Thursday, November 19, 2015

Their most effective weapon

I have been giving a lot of thought as of late to last week's attacks in Paris, and I have come to a conclusion as a public information officer. The terrorists' most effective weapon isn't the AK-47. Nor is it the homemade suicide vest. Nor is it even its willingness to enlist young children and women to participate in its deadly plans.

No, it's most effective weapon is fear and doubt. That's right. Yes, 129 innocent victims were killed, and more than 350 were injured in indiscriminate gunfire and explosions last Friday in Paris, and we mourn their loss. The terrorists' goal, however, is much more grand that simply that.

Terrorists want us to look warily at each other as we go about our business. Maybe find those who look different than 'we' do - like a Sikh wearing his Turban - and single him or her out for retribution. Maybe change those holiday travel plans out of fear that we may become targets of a group's anger.

Veerender Jubbal, an Indian-born Sikh, PhotoShopped to look like an ISIS terrorist
There is only one true defense against that weapon - and that is fact. Pure and simple.

It's been said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. In these confusing times, it's only natural to seek answers, no matter how off-the wall or discredited they may be. It's a need we have as humans. Our brains need to find patterns. Answers. Fill in the blanks. 

Earlier today, I was reading my Facebook feed where someone posted an urgent warning supposedly from the Department of Homeland Security about someone buying a large number of UPS uniforms. Makes sense, right?  If someone wanted to get access to any number of buildings, that would be an ideal way for this to happen.

The only problem?  This is a recycled bit of netlore which surfaced shortly after the September 11 attacks. It has been totally discredited by UPS, the Department of Homeland Security and other sources, yet it continues to make its rounds any time an event like this happens. As practitioners of this craft, we need to get the official, verified information out to the public as quickly and accurately as possible if we are to refute these bits of erroneous information.

And, the most important fact we need to communicate is that the odds of being killed by a terrorist are staggeringly small. So small, in fact, that they fall into the range of one in 20 million. Your odds of dying from heart disease? One in seven. Does that stop you from ordering the double bacon burger at your local fast food joint? Maybe not. A traffic accident? One in 112. Lightning? One in 170,000. It's the sudden, gruesome and heartless nature that makes a Terrorist attack such a shock to the public's mind.

But, we have seen this type of panic before. The movie Jaws brought about fear of sharks after its 1975 release. People feared getting into planes after the 9/11 attacks. Last year's Ebola outbreak caused mass panic whenever someone presented in medical offices with gastric distress. Without a firm knowledge of what the risks are, people are terrible at assessing the danger these things present to them.

At his first inauguration, Franklin Delano Roosevelt remarked:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is ... fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. 
In these trying times, let's all be the drivers who convert retreat into advance by denying the terrorists the very weapon they need to win.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It's a gamble

This past weekend, I was in Las Vegas. No, I didn't go for a bachelor party, nor did I go to play any high-stakes gaming. Although, there were plenty of opportunities for that.

No, I was there to do some Public Information instruction for the International Association of Emergency Managers annual conference. Which happened to be held on the Strip in downtown Las Vegas.

In a casino resort named the Paris.

The poignancy of which was not lost on me or any of the other students in the class, given the events which unfolded 5,400 miles to the east in the real Paris last Friday.

When it comes to emergency management, what are we trying to do? Whether it's a hurricane, earthquake, hazardous material spill or a coordinated terror attack, we are trying to prepare ourselves and our residents for the eventuality of low-probability but high-impact events. We want our residents to go about their daily lives, yet understand that they need to be be ready in the event that something should transpire.

Do they know where to go? Are there enough emergency supplies on hand? What would they do in the event a situation began to spiral out of control? Where are the exits to the building, and can they be found quickly.

As I flew home from the training yesterday, I was asked by the flight attendants to review the seat back safety card on both flights from Las Vegas to Tampa in the event that something happened and I had to react quickly should something happen on the flight. Now, the odds of something happening on the flight that would require me to make a hasty evacuation from the plane are pretty slim - almost as slim as me striking it rich at the craps tables in Vegas.

But, would I be ready to take immediate action in the event something did happen?

That's how we need to be thinking when it comes to our roles as Public Information Officers.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Friday, November 13, 2015

Wanna be a great PIO?

Every day I arrive at the office, run through the 200 or so emails I’ve gotten over night, scan the headlines of the local papers and the wires, make a list of everything I need to check on and then I get on the phone and make some calls. 

One of the most valuable (and potentially one of the worst) resources I have for information as a journalist is the Public Information Officer. When they are good at their jobs, they are great, but they are bad they can make an Assignment Editor’s life miserable. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some really amazing professionals in my 22 years as an Assignment Editor. Men and women who understand that we need to have a symbiotic relationship. Then there are those who act as if it’s chore to do what their job title implies - inform the public.

So what does it take to be a great PIO in the eyes of a journalist?  

First and foremost they need to be accessible. To me that means they check emails and voice mails constantly when on duty and respond to messages of an urgent nature quickly.

When they are off duty they have a system set up where they or someone can be reached if information is needed after hours, while in meetings or while on vacation. We know you don’t work 24 hours a day but someone is always in the newsroom (and we have lots of questions) so empower people in organization to give you a helping hand when you’re not around.

Secondly, they need to be truthful and fair. I’ve had PIOs just flat out lie to me about what’s happening at an incident or given information to a competitor they did not share with me even when asked direct questions. Getting information to the public is not their or my time to settle scores or be petty. We don’t have to be friends but we do have to be professionals so let’s get together after work and talk about why you’re mad at me or my newsroom and work it out so we can come together.

Finally, they should have an idea of how newsrooms work. What’s an assignment editor do? What about a producer? Have you ever been in a newsroom? Set up a tour and meet the folks you talk to on the phone, invite them to your office so they can see what it’s like for you. I’ve personally benefited from doing ride alongs, visiting comm centers and also from inviting communicators, police, firefighters and PIOs into the newsroom to take a look around.  

It helps all of us to understand the challenges we all face so we can work together to keep the public up to date and safe.

AnnMarie Breen, Assignment Editor
WTVD ABC 11, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Presentation Pointers

There's nothing quite like a PowerPoint presentation to make things exciting. As a public information officer, either you may have to deliver one, or you may have to generate one for another spokesperson in your organization. And, that's cool. Seriously.

I mean, think of the good old fashioned technology PowerPoint replaced. Hauling around slide projectors or reams of overhead transparencies. This program, created in 1990, allows you to port your presentation - videos and all - to and from wherever you need to go. No fuss, no muss. Bring your own laptop, get your hands on an inexpensive projector and you are in business.

This can be a good thing, or it can also be so absolutely horrid, because I have seen people use and abuse PowerPoint, Prezi, Apple Keynote, Google Slides and other various programs. To the point where I - as a member of an audience - would be willing to throw a chair through a window to make good my escape.

While this isn't a post on how to put together a PowerPoint presentation, it can help steer you in the right direction and avoid a few of the most obvious pitfalls.

First, let's talk about the things you want to do. Always remember the KISS principle - keep it simple, sucka. Be sure to make your slides as easy to read as possible, keep them to a few points and use graphics that help tell your story. Oh, and be sure to use spellcheck. There's nothing quite as jarring as misspelling a word on your slides ...

What can go wrong with your slide design? Plenty. Remember, the slides on your presentation are guides to help keep you on track and your audience working with you.

You do NOT want to post a slide that looks like this. Trust me, it happens. I have seen department directors who were paid a considerable salary prepare slides that look like this. They INSIST that this is how people learn and want to see their presentation done. Let's face it, if you end up turning your back on your audience and read from the screen word-for-word, why are they even there? Just give them a handout and be done with it.

Another don't is to jam your slides full of exciting visual effects, Just because you CAN put them in there, should you?  As you can see from the moving graphic above, all of that excitement can wear your eyes out in a hurry, and it can also distract from your message.

Oh, and when speaking about distracting from messages, jamming a ton of photos onto each slide can detract from your message as well. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but picture-paloozas with images stacked on top of each other are going to be a distraction, even if they are all of cute babies and baby animals. Find one good image that tells your story and go with that.

Having the ability to embed video clips into your presentation can really bring your slide to life. Just remember, however, that each of these programs handles these files in a specific way. Just because the video plays with a single click on your desktop computer doesn't mean it will spring to life if you move it to a new computer for the presentation. Be sure to bring all of your files with you just to be sure you have everything handy. This way, you won't be scrambling, clicking the dreaded black box in your slideshow with no result.

Finally, checking your presentation one last time before you leave for your talk is critical. Sometimes the information changes on the slides or updates need to be made, and you may not realize that this critical data has gone missing until you are in the middle of your talk. Believe me, I have done it, and having to correct your information in front of a large group can be one of the most embarrassing things you may ever have to do.

Will these tips make you a PowerPoint guru? No, but they just might help you build better presentations that stand out in your audience's mind for all the right reasons.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

My go kit

I have a confession to make. I am a PIO who happens to ride mass transit to work. That's right, I take the bus from my home, across Tampa Bay to my office.

Which means I can't keep my go kit in my trunk. So, I have had to make some adjustments on what I bring to work and how I travel with it. I go fully self-contained to work with my go kit on my back!

How is it possible? It's actually easier than you think.

First, I have to start with a really good backpack. This one from Swiss Gear has a lot of padding for my back, plus it has a ton of separated compartments, which make it easy to store things where I can grab them easily. I added the nifty orange handle flag so everyone will know it's mine!

In the easy scan pocket closest to my back, I have stashed my own personal Chromebook. It was cheap, it runs PowerPoint presentations, and it is lightweight. I have added the proper cables to connect it to a projector, a wireless mouse and a presentation clicker. This way, I am always good to go if I want to write a blog, do a talk... the works.

Next up, I have my county issued iPad and my binder. Is it redundant? Perhaps. But, this way, I can have the Chromebook up presenting and I can work on other items if another presenter is speaking. I'm not stuck this way. The binder, well, what if my battery runs out?

Also tucked in the backpack are a good supply of business cards, a few pens and markers and some reporter notebooks. I prefer the reporter style notebooks because they fit easily into a pants pocket and the spiral binding allows them to lay flat.

I also have a paper list of phone numbers available because - again - what if I need to get in touch with someone?  The lists have phone numbers for important county contacts, news desks, allied agencies ... the works.

Since I now wear glasses, I have to keep them clean so I can see. The screen cleaner and microfiber cloth can keep the glasses, computer and phone screens spotless, and the hard glasses case also keeps a spare pair of sunglasses at the ready for me. Believe me, working outdoors in the bright Florida sunshine can really do a number on your eyes without some protection.

And, when the bright sunshine gives way to pouring rain, there's no substitute for a good rain poncho. Now, I think I made a mistake by buying a black one. Had I thought about it, something a little brighter and more reflective would have been a wiser decision. Added bonus - the poncho also covers the backpack, keeping its contents dry if I have to head outdoors.

How reliant have we become on electronics? That's why my kit has a TON of mirco USB and Apple Lightning cables in it. I also have a rechargeable battery, a wall plug, a car charger and a charger that also uses AA batteries, so I have lots of options. A pair of earbuds helps if I have to listen to notes (or music after a long day). My Slingshot phone cradle gets tucked in there as well, along with a power strip that not only accepts standard plugs, but also has a pair of USB ports to plug into as well.

While you think about the gear to do the job, you often forget that you are out there as a person as well. That's why I don't go anywhere without a few essentials in the kit including hand sanitizer, a stomach settler, a painkiller, tissues and a few other essentials. A few sport bars that can hold you for a while until you can get a real meal can mean a lot out in the field.

Sure, it seems like a lot, but when you think about it, keeping these items in a backpack right at hand can make your job just a little easier when you have to grab and go. Plus, whenever you get to where you are setting up, it's easy to sling that bag down and use what you need.

Remember the old disaster preparedness mantra - it's better to have and not need than need and not have.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida