Friday, October 30, 2015

So coincidental, it's spooky ...

You know, Halloween is right around the corner. And, if you are anything like me, you really dig the holiday.

You get to dress up, pass out candy, enjoy scary movies ... maybe even dance the Time Warp, if you are a Rocky Horror Picture Show fan.

With the daylight hours getting shorter and excited children headed to the streets, no doubt you have seen and heard media coverage about how dangerous a night Halloween is for pedestrians. Forget Dracula, Frankenstein's monster or ghosts, it's pedestrian accidents that are truly the scariest thing about Halloween.

In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Information's Fatality Analysis Reporting System, pedestrians are twice as likely to die in accidents on Halloween than nearly any other day of the year. That astounding number sends a shiver up my spine - and the spines of public information officers for law enforcement, fire rescue and other organizations around the country. If you were going to put out information about pedestrian safety and get the media's attention, now would be a great time.

Halloween is also great this year because it falls the night before daylight saving time ends, meaning we fall back to standard time. Now, if you live in Arizona, Indiana or a number of other places, you won't be fiddling with your clock, but the rest of us poor saps will. Which is good, because it is also a great opportunity to remind folks that they should be checking - or, even better - changing the batteries in their smoke detectors.

Smoke detectors have significantly reduced the number of fatalities in house fires over the decades, but they only work if they have working batteries. While the time change may be a real pain in the rear, it does serve as a great annual reminder to do a small part to ensure the safety of your residents.

Oh, and do them one more favor. With the time change, irrigation systems may not get the message that they will be working out of synch with the summer time. So, maybe a notice to your utility customers for them to check their irrigation timers could help keep them out of hot water if you are under watering restrictions.

By just looking at the calendar, you can find many more of these spooky coincidences throughout the year to slip your message out to the media. They will consider them treats - not tricks - for their papers and newscasts.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Getting to know you ...

Getting to know all about you ...

Ever since that Rogers and Hammerstein hit was first performed in the play The King and I, it has become a favorite, and it should have been named the anthem for PIOs everywhere. After all, didn't we establish that stories have to be first and foremost about people? And, how else can you tell the story about a group or organization without getting to know the members?

That's what happened while a coworker and I were preparing for the opening of a newly rebuilt fire station just outside of Tampa. We had heard stories about a retired Capitan who the crews respected, but it wasn't until we actually headed down to the fire house that we got to know the story.

It turns out that this retired Captain Billy Riley had been a mentor to the officers in the county's fire service, and on a February day in 2006, he did something which moved him to the level of legend. While responding to a call of a child on a bicycle struck by a car, Captain Riley made a quick assessment of the situation and selflessly crawled under the car to the severely injured child. Mustering all of the strength he could, he did a push up that lifted the car a few inches off the road, allowing two other firefighters to pull the boy to safety.

The scene is memorialized in the Firehouse Subs shop just down the street from the new fire station. There, on the wall, is a mural depicting that moment.

So touched by Captain Riley's efforts and his tireless leadership, the crew had a flag made, calling Station No. 7 the House that Billy Riley Built.

With that understanding, it has been easy to craft talking points for the dignitaries and pitches to the reporters. The new fire house isn't just bricks, mortar and bunks - it's a place where heroes work, waiting for the call to spring into action to maybe just save a life.

There's a lot to be said about that kind of story.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Friday, October 23, 2015

Educating your partners

I can remember it like it happened yesterday. It was 11 years ago this past August. Hurricane Charley was beginning to really look scary, and our emergency manager, Gary Vickers, ordered the largest evacuation in Pinellas County, Florida's history. A level C evacuation, which affected nearly half a million residents. Long time reporters in the media room were visibly shaken, having not seen something this serious since Hurricane Elena's near miss back in 1985.

Gary Vickers in the old Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center
That's when a young reporter raised her hand from the back of the room. "Mr. Vickers! Mr. Vickers!" she yelled, trying to get his attention. He recognized her, and she proceeded to ask one of the strangest questions I had ever heard in an emergency briefing.

"Can you tell our viewers what a hurricane is?"

I froze, stunned by such a basic question coming from a reporter. Didn't she realize her station had five meteorologists who had been going wall-to-wall on hurricane coverage once Hurricane Charley had become a thing? Didn't she understand that hurricanes are a big deal here in Florida? Why was she interrupting our media briefing with such an inane question?

A haboob, or dust storm, closes in on Phoenix, Arizona
Then, the reason hit me in a blinding realization. She was a reporter brand-new to the market from the desert southwest where hurricanes aren't a normal occurrence. To her, wildfires, flash-flooding and haboobs were the big threats where she used to report, not hurricanes. Based on her knowledge base, she wasn't 100 percent sure that her viewers knew what a hurricane was.

That's when I realized that our education plan was missing a major component - were we reaching the reporters in the market and educating them on the issues?

It was that point that we put into place some efforts to bring reporters up to speed on what we were dealing with in the Tampa Bay area. Our emergency managers worked more closely with the local TV meteorologists, often sharing the stage with them at public events to spread the word. We ensured that we had media briefings at the beginning of the season so they knew what the areas of emphasis were for that year.

Media briefings ensure reporters are up to speed
We even rolled that into other areas of concern. How does mosquito control work? Why is stormwater management so important? Why are people so vulnerable to fraud during the holiday shopping season?

And, that education effort has paid dividends by increasing coverage, helping residents get a better idea of why they need to pay attention - and through the thanks we get from our partners in the media.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Know your records

Man, I can remember going to the mall back in the 1980s. Sure, there were the young ladies, the book stores, and the record stores. I spent a lot of time there, digging through the huge bins of vinyl records, looking for the awesome music that would be perfect for the soundtrack of my angst-filled teen life.

Oh, my precious vinyl...
Then, there are records of another variety. The highest score in a football game. The lowest temperature ever recorded. Some records, like the long-jump record set by Bob Beamon at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, stand for an incredible amount of time. In fact, his world record stood until 1991, and he still holds the Olympic record by a long distance.

Bob Beamon with his record-breaking jump in 1968
And, then there are other kinds of records. If you work for a government agency, you know they are known as public records. Other agencies may be required to make public financial records or other documents - this varies from state to state and country to country.

If you have anything to do with medical issues here in the United States, you are no doubt aware of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which restricts the type of information that can be released to the public. Thus, as a PIO on the scene of a crash or other incident, you are limited in releasing names of victims and types of injuries.

Here in Florida, we are also very familiar with Chapter 119 of the state statutes, the chapter which deals with public records.  While no one outside of the legal beagles in your attorney's office will be expected to know all of the ins and outs of the law and pertinent legal rulings, it pays to have a general idea of what the statute encompasses.

Believe me, there will be citizens and reporters who will understand how the system works. I have seen government employees fail to turn over simple sign-in sheets to a reporter or interested citizen, only to end up the subject of an in-depth story with questions about their 'evasiveness' when approached for the records.

As a public information officer, it's our duty to not play lawyer, but to help brief staff members on what the laws are for your jurisdiction and to provide clear, concise instructions on what to do should someone ask for records.

I don't want to sound like a broken record, but believe me, this is part of the role of trusted advisor you have signed on for. You might as well do your best!

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Friday, October 16, 2015

Debonair facial hair

I learned a valuable PIO life lesson today…from mustaches.

Every autumn, several fire and police agencies in my community raise funds for charity by holding a mustache contest party, an event billed “Octoberstache.”  My hypothesis is these fall-time follicle fundraisers are only thinly-veiled excuses to  grow mustaches (which men love) while skirting the ire of significant others (who get a little plucky against them), under the guise of philanthropy. I’m helping with outreach.

A debonair 'stache
This year our cause is an organization that helps athletes with disabilities.  Specifically, to buy a sports prosthetic for a local boy whose leg was amputated due to illness. His dad’s a cop. The boy likes to play soccer. Soccer is hard to play on crutches.

As I set about constructing a media outreach plan, my proverbial PIO salivary glands began to water.  Let me get this straight- You want me to pitch a story that has kids in need, triumph over disability, and handsome firefighters in mustaches?  Why, all I need is a baby animal involved somehow and I’m golden!

But then I paused to reflect.  As PIOs, by nature, some of our tasks are easier than others. Sometimes we have to narrate disaster and quell fear, apologize for the knuckleheads in our agencies and the knucklehead things they do, look good on camera while wearing yellow brush coats (no one looks good in yellow), and report on ghastly things we’d soon rather forget.  These are the hard parts of the job.

Touching stories are easy pitches to the media
But on the flip side, sometimes what we do is so, so easy.  We get to carry forth beautiful stories –tales of communities coming together, great acts of sacrifice and courage, events with compelling visual elements.  Some of our pitches are so inherently solid they get snatched right out of our hands. 

How do we react when these latter opportunities occur, however? It’s easy to get sidetracked with that little dance about how many cameras will show and re-tweets we'll rack up and how hard the Chief will pat us on the head.  But ultimately, what we do is not about us, but it's about the people who benefited from our work. Whether that benefit equates to attendees showing up for fundraisers or people getting out with their lives.

For those of you granted the gift of gab and pen who use it in service to others, carry on humbly in this dedicated service of your community.  That’s what I will be reflecting upon solemnly next Friday, as I fit a box of puppies with costume mustaches.

Loralee Olejnik
Southern California PIO

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Everyone in the pool!

Sure, it's autumn. And, temperatures in most areas of the country are starting to drop off as the leaves change. But, there are still a few areas where the mercury is holding high, and the folks who live there are considering one last pool party before everyone changes into their heavier clothes for the colder months ahead.

Everyone into the pool!
While pools can be awesome, they sometimes can be troublesome, especially when it comes to media pools. Those are arrangements where either due to time restraint or the conditions of a scene where bringing every single member of the media through to get video, sound or still photos difficult or impossible.

The downed Bayflite helicopter
My first experience with a media pool happened during an April 2000 crash of a Bayflite emergency transport helicopter. The craft clipped a guy wire on a 500 foot tall antenna in a nature preserve and went down with all three souls aboard. Because the crash site was well back in a very swampy area - complete with alligators, water moccasins and jet fuel - fire rescue units on scene determined that the site was just not going to be accessible to all of the media outlets.

The incident commander did say, however, that one member of the media could come back with the rescue units to get video of the scene. This was the first lesson I learned about creating a media pool - you never select which outlet gets the video. You simply announce to the media members assembled on scene that there is the opportunity, and that they have five minutes to prepare.  At that point, it's critical to let the members of the media decide who will do the deed. In this case, one of the stations was considerably closer to the site than the others, so that photographer went back to his station to get the necessary gear to head into the woods while the other stations offered to cover any briefings if he missed them.

Don't forget the still photographers!
Where we bungled things was by not including a still photographer in the pool, and boy, did we ever hear about that from the print media. Sure, they could get stills from video, but still cameras can give so much better resolution for getting the image on paper. We apologized profusely and promised that we would learn from our mistake.

Of course, the danger for the PIO is that he or she may start to - ahem - set up situations where only single members of the media can be pooled for a situation, but reporters are pretty savvy and can see when you are simply doing that to prevent answering questions from all of the reporters on scene. Don't play that game, it just makes you look shifty.

While it may not be the answer to every situation you run into, for the right situation, the pool may be the right tool for what you need to accomplish.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida