite to eat and catch some sleep. That's important.

Write your thoughts down - digitally or in analog form
But, as you get to a point where you have a little down time, take a few moments to write down the lessons you learned from that day's work. What were the successes? Where did you fail? What was that pithy quote you gave - or thought of once the reporter walked away? This is known as a hot wash, and believe me, the folks working in operations do this all the time. Get those thoughts down in writing, too. Believe me, once a few days go by, you will forget the details.

Another reason why my wife enjoys doing the yearbook is that she gets to play a part in telling the history of her school for many years to come. Future yearbook advisors may look back through the archives, see something she did and incorporate those ideas into yearbooks to come. Maybe even a rival school might consider adopting one of her ideas if they think it's a particularly good one.

Working logistics in New York City post Sandy
That's the second reason why you should be documenting what you do - so other people might learn from your hard-earned lessons. Why did I document my trip to Charlotte County after Hurricane Charley passed? Why did I put together a blog to do daily reports from New York City during our EMAC deployment after Hurricane Sandy? Heck, why did I start this blog?

So that the lessons I have learned could be shared with everyone who stopped by. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Am I advocating that everyone start their own blog and get articles published about what they do? That would be awesome, but I'm realistic and know that not everyone will be so inclined. But, never shy away from sharing what you have learned with others.

Many years from now, some other PIO will be glad you did.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Fill your toolbox

I don't know if I have ever alluded to this, but I am a woodworker. No, I don't build cabinets for a living, but I do like to mess around in my garage and build some halfway-decent looking pieces. I have even been running a woodworking blog since August of 2007, which is what gave me the confidence to start this blog in the first place.

Me working in the shop
Every month, I get catalogs stuffed to the gills with advertisements for the latest and greatest tools in them. There are ultra-fine Japanese chisels made from the iron of century old ship anchors. There are enormous, behemoth milling machines that can straighten and face boards more than 20 inches across in seconds. Heck, there are even tools that promise to do most of the woodworking for you.

The Clown Prince of woodworking, Roy Underhill
But, every time I look at these tools - and check the bank account - I have to remember that each of those tools is just that - a tool. Woodworkers such as Roy Underhill demonstrate that the vast majority of woodworking until the early 1900s was done with a very basic set of hand tools. As new tools have been introduced over the decades, they may have changed the way that woodworking happens, but they don't change the fact that by putting two boards together the right way, you can build a beautiful project that can last several lifetimes. 

Ahhh, social media....
Why bring this up in a PIO blog? Well, the drumbeat has been getting louder since about 2008. At first, people asked if I had ever heard about these brand new social media services - Facebook and Twitter. Maybe, if people had the right video hardware, they might question how to incorporate videos from YouTube. 

Over the years, the questions have become more sophisticated. When is the best time to post? Who should have access to the account? Should we even be doing more traditional public information and media relations, or should we just shift totally to a social media based media outreach program?

My answer throughout the years has always remained the same. Maybe it's because I am a woodworker, but I always answer by asking, "What are these services to you?" That's usually the a-ha moment when people realize that yeah, they are simply tools to make our jobs a little easier to accomplish.

My well-stocked hand tool tool chest
Would I ever advocate giving up traditional outreach tools? Absolutely not. Just as in my workshop, I have tools that work exceptionally well for different jobs. For instance, my table saw is a great tool for cutting boards in half either length or crosswise, but it is awful at cutting curves into a project. For that, I would turn to my band saw or a jig saw. And, there are sometimes when I simply need the accuracy, control - or silence - that a well-sharpened chisel or block plane can only provide. 

The reality is that the best PIOs develop a well-stocked toolbox of methods to conduct their outreach, and they pull them out to do the right job with the right audience at the right time. Sometimes, a social media post is the best way to reach one audience, but a news release may work better. A public speaking engagement might grab the audience you are looking to reach, or maybe a well-written flier handed out at a local library will fill the bill. 

A cherry hope chest I built for my neice
Believe me, having a full tool box - and knowing how to use the tools contained within - will go a long way toward making your work a masterpiece. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Triple A

When it comes to telling your story to the media, there are really only two schools of thought. The first one involves getting out in front of the story, knowing your stuff and doing the best job you possibly can. Is it scary? You bet. There are many times, especially during controversial stories, where I would much rather be anywhere else but in front of the camera. But, sometimes, you just gotta do what you just gotta do and - as Shakespeare said so eloquently in Hamlet - suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

This is one way to accommodate a media request...
The other approach is to put your head in the sand and avoid the reporters altogether. And, in the short run, it's an awesome technique. The only problem is that it's only good for the short term. The really short term. Before you know it, the reporters will be knocking on your door, camping out in your lobby, making public requests for your schedule and meeting you at your very important lunch appointment, waiting by your home's front door... yeah... and you will look shifty, evasive and - believe me - the reporter will spare no eloquence in describing his or her Herculean efforts to wrest a comment from your uncooperative lips.

The other technique that the reporters will employ was taught to me by my good friend and mentor Bill Wade. The reporters - if pressed by their deadlines - will simply seek out Triple A.

Not THAT kind of Triple A
No, not the automobile club which rescues stranded motorists from roadsides the country over. Nor are they looking for anti-aircraft artillery which they will use to shoot down bombers conducting their raids.

No, the Triple A that Bill mentioned stands for something that should strike terror into the heart of any seasoned PIO -

  • Ask
  • Any
  • A ... authority. Yeah, that's right. Bill had a more colorful term for this A, but I'll use the one I teach about when I instruct. 

What this means is that the reporters are going to look for someone who will be eager to speak with the reporters - and, believe me, there will be TONS of people who will be willing to do that. Disgruntled former or current employees? Yup. Ten-minute experts? You betcha. Maybe just some interesting people who are just looking to get their big break to be on the nightly news. Folks like these (Needless to say, some of the language is a little salty. Like cured, dried country ham kind of salty. Listen with earbuds in. Seriously) :

Now, as uncomfortable as you might be in front of the camera, who would you rather have telling your organization's side of the story? You or someone familiar with your organization's roles and responsibilities, or the luck of the draw?  If it was me, I'd much prefer to be out in front of something like this than totally blindsided when I turned on the evening news - and called on my boss's carpet the next morning.

So, while it may be tempting to circle the wagons, retreat and hope the story goes away, fight the urge and get out in front of the issue. Trust me, it will be a whole lot more comfortable.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The best pyramid scheme

Nothing quite says 'hard work' like taking a peek at they pyramids in Egypt. There, in the middle of the desert, Pharaohs had either their impressed labor/religious devotees bust their behinds for decades to construct some of the world's most amazing structures. To this day, they remain engineering marvels.

"I'm pretty sure that stone goes over there..."
Of course, they did take a ton of work to build. But, what if I told you that using a pyramid could help make your job as a public information officer a whole lot easier? Would you believe me?

The Inverted Pyramid. Get to know it.
Sure it will, if you flip it up on its head. The Inverted Pyramid is a tool that journalists have used for a long time to guide their writing. And, if we want to succeed in pitching our information to the media, it only goes to follow that we should be providing our information in a manner which reporters are familiar with.

The basic premise of the Inverted Pyramid is this - you put all of the most important information up at the top of your news release. I know, there are some of us out there who want to be mystery novel writers who would love to keep our readers in suspense until the last minute, but that's not what's going to fly with reporters. Many of them are working hard to file a few stories each day, and they don't have the time to read through your release to get the big payoff. In fact, given the volume of news releases that cross an editor's desk in a day, your release may have an average of five seconds or less to grab his or her attention.

Not a lot of time for exposition.

Joe Friday just wants the facts
Just like Detective Joe Friday in the TV show Dragnet, just the facts, ma'am. That's what the reporter needs. But, it's so much more than that. When you write in the Inverted Pyramid, you help get the most important facts out to the public because of cutting.

Cut away the unnecessary stuff
I go back to my example of the incredible number of releases received by editors and reporters in a day. In many cases, your press release can serve as a stand-alone story in a newspaper or a reader in a broadcast. If the story is too long, the editors may simply cut from the bottom of your release. If you have all of your important news at the top, it makes their job much easier, and no one will miss the less important facts which you have placed at the bottom of your release.

Where does this get sideways? I'm glad you asked. I have taught many public information officers through the years, and one of the exercises we do is to have them write a sample press release based on a hypothetical event. The people who have the toughest time understanding this concept are law enforcement and fire rescue PIOs. Not because they can't understand the concept, but because just about everything else they write is done in a chronological format. If the first call to the station for help came in at 2 p.m., but the chlorine gas wasn't released until 4:30 p.m., no one is really going to care about the two and a half hours that led up to the potentially lethal event. A release should focus on the most important and critical piece of information before anything else is even mentioned.

Some truly inverted pyramids
Now that you know about the Inverted Pyramid, you might discover that the whole concept stands your view of the world on its head. That's a good thing, especially if it helps you get your message out to the public.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Out of nowhere

Imagine if you will a bright, sunny day. Not a care in the world. You are enjoying the lovely scenery and maybe even taking in some time at a local park, when someone tells you that the latest and most advanced communications technology is on the fritz. Strange things are happening, and people who operate these devices are even getting shocked if they touch them.

What do you mean, "No signal?"
Sounds like some kind of sci-fi fantasy before the onset of an alien invasion, right? Knock out the infrastructure, then attack. Actually, this scenario is based on a real-life event which took place on September 2, 1859. Back then, the high-tech communications infrastructure - the telegraph - made near-instantaneous continent-wide communications a reality. News traveled from coast to coast in a fraction of the time it would take to travel by rail, horse and rider or sailing ship.

On that date in 1859, a massive solar storm, known as the Carrington Event, took place. During the event, the Sun spit out a tremendous solar flare which made its impact felt on the Earth. Aurorae were seen as far south as Tampico, Mexico and in sub-Sahara Africa, while southern hemispheric auororae were seen as far north as New Guinea. Normally, these phenomena are restricted to the far northern and southern regions, so something of this magnitude must have been tremendous to see.

The aurorae in their glory
Event such as these before 1859 were visual spectacles for sure, but after the invention of the telegraph and the establishment of electrical infrastructure, this became a huge issue. Telegraph operators reported being shocked by their equipment and wire pylons threw sparks. The interruption took a few days to clear, and the impact was recorded by newspapers which had to rely on older technology to try to gather news.

Telegraph operators working on vulnerable equipment
Why bring this up? I think you already know the answer to this one. How much more reliant have we become on electricity and electronic communications in the 150+ years since then? Entire power grids span the world. Cell phone towers now dominate the communications infrastructure. We have built our plans around the idea that our residents will have immediate access to information at a moment's notice, and many of our backup plans have been relegated to the annals of history.

That might be a big mistake. We have seen what can happen during ice storms and hurricanes when power is knocked out to localized areas. And, we know for a fact that on July 23, 2012, a solar flare the size of the Carrington Event occurred, just missing the Earth. Had that event not missed our planet, we could have been looking at an event which could have caused up to $2.6 trillion in worldwide damages, and could have taken years to recover from.

The solar flare of July 2012
This type of event has not gone unnoticed by disaster planners. In fact, FEMA has an entire research division working on space weather, and offers disaster preparedness tips just as it does for earthquakes, tornadoes or other hazards.

While the possibility of another Carrington Event is not huge, it does merit at least a little discussion among the disaster preparedness community.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It was seen in advance

Ten years ago, we were watching some of the most incredible images coming from the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Hurricane Katrina, a storm with winds less powerful than 1969's Category 5 Hurricane Camille, was flooding the largest city in the nation's 35th most populous metropolitan statistical area. 

Devastation in the center of New Orleans
There was no way that anyone could have possibly imagined the devastation that was to come. We had so few examples of cities laid so low in recent history. Sure, Galveston was laid waste to in 1900 and San Francisco had been shaken to its foundations in 1906, but in modern times, seeing a major city leveled like that was unbelievable. 

Hugo's clawing of Charleston in 1989 and Andrew's near-miss of downtown Miami in 1992 were wake up calls for sure, but it always seemed as if the big cities would always be spared the direct impact, right?

The October 2004 edition of National Geographic
Not everyone believed that. In fact, in October of 2004, hurricane-weary Americans who subscribed to National Geographic picked up their copies of the magazine to see a story about the loss of Louisiana's wetlands and their potential impact should the city be hit by a hurricane.

The hypothetical storm, Hurricane Pam, brought sustained winds of 120 miles per hour and nearly 20 inches of rain to the Big Easy, and challenged the teams assembled from nearly 50 federal, state, parish, city and non-governmental organizations. You can read the news release about the summary of the operation here to get all of the details.

And, in less than one year from that story hitting the news stands, an actual storm of the hypothesized system's strength plowed ashore, causing many of the anticipated issues.

The levees failed - as envisioned during the Hurricane Pam exercise
This post is not to assign blame or to Monday morning quarterback the public information efforts taken by the cities, parishes, counties or states involved. Instead, it should serve as a motivational tool for each of us as public information officers. We know what areas may be paralyzed by ice storms this coming winter. We know what areas may be affected by tornadoes in the fall or spring. We know what times of the year hurricanes or nor'easters can affect coastal areas. We know the potential for earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides or other disasters can befall our residents.

So, what are we going to do about it?

Are we going to look back in history at the disasters that befell where we live and learn the valuable lessons dearly learned by our predecessors,? Are we going to take the opportunities presented to us each and every day to make that connection with our residents?

It has been ten years. Do we still remember the lessons?

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida