By P.J. Norwood & Frank Ricci
Politics & Tactics
With the budget axe coming down across the country we must ensure not to cut the one position that can keep the City Hall at bay. The lessons of the past have taught us we cannot train incrementally and focus on one issue at a time. We have seen this dangerous mentality with every leap forward, structural firefighting training goes to the back of the line for the latest hot topic, be it hazmat, confine space or terrorism.
Remember all our skills are perishable and the two places are members get injured the most are city hall and the fire ground. Just as Instructors and the bosses must ensure a balanced training program, we must safeguard our department’s message isn’t getting lost in the noise. The Public Information Officer (PIO) is key to survive in the world of social media, City Hall and the press.
Today the PIO is one of the most important positions because the court of public opinion exists in every community. If we do not disseminate the information early, frequent and accurately the public will come to there own conclusions. Opinions will be broadcast quickly through social media networks faster than you can catch up. Once the information is out regardless of its accuracy you can’t catch up to it. Public opinion can be the final nail in your fire departments coffin if the information is not managed correctly.
Our citizens today expect to hear from us.
Many departments look down at providing up front early information to their communities. Regardless of the information the public will find out. Regardless of the type or category of information the public will find out. This information can be regarding a system or personnel failure, major incident, and even emergency radio traffic. If that information is not coming from you first, chances are that the information will not be 100% accurate.
The social media policy of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story has burned more than one department. We need to get the information out first and right. Once the public has inaccurate information that isn’t balanced with a creditable official release opinions will be forged. You cannot put that horse back in the stable. You need to have the resources, relationships and reputation to guide the horse to stay on track.
The role of the PIO has changed
In previous years the role of the PIO has been to communicate to the media outlets in time of major incidents. Today the PIO must be communicating to the public on a daily basis not just in time of crisis. Departments that are not communicating on a regular basis are doing a disservice to its citizens.
This communication process must start with the Chief by appointing a PIO. This PIO must then begin building relationships with each and every member of the community. This should be done utilizing already established groups including politicial members of both parties, religious organizations, community groups, athletic groups and any group or organization that is made up of members of your community.
Once positive relationships are built they must be
Strengthened on a daily basis!
Here is the easy part! Utilizing today’s social media outlets you need to have your community groups and members follow you. Now you have relationships and you have an audience now you just need to cultivate and strengthen those relationships.
Social Media has made it possible
Many departments use their social media accounts only to boast about incidents that have occurred. This is a good start but many departments don’t have "major incidents" to boast about every day. Departments must prepare and have a plan for their message.
The PIO must ask, what is the department’s message and image that they want communicated. We recommend starting big! What is the yearly message you want delivered? Once you know where you want to go throughout the year then look at the monthly message. What can you inform your citizens on a monthly basis? This can be prevention focused, based on the seasons. Next look at weekly then daily. How long does it take to post an emergency call of the day? How can you strengthen the yearly message through monthly communications built on the weekly information communicated?
Once you have this plan down on paper it only takes a few minutes a day to utilize social media to begin broadcasting or message.
Local news media relationships
The second piece of relationships that must be strengthened is your local media. Your local media can be your biggest ally or your biggest enemy. It all depends on your relationships with them. Have you ever considered having media training day? How can you expect the media to respond a specific way, do or not do specific things. It takes time to build the relationship and educate the press. If you don’t know your local reporters by first name have their cell number and email you are failing!
Wouldn’t it be nice to have the media show up to one centralized location and not interrupt command operations? This can only be accomplished if they trust that your department will meet their needs. This is possible if the media trusts that you are going to give them the information they need to do their jobs effectively. Remember we both have a job and we both have a mission. We both have people who are depending on us to do our job and will go to extreme lengths for those that depend on us.
If the media outlets trust you and are confident you will work with them providing them the information on a regular and consistent basis that is factual and the meets their goal they will wait for you to provide the information as long s it’s timely.
When we discus timely delivery of information you must be cognizant of the time of day and the deadline for the live news. Remember they will get the story up with or without you so get it to them when they need it in time for the live broadcast.
If you place the media in a safe spot where they can obtain the footage they need they will not roam looking for “the shot”. What works best is for the PIO to locate the best shot that is safe and protects the identity and image of victims. Just think what will make for great footage. Tours of scenes are ok if done in the right way and the camera crew acknowledges they will not show anything they are instructed to cut. This comes down to relationships and time to build this type of rapport with the press.
Remember they will get the information and the shot they need regardless of you. However if those relationships are built and you live up to your end of the bargain the story will be accurate and contain the message you want to deliver. Ask yourself this question. Do you want the media to report a story filled with assumptions or inaccurate information that is delivered to your citizens or a story filled with accuracies that contain the message you want delivered that supports your yearly message? The answer is pretty simple to me! However you will not deliver the message as you want successfully every time if you don’t build the relationships with the media today.
The local news community news
Each and every community has those local community news organizations that report the activity of your town or city. They are not the large news organizations. We are speaking about the community news that runs a website or weekly printed-paper reporting the good of the community. These organizations are a great resource for communicating your message. Many of the local Internet sites regularly look for articles, press releases or even a regular blog from trusted public figures. Utilizing the web on a regular basis in another way to help broadcast your message. This will allow you to reach a wider audience.
Many of these Internet agencies have the dreaded comment sections where locals can voice their opinion without posting their name. The best way to deal with these posts is not to respond directly to a post. Just post the facts below. Changing the issue or diverting the topic with facts will usually help change the tone. While you may not like it the unnamed comments are essential to our democracy. Some of our most influential framers utilized pen names and unnamed letters to the paper to bring to light the issues of the day and to slander a political foe. What is more American than that? Everyone has a right to voice their concerns even if they are unfounded. The truth will always win the day. What regularly occurs is someone just looking to rile up the masses posts a comment that is laded with inaccuracies and false information. If the department does not head of those issues with the facts the inaccurate opinion will rule the day.
Getting the message out
Today the public wants information early, honestly, often and timely. Your department’s reputation is on the line and without solid relationships and good daily communication practices you will not be able to build reputation equity.
We understand some of you reading this still are not sold on the thought of regularly communicating to your citizens. Think of it like ICS. We utilize ICS everyday at small incidents so we are prepared for “the big one”. Think of the daily communications as practicing for the major emergency when you need to quickly deliver emergency information to your citizens. If you are practicing and the citizens are practicing receiving your messages when the time comes you will not successfully get the message out.
If you watch the nation media trends you will know that fire departments across the country have received many black eyes in the past few years as a result of social media. Some of this cannot be avoided. Social media can be a double-edged sword. However, it’s a sword that you can begin to trust and use effectively while building relationships with your citizens. Strong relationships will prevail even if your department receives a black eye. Bad news does not get better with age it gets better if you put it out first, put it out accurately and that is how you get it behind you. If you have strong relationships with your citizens and the media any bad news will be minimized and controlled to maximize the reputation of the department as long as the chief’s are willing to be accountable