Does your fire/EMS organization have a Public Information Officer or Spokesperson?
When the world of today wants their news as fast as possible and news agencies are jockeying for that first incident headline and the dramatic “wow” photo, the fire service PIO or public information officer must be available to answer their questions and provide the accurate and official information they are looking for.
Aside from filling a role in your organization’s Command Staff the PIO most importantly gives your organization a face to the citizens you serve and in turn it builds and maintains a trusting relationship between your organization and these very citizens.
Who Is Your PIO?
Who currently in your department does the news media turn to with their questions and needs?
There must be one person designated for them to contact when the need arises and it shouldn’t be your Chief or President.
A PIO is that layer or buffer in place between your senior staff and the media outlets. When deciding on who will fill this role take into consider the following criteria.
The appointee has have a wide variety of important social and personal characteristics. They must articulate, well written, be able to demonstrate courtesy and respect in the face of criticism, demonstrate exceptional understanding of the fire and EMS service as a whole and have a good grasp on social media as an outlet for information dissemination.
This person must also know their limitations and be willing to step back, consider the issue at hand, and ask follow-up questions to others for clarification and support. They must also be strong in the face of media pressure and that they do not succumb to inundating or repetitive requests for information.
A smart PIO should quickly learn to ask questions of the reporters just as the reporters ask questions of them. Along the same lines, that same PIO must be strong and push out a story that may not be ready for dissemination just yet. There is an inordinate amount of focus and discipline involved with this job, both physical and mental.
When the PIO position is first appointed it will be in the individuals best interest to reach out immediately to the regional news directors and editors, make the rounds of the news desks, and introduce themselves. The news desks will call at 2am just as easy as they do at 10am and a relationship of some sorts should be in place.
Take the time to provide the news desks with contact information to include a cell number, alternate contact number, email addresses, and if applicable; an agency Facebook page and Twitter account.
Information doesn’t standstill and the PIO will want the news directors/news desks to get into a routine to call them to check on incidents. This routine will take time but if the PIO is active and learns to populate their contacts with pertinent, timely and applicable messages their requests for information will become smoother and more frequent.
It is important that your membership knows that this person is the sole individual who speaks on your organization’s behalf.
This control of incident and administrative information is critically important. First it leads to credibility for your department. The media sees this as a one stop reliable shop for their information, a source they turn to immediately.
Secondly, it helps to build a relationship between the media outlets and your organization. As events and incidents occur the media can make a faster connection having already been working with the same person on prior issues.
The better a relationship and understanding of each other’s roles the easier it will be to communicate a smooth flow of information when an emergency occurs and you want your information out there immediately.