Sunday, May 26, 2013

The role of the Public Information Officer

I've spent a lot of time recently developing procedures for our public emergency information officers (or EIOs as we call them ... for emergency info officers). As I talk with colleagues and observe what's going on around us, I notice that a key function of the PIO/EIO's tends to be somewhat forgotten amid the pressure to be quick and relevant in the constant battle to provide information to the public, particularly on social networks.

We all understand the pressures brought by social media and the need to have a solid crisis comms plan in place as part of any response or business continuity plan. The need for immediacy often means the PIO's attention is focused on feeding the "beast". That social media imperative, while critical, should not overshadow what is to my mind, the primary responsibility of the PIO: coordinating information among all agencies/organizations involved.

A key factor is that the management of incidents and their consequences has evolved. It's fairly plain to see that incidents (fires, terror attacks, natural disasters) can no longer be managed in a comprehensive manner by a single agencies. There are just too many interdependencies involved. 

More and more, that's where Unified Command, comes in. While the primary responsibility to respond to the incident itself remains with a specific type of responder, the consequence management part now plays a greater role. Hence the need for multiple or joint ICs. 

I suggest, that a parallel framework exists to help individual PIOs ensure that all public messaging around an incident be coordinated. That's the main purpose of a JIC or Joint Information Centre. 

The problem is though, that it's hard for agencies to let go of decades worth of legacy thinking around incident management ... and sharing a piece of the "command pie" ... The same applies to some extent to communicators. Although breaking down silos can be difficult ... we simply have no choice. 

Our audiences expect us to work together, be coordinated and hear the "government" (the public doesn't distinguish between local/municipal or provincial/state or federal levels) speak in "one voice" ... it's all one thing to most ... The voice of the "Man" ... should therefore resound in unison.

A recent case in point ... (and I want to be clear here that I do not blame any specific organization or first responder agency ... I simply want to illustrate a point)

There was a major industrial fire in Ontario last week, just across the border from Michigan. A plastic recycling plant caught fire and sent plumes of billowing smoke that could be seen for miles and miles ...

Did people get worried? You bet! There was first talk and then instructions of evacuations in a radius of 1.5 miles around the plant and shelter-in-place orders for an even larger section of the city and town affected. (btw: see my friend Jim Garrow's blog on shelter in place and clear language during emergencies).

So, I hear of this fire and I go online. I see on the city's website that police is evacuating people and that a shelter in place order has been issued. I go on Twitter and see the same from the local fire service ... and then I see on the police twitter account that there are no evacuations ...

At that point, I was thoroughly confused .... So I go and check back. OK, now the city's website says only to shelter in place .... the fire and police soon match up as well ... 

Although the confusion did not cause any major issues ...It could have because the media and the public picked up on the lack of coordinated info. What's the risk to the public from the smoke? Should we leave? Stay home? Why can't we get the same message for those responding to this? 

So finally, there is, perhaps, no danger. But why are first responders wearing masks? And we're told to stay home? 

In my view, a lot of this confusion could have been avoided by the immediate set up of a JIC where all PIOs from the major agencies involved could have coordinated their messaging ... The beauty of the thing is that you don't even have to do it in person anymore. With mobile technologies, a virtual JIC is now a real option.

A quick google hangout ???? or google chat or using IPads ... could have put the PIOs on the same page especially when it came time to use their individual social network accounts to send out info.

So the "social convergence" is not only about social networks but those mobile devices and tech as well. It's time that agencies and governments start using the tools that the public they serve use every day ... 

We know our audiences turn to Twitter on mobile devices to get breaking news ....especially when it happens close to home (see a couple of good blog posts by my good friends Gerald Baron and Bill Boyd on that ...).

It's about the tech but also about our own professional reflexes ... how we react to emerging incidents. Yeah, tweet out that you're responding ... implementing your plans ... and keep sending out info ... but DON'T forget to coordinate with the other guy ... his audience is your audience ... are you in sync? 

That coordination is essential to the success of any PIO ... to managing public reactions and fears following an incident and to ensuring your credibility survives long after the ashes have gone cold.

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