Thursday, May 30, 2013

Different roles for different PIOs ... getting the big picture

I recently wrote about the critical importance of the information coordination function for any PIO. An aspect of the role that can easily be forgotten in the mad rush to push out info, especially on social networks. Although the coordination is a constant for any PIO, there are differences on what kind of work one has to do depending of who they are supporting.

The toughest thing to do, albeit usually pretty straightforward, is supporting an incident commander ( or IC) or more broadly, an incident command post. For an absolutely essential read on what this entails in the era of mobile technologies and social networks, you must read Jim Garrow's blog where Marcus Deyerin highlights his role as the on site PIO at the Skagit bridge collapse in Washington State.

A few of the key lessons learned as they relate to the use of social media ... Twitter in particular: 
  • Twitter reigned as the superior tool for getting information out rapidly to a broad audience. [Note to Twitter - please, please don't do anything vis-a-vis your API or business model to mess this up for those of us in the emergency management field.]
  • Twitter worked when phone and SMS didn’t. That won’t be true in every situation, but it was interesting nevertheless.
  • Photos attached to tweets are great – but may not always work in a constrained data flow environment
  • Once the media calls started coming in, I was no longer able to tweet. If I need to do this again, I’ll direct media calls to a different phone I have, so I can take calls on one phone and use the other phone for tweets / social media
A great illustration of the power and increasing expectations brought by social networks in incident-support communications. So, how would the role of the PIO differ at the incident command post from that of the PIO at the municipal or state level EOC for example? 

As I stated in my previous post on the role of the PIO, it's in the transition from incident-specific communications to consequence management information, where the role of the PIO evolves. One might be tempted to simplify this as the differences between tactical and strategic comms ... but that can be misleading.

There are similarities and areas in which both roles complement each other, Let's look at the use of social networks:

Incident PIO: running steam (twitter or any other social network) of the response and immediate actions .... using SM mostly as a way to push out info ... maybe responding to some queries ... because the PIO is so busy feeding the beast, there's actually little online engagement (although the phone keeps ringing ... if the lines/airwaves are still open )

Muni/State EOC PIO: amplify incident PIO social media output + create an online or SM portal for all emergency info from key stakeholders + CRITICALLY important: monitoring social media ... 

It all comes down to resources: the incident command post PIO is busy supporting his/her IC in sending out details on the response and tactical info as well as emergency info (shelter in place, evacuate, etc) ... Even a team of two or three PIOs from different first responder agencies would be hard pressed to do anything else in most large-scale incidents.

At the municipal or state EOC level, being detached from the purely operational communications needs, there's a greater ability to look at the broader picture and look at the impact on public health, transportation, etc. This also translates in being able to support the on site PIO with monitoring (legacy and social media) and engage online on their behalf. The VOST (virtual operation support team) concept can really shine in this kind of situation when implemented efficiently.

Other examples of the differences in the role of the PIOs:

At the incident command post, the info coordination is mostly done with other first responder agencies and a key contact at the EOC.

At the muni/state EOC, info coordination links back to the incident command post but is mostly looking at the broader picture: other city/state departments, federal government and the public sector (utilities and others)

Further differences:

At the ICP, the PIO gets the incident commander to approve the social media outreach parametres (as opposed to individual tweets for example) and other communications messages/products (news releases, first responder agency web updates, etc) ... the focus is operational ...

At the muni/state (or provincial) EOC ... in fact the higher you go, the levels of approvals necessary to obtain permission to send out info might vary according to whatever practice/policy is in place .... operational support comms would usually be approved by the lead PIO and the mgr/director of the EOC ... sometimes though, there might be a request for some messaging or a quote from an elected official ... that's when it can get messy and be delayed.

It is critical for any PIO to understand the different characteristics of his/her role depending of their assignment: tactical or strategic, Having had the opportunity to plan and coordinate the delivery of emergency info at both the ICP and provincial EOC levels, it can be a challenge.

A solution is to train as often as possible in setting up a Joint Information Centre (or crisis comms cell) at the strategic level and assign staff whose sole function is to liaise with the incident PIOs to ensure uniformity of messaging, or at the very least, the flow of info between all partners.

Even more valuable, is cross-training with first responder agencies with the two-fold goals of 1- ensuring they get used to working together and avoid comms silos (see my previous post) and 2- ensuring every PIO at all levels understand the pressures and expectations at the ICP and the EOC. That's where my recommendation that every response exercise include a communications/public affairs component comes to the fore.

These kind of partnerships will make everyone lives' easier. This is especially true in situations where a senior PIO is sent from the state/provincial EOC to help coordinate at the local level ... We hear the scariest words in the English language echo ..."I'm from the government and i'm here to help ..."  

Truth is ... the strategic outlook can be of help at the municipal and operational level ... especially for ongoing incidents ... a few days following the initial response. That function of the PIO ... the emergency info liaison role is growing in importance in my jurisdiction where local resources are often stretched and the need for comms and social media support are growing in the face of increased expectations from our audiences ... 

There you have it ! Collaboration is the only way all PIOs will be able to meet the growing expectations of the people we serve ... demands that grow heavier by the the day as social networks for emergency communications become the main channel for disseminating information.

1 comment:

  1. My biggest lesson from Marcus' stuff is that PIO cannot be handled by one person, even for a short while. I've struggled with filling all of the work needed during a response, but just chalked that up to me being young and probably inexperienced, but now I'm not so sure that was the case.

    These posts, and especially yours here, makes it that much more important to not only meet your fellow PIOs, but learn how to work with them. Like, yesterday. Today is too late.